Updates from Letty – October 8, 2021

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council

Dear Friends,

I learned a sobering statistic this week. In the US, more people have died from COVID in 2021 than in 2020. And an overwhelming majority from 2021 were likely preventable given the prevalence of vaccines this year. (Thankfully, this isn’t the case in Falls Church – our city’s vaccination rate is higher than the state and national averages which has been an important layer of protection against the delta surge.) A good reminder that while case rates are beginning to wane and there is hope around the corner for vaccines for younger kids, we can all end this pandemic with more vaccinations!

Two topics in this week’s post:

  • It was a big week for project completions, with ribbon cuttings at our new high school and the W&OD Dual Trails. I went back to some of my old posts and reflected on the countless hours from visionary, dedicated citizens that carried us to the finish line at the high school and what is ahead.
  • City Council didn’t meet this week due to our participation at the Virginia Municipal League conference. So I’m taking the opportunity to cover the #1 FAQ I’ve fielded in the 5+ years I’ve served on City Council. Can you guess it? Long-time readers will know that I’ve done a number of FAQ posts in the past, so I’ll link to those too.

I’ve been invited by the League of Women Voters to talk all things Falls Church on Sunday at 3 pm. If you haven’t been able to come to my weekday office hours, this is a virtual opportunity to do it from your own home! Feel free to email me in advance any questions you’d like me to tackle.

Take care,
Letty

What Happened This Week:

(1) Grand Openings

W&OD Dual Trails – the long awaited W&OD officially re-opened yesterday. The dual trails project runs nearly the length of the W&OD within Falls Church from N. West to Little Falls, about 1.5 miles out of the 45 miles total length. Falls Church is proud to have been the pilot for the widening effort, meant to increase capacity of the trail, increase safety with pedestrians and cyclist paths separated, and encourage more future use in lieu of less green commuting or recreational transportation options. In addition, stormwater management has been improved with underground pipes and swales. As a runner, I hope to see the dual trails expand to other parts of W&OD in the region!

There is more work to be done with another project in the works to improve the crossings.

Meridian High School – last weekend, the community came out to celebrate the opening of the new high school. It truly has been a remarkable accomplishment, with more people to thank than the ribbon cutting photo below shows. Besides the incredible work to deliver a new school in the midst of a pandemic, the effort long pre-dated 2020 and my time on City Council. I went back to my old posts to reflect – including this one right before the November 2017 referendum vote where I attempted to round up for voters all the topics we tackled – school enrollment capacity projections so we could build a future proof sized school (but not too big), different options from remodeling to phased to modular to brand new, financial modeling and fiscal policy changes to accommodate the huge debt, risk analyses and stress case scenario planning. If you click through, I hope it will give you a sense of the thoughtfulness and thoroughness that went into the planning and the breadth of citizen and staff hours that turned the vision into the new school today.

There’s more work ahead – the groundbreaking for the adjacent 10 acre development that is helping pay for the new school is targeted for next spring. And if it were only up to me – when you finish up a major capital project, it’s the perfect time to start long range planning so we’re not surprised by what we have to do next (see, I even wrote about this back in 2017 right after the referendum passed.) Across the city, we’ve delivered a new/renovated City Hall, Library, Mt. Daniel, and Meridian High School – whew, it’s been a busy 5 years! But I bet no one will want to take on that many projects in a small window like that again. As such, we should be anticipating and planning for future needs and responsibly sequencing projects so that the next generation of city leaders won’t inherit a backlog of capital needs.

📷 credit: FCNP

(2) FAQs

The top FAQ I field is usually some permutation of this:

“We already have too many apartments and too much mixed use. That will bring in too many school age kids and lead to higher service costs. Why can’t we have more commercial projects?” 

I could write a lot here.

  • First, housing should not be a bad word. Pre-COVID, the DC region was projected to grow a lot – over 300K housing units will be needed by 2030 and Falls Church needs to play a part. We can’t put up walls to prevent growth from happening here. The new housing that has been built in Falls Church has been absorbed, with high occupancy in each of the buildings. As a community, we welcome families of all kinds and sizes – whether you’re single, married, retired, or a growing family.
  • Contrary to common belief, less than 8% of students live in the new mixed use buildings, out of 2500 kids in FCCPS (2020-2021 school year data). Every year, the “where students live” chart is updated and reviewed as a collaboration between FCCPS and the city and used to feed our fiscal model that is run on each development project. The vast majority of students live in existing neighborhoods or older housing stock. We can’t prevent the natural turnover that is happening in neighborhoods where residential redevelopment is done by-right. (A separate, related point is that I actually would love to have housing stock beyond small apartments that welcomes more families into the city so more can have access to the same great education system our kids have. Or housing stock that keeps aging seniors in the city when they’re ready to downsize. We can’t espouse the values of being a welcoming community without homes for households of all sizes. We’ve spent recent years expanding and improving nearly all of our schools like the projects at Mt Daniel and the new Meridian, so capacity should not be a concern.)
  • So why not commercial-only projects? The retail sector was already undergoing big changes pre-COVID and with the future of both office and retail uses now uncertain, mixed use is what the market wants to continue to build. If there were all commercial options presented, we’d certainly consider them. The city actively works with developers in the region to identify potential sites, works through feasibility, and encourages them to bring proposals in for potential development. But the fact is, we don’t have many all commercial proposals to consider. It’s key to understand that the underlying economics of the land deal drive the types of development that happens – if land were cheaper here, a developer would need less density to make re-development possible.
  • Our mixed use projects have sparked vibrancy we didn’t have 20 years ago, added new amenities and businesses, created housing options we didn’t have, and brought in new patrons to our small businesses and residents who are active members of the community.
  • The overwhelming majority of our mixed use projects are net fiscally positive to the city’s bottom line and contribute significant tax dollars and diversification to our tax base. When we say a project is net fiscally positive – that is revenue net after service costs, including the cost of students in the school system, additional social service costs, etc.
  • In total, mixed use development has diversified our tax base, generating about $4M in net revenue each year (equivalent to 9 cents on the real estate property tax rate) – said differently, the current tax rate would be 9 cents higher if we didn’t have the mixed use development in town.

Older FAQ posts:

2020 FAQs

2019 FAQs

2018 FAQs #2

2018 FAQs #1

2017 Fact vs Fiction

What’s Coming Up:

Sunday, Oct 10 at 3 pm – Letty’s Conversation with League of Women Voters

Tuesday, Oct 12 – City Council Meeting*

Monday, Oct 18 – City Council Work Session*

*every Monday (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm
You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings

Elections 2020 – General Election on Tuesday, November 2

Early voting info

Thursday, Sept 30 at 730 pm – League of Women Voters & VPIS virtual candidate forum – City Council Candidates

Thursday, Oct 7 at 730 pm – League of Women Voters & VPIS virtual candidate forum – School Board Candidates

Thursday, Oct 14 at 7:30 pm – Citizens for a Better City – City Council Candidates Forum (virtual)

Thursday, Oct 21 at 7:30 pm – Citizens for a Better City & PTA – School Board Candidates Forum (virtual)

League of Women Voters – vote411.org voter guide

Falls Church Democrats Questionnaires for City Council candidates and School Board candidates

Village Preservation & Improvement Society Candidate Questionnaire