Updates from Letty – September 17, 2021
Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
Weekly posts are back! After writing this blog for 6 years, I took my first extended break this summer so in this week’s post, you can expect links that will recap info you may have missed – including the latest vaccination stats for our community, business we covered this week – like stormwater and 20 mph speed limits, and what’s coming up.
Barring any health guidance changes – next Monday, we’ll be holding our first in person meeting since March 2020. With the technology upgrades during COVID, we’ll be able to take live public comment via video or in person beginning with our regular meeting on 9/27. (Next week’s 9/20 meeting is a work session, so we don’t usually host public comment then.) People shouldn’t have to find a babysitter/leave work early/miss dinner/etc to give public comment or to attend a City Council meeting – so this is one of the few silver linings from the pandemic.
My monthly office hours are also resuming next Monday – I’ll be at Mr. Brown’s Park on 9/20 from 9-10:30 am. Before my summer break, I had great turnout, so I will keep holding outdoor office hours as the weather allows.
Look forward to hearing from you.
PS – Early voting starts today – and if you haven’t noticed the yard signs, we have local elections this year. Read on for links to various questionnaires and upcoming forums so you can get educated if you will be voting early.
What Happened This Summer & This Week:
(1) In Case You Missed It (ICYMI) Posts
While I took a summer blogging break, I kept my Facebook page relatively updated. Here’s what you may have missed this summer:
Founders Row 1 and 2 (more below) and new business openings
COVID universal mask guidance reinstated indoors
American Rescue Plan (ARPA)- “I heard Falls Church is getting $18M and you’re lowering speed limits to 20 mph!”
“There’s so much construction around town – when is city project A/B/C done?” and here
Affordable housing news – City acquires 3rd and 4th quadplex
No more bus service on E. Broad St.
(2) COVID-19 Update
Clearly COVID-19 is not done with us yet. With the current Delta variant surge, the level of community transmission is high across Virginia and state-wide positivity rate is over 10%, while locally in the Fairfax health district, our positivity rate has been below 5% and luckily, hospitalizations and deaths remain low. Vaccinations and adherence to public health guidance like masks and social distancing work.
On the vaccine front – there are a lot of numbers out there and I know it can be confusing. Personally, I find the regional data helpful. This dashboard shows the vaccination stats for the five health districts in Northern Virginia – 78% of the eligible 12+ population has had at least one dose of vaccine and over 70% of 12+ is fully vaccinated. (If you look at total population, the regional vaccination rate drops to the 60s).
Looking at Falls Church-specific vaccine stats – demographics can be useful for more targeted outreach efforts. Overall, 81% of our 12+ population has at least one shot, and we have some very well vaccinated age groups with rates higher than that. That said, give a nudge to your 25-34 year old neighbor!
As supplies remain plentiful, vaccine locations have scaled back from last winter/spring’s mass sites. Most pharmacies and doctors offices offer walk up vaccines with no appointment required. Businesses and organizations can even request pop up vaccine clinics. At the state level, the Virginia Health Department is working to prepare for booster shots for the general public, should the federal government announce a recommendation this fall.
(3) This week’s business
With continued increases in frequency and intensity of storms (eg, yesterday’s big rain), stormwater remains top of mind for many residents. The Stormwater Task Force‘s recommended “Big 6” projects are on deck, with general support from City Council to allocate some of our American Rescue Plan dollars against the projects instead of debt financing them. (This week, we advanced a mini allocation of $200K from ARPA to accelerate 2 of the 6 projects, with more discussion on larger appropriations to come.)
The SWTF, now sunsetted, presented us their final recommendations this week – a permanent Stormwater Advisory Board to provide future citizen input and an analysis on our current fee structure.
Letty’s thoughts: From the second recommendation, I especially took note of the SWTF’s recommendation to consider both “stick and carrot” approaches beyond bigger pipes – positive incentives to encourage property owners to build green infrastructure, preserve mature trees, etc and levy fees for new construction or changes on properties that increase impervious coverage and therefore the increase the burden on stormwater infrastructure. It’s a common misconception that commercial redevelopment causes flooding – in fact, we negotiate stormwater improvements, like large onsite capture of water, at many of our mixed use projects such that the end projects result in less runoff than pre-development. I believe the bigger opportunity is to reduce and slow down run off in residential redevelopment though – it’s hard to ignore the increase in impervious surface and density in our neighborhoods as homes turnover and increase in size.
(B) Budget Amendment & American Rescue Plan
The City has been allocated $18M in ARPA funding in two tranches ($9M was received in June, second tranche expected next year) – with the requirement to encumber the funds by Dec 2024 and to spend the funds by Dec 2026. There are also various rules on the types of expenditures that qualify – it is not a blank check. It is a huge opportunity to help our community recover and invest in long term infrastructure and transformational change.
You may recall several discussions in work session and we took our first vote on a budget amendment earlier in the summer. This week, by a 5-2 vote we passed the budget amendment that appropriates about 6% of the total $18M (about $1M) to go towards high priority needs, with further discussion and community engagement on the rest of the funds to come.
These items include: continued rent/utility/food assistance to supplement state funding, targeted vaccine outreach, technology improvements to enable remote work, school mental health professionals, stormwater projects, and reduction in speed limits to 20 mph (see item below).
Letty’s thoughts: I supported the budget amendment with caveats. The majority of the expenditures are important as we continue battling and recovering from COVID-19 and I did not want to delay those dollars. However, I have reservations with hiring FTEs, even if we plan for them to be term limited hires, with one time funds like ARPA – which is generally unsound financial policy. The motion was amended to pause hiring of additional staff until further discussion with City Council.
(C) Speed Limits – 20 mph?
As part of the budget amendment that passed on Monday, $100K was appropriated to new speed signs to reduce the speed limit from 25 mph to 20 mph to accommodate increased ped activity during the pandemic. Just because the budget amendment passed doesn’t mean speed limits are changing immediately! There is more work to be done in an implementation plan, including decisions on which streets. As it stands, the streets in Speed Zone 3 (yellow) – ie, non arterial streets, would be the staff-recommended, eligible streets.
Letty’s thoughts: I support a reduction in 20 mph speed reduction – the data on lower speeds leading to lower accidents and injuries is compelling. But it can’t be the only action we take – we should keep up the work on urban design and street engineering (eg, bump outs and narrower streets naturally slow down cars) in the traffic calming program. I’d also prefer piloting speed camera enforcement, newly allowed in school zones by the General Assembly, in conjunction with a reduction in speed limit to 20 mph.
(D) Founders Row 2
We also reviewed changes to the Founders Row 2 project – a mixed use project at the former RiteAid and carpet store site at W. Broad and S. West. Among the changes that were based on Council and neighborhood feedback – lobby relocated, addition of green roofs, changes to voluntary concessions, increase in green space. The developer presentation goes into more detail with new renderings.
As I wrote over the summer, development projects typically have many work sessions and public hearings where the project continues to iterate and improve before we vote to refer the project for board and commission review and certainly before a project’s final approval.
Letty’s thoughts: What will be unique about the project is that City Council will be weighing a different mix of “voluntary concessions” (the community benefits a developer offers in return for the special exception). As proposed, the developer is offering 12% affordable housing (double our current policy), a new $100K towards the missing links sidewalk program, and a handful of other concessions but offset in reductions in other areas. I believe that the mix of concessions at a project should change over time as the city’s capital needs change. We’ve spent over $150M in rebuilding new schools, library, city hall, and parks the past three years so we no longer have long to-do lists in those areas. With each project, our job is to negotiate a good deal for the city – we should continually raise the bar with each project and prioritize the areas with need, so we will be evaluating the value of the total package of voluntary concessions as a first step.
If you live in the neighborhood or even if you don’t and just care about this corner, I’m happy to hear your thoughts on the project.
Also – in the Founders Row 2 package was a helpful map of past, current, and potential future redevelopment in Falls Church. Of the city’s entire “revitalization district” of over 300 acres (ie, the commercial areas), just under 1/3 of the area has been redeveloped. It doesn’t mean all 300 acres should be touched. I found the map useful to dispel a common myth that we’re running out of commercial land, the importance of smaller-scale projects connect to each other (ie, no one wants a canyon of tall buildings on Broad St), and how and where to transition development into neighborhoods.
What’s Coming Up:
Letty’s Office Hours
Monday, Sept. 20 at 9-10:30 am – Mr. Brown’s Park
Elections 2020 – General Election on Tuesday, November 2
Thursday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 pm – League of Women Voters & VPIS virtual candidate forum – City Council Candidates
Thursday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 pm – League of Women Voters & VPIS virtual candidate forum – School Board Candidates
League of Women Voters – vote411.org voter guide
Falls Church Democrats Questionnaires for City Council candidates and School Board candidates
City Council Meetings every Monday (except 5th Mondays) at 7:30 pm
You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings