Updates from Letty – September 11, 2020

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,

After a few weeks away during our summer recess, City Council is back in the saddle. We resumed with a lengthy work session, covering topics across the city – from the Broad & Washington project to West Falls on the other end, car decals, and next steps for racial equity. I’ll also include a quick recap of our gun vote in August, early voting, candidate forum information for the special City Council election, and COVID. Before getting to business, a few important callouts:

  1. We’ve recognized today September 11th as a day of service and this weekend marks the beginning of Welcoming Week. Although remembrance, service, and community events look different this year, these are both good opportunities to welcome and lift up others, especially those most impacted by COVID-19.
  2. The region’s COVID positivity rate continues to hold steady since August but clearly the virus hasn’t gone away. Six months in, working and schooling in this “new normal” (cringe) is decidedly un-normal and difficult across the board. I realize we’re being asked to find endless patience to juggle it all and stamina to continue social distancing and masking, but please keep making good choices.
  3. Come “see” me this weekend! My office hours will continue to be on hold during the pandemic and while I am still finding my footing with my kids at home. In the meantime, the League of Women Voters is hosting me at their virtual meeting this Sunday at 3 pm. It’s open to everyone in the community, so I’d love to “see” you then. And of course, you can continue to reach me via email. I hope to resume in person office hours sometime…

Take care,

August Recap

(1) Guns – we unanimously adopted our weapons ordinance, which bans guns in public buildings, parks, and city streets when there are public events occurring (eg, Memorial Day parade) with a few exemptions specified in the ordinance, as a strong statement of our community values. Since then, the cities of Richmond and Charlottesville have joined us in adopting gun restrictions in sensitive, public places using the new authority the General Assembly granted localities. Arlington and Fairfax Counties have similar ordinances on their dockets in the next week.

(2) COVID response, stormwater, traffic calming & capital projects – the gun ordinance overshadowed other important agenda items in August. This post has a quick recap and links to the budget amendment for COVID response, stormwater, traffic calming and capital projects across the city.

What Happened This Week

(1) Broad and Washington/Insight Project – for those new to the project, this is a mixed use project proposed at the corner of Broad and Washington, with a Whole Foods anchor, a new home for Creative Cauldron, and 339 apartments. It involves a proposal to purchase of the city parking lot off Park Place, which has 64 public parking spaces that are commonly used for customers of The State Theater, Clare and Don’s, and Thompson Italian. The project was originally approved in 2018 without involving the parking lot. The 2018 version had a new office building at the corner, but was since resubmitted in late 2019 with a swap of the office building for the Whole Foods and expands the footprint of the development on the city parking lot. This week, a handful of flexible “work from home” residential units was added to adapt to changing office conditions. (For the supporting documents, including fiscal analysis, staff comments, traffic analysis, etc, please refer to the full agenda package.)

Letty’s thoughts: I was disappointed that we have not seen resolution of key issues – such as a firm commitment on interim parking plan to replace the 64 lost public parking spaces. That has been a consistent ask since the project was re-submitted last year. We discussed additional concerns like the certainty of a Whole Foods tenancy (despite the developers having a signed lease, Whole Foods is not named in the concessions), public open space (from 15% to now 11% of the site), architecture and elevation, transportation improvements, and appropriate transition into the Lawton neighborhood. For an important corner of Falls Church, I believe we should hold an appropriately high bar – and I don’t think this project is there yet. I hope we will see improvements that can make this project a win-win for everyone in the long run, while treating existing businesses fairly through construction. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(2) West Falls – we were briefed on the comments submitted by our boards and commissions over the summer for the West Falls project. Based on the feedback, we expect revisions in another submission this fall.

Meanwhile, the new high school construction project next door continues to be on time and on budget.

(3) Racial Equity – since the national re-awakening on police brutality and race this summer – I want to make sure this community’s work doesn’t stop at marches, yard signs, and name changes. While we have already chartered the Police Use of Force Committee now underway, there is more work to be done. At our Tuesday meeting, I proposed a standalone Racial Equity Board – not a commission or task force which denotes a temporary, one and done effort. We have a responsibility that equity is pervasive factor across all of our decision-making and city investments. It feels daunting, but we need to start somewhere.

As a first step, I proposed that we ask our current boards and commissions to critically examine their areas of city policies and programs this fall and provide the City Council with concrete recommendations. For example, the library decision made earlier this summer to eliminate overdue fines because they disproportionately impact people of color while generating little revenue is a specific policy change made with equity in mind. Similarly, we should ensure our limited transportation dollars are equitably distributed across the city and not just to the most affluent and vocal areas, cultivate more BIPOC-owned small businesses, evaluate the history of names used across city landmarks…not to mention create more affordable and diverse housing stock that will truly enable more to call Falls Church home. More to come!

(4) Car Decals – as you may have seen, most jurisdictions have eliminated the annual car decal, which was used as an easy enforcement mechanism to determine if a car is licensed. As technology for license plate readers are more common, there are more automated ways to check for infractions without a sticker. Out of 323 Virginia cities, counties and towns, only 19 still issue car license decals including us. In Falls Church, we have ~350 tickets per year for “failure to display a sticker violation”, totaling ~$20K in fees. Now, the City Treasurer and the Commissioner of the Revenue are recommending that the City move to a permanent decal, but not eliminate the decal or the vehicle license fee altogether to still enable the visual enforcement. If this change is adopted, the current 2020 decal already on cars do not expire and no new decals will be mailed until a permanent decal is created and mailed out.

Letty’s thoughts: while I support eliminating the annual hassle of switching out car decal stickers every year, in general, I would be bigger fan of no decals at all, moving to technology for enforcing registration and tax payments, and freeing up resources that could be better spent on higher priority enforcement.

What’s Coming Up

(1) Voting – with just over 50 days until Election Day, there are several easy ways to vote safely this year. You can request your mail in ballot, or vote early in person starting next Friday September 18 at City Hall, with neither early voting methods requiring an official “reason” to do so anymore.

Note there is a special City Council election to fill Dan Sze’s seat, so check out the sample ballot you can expect to see and pencil in the dates of the candidates forums below to get informed before you vote.

New: a ballot drop box was installed between City Hall and the Community Center if you’d like to return your by-mail absentee ballot instead of using USPS. It’s bolted to concrete with 24/7 surveillance recording and is emptied at opening and closing each day. Each polling place will also have a drop box for all voters who have a by-mail ballot and waited till Election Day to drop at their polling place as well.

(2) City Council Candidate Forums

Chamber of Commerce Forum: Tues, 9/15 – 12-130 pm

Citizens for Better City (CBC) Conversations with the Candidate via Zoom:

  • Sun, 9/20 – 5-6 pm (Debbie Hiscott)
  • Sun, 9/27 – 5-6 pm (Josh Shokoor)
  • Sun 10/4 – 5-6 pm (Simone Pass-Tucker)

League of Women Voters & VPIS Candidate Forum: Wed, 9/23 at 730 pm (Zoom link available later)

(3) City Meetings –This fall, we will be transitioning to a new virtual meeting platform when Microsoft retires Skype for Business, so the look and feel of city meetings may be a bit different when you tune in. We also hope we’ll be able to resume live public comment. In the meantime, all public comments sent to us are distributed to every City Council member, logged in official record, and read or summarized in our regular meetings.

City Council Meetings start at 730 pm, unless otherwise specified. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings including virtual Board & Commission meetings: http://www.fallschurchva.gov/471/Watch-City-Council-Meetings