Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
We literally burned the midnight oil at the City Council meeting this week, wrapping up around midnight – so there is a lot to share. Besides the final 5-2 vote on T Zones (read on for my thoughts), there’s other news that may not make the headlines: the West Falls senior operator was announced and a financial update, showing a 10 year success story of strong local economy such that we’re going to end with a year end surplus.
Finally the long anticipated opening of The Meeting House is here (see photos from the friends and family event over the weekend) and a lovely Hispanic Heritage Month celebration kicked off our meeting. In our upcoming October meetings – we’ll be back to other priorities: Bike Master Plan, demographics study, budget amendment on the surplus, a report out on the commercial/retail landscape, community energy plan, our quarterly work plan discussion and more. There’s never a dull agenda!
Look forward to hearing from you.
PS – Campaign season is well underway, with one candidate forum done yesterday and several more to go. Check out the schedule below to get informed. I’ll be doing another round of yard sign deliveries soon – if you’d like to show your support with a yard sign, let me know here and I’ll plant one in your yard.
What Happened This Week:
(1) T Zones
We adopted the updates to the T Zone ordinance with a 5-2 vote this week, largely based on the first reading version of the ordinance we voted on this summer with the building envelope recommendations from the Planning Commission sent us last February. This vote is an incremental, but important move towards more diverse housing options and revitalizing underutilized parcels in T Zones. After nearly 30 public meetings, 2.5 years, and many iterations with compromises and tweaks along the way, I realize this vote will still disappoint some. It’s unfortunate how divisive the issue was in parts of the city. I share a few excerpts from my comments from Tuesday night below. On the plus side, I hopefully won’t be writing about T Zones again in the near future!
The ordinance in front of us improves on:
- What is currently allowed in T zones (specifically today, there are no tree canopy requirements nor impervious limits so we’re adding both and changing 0 ft rear setback to 15 ft)
- The original version from May 2022 when we cast our first first reading. It has incorporated compromises based on public input, Planning Commissions study and deliberation, balanced with market reality. Just because it doesn’t incorporate every single comment doesn’t mean we’re not being responsive – our job is to listen to all the sides and strike a balance based on the needs of the community and the future of the city.
- Appropriate transitions as buffers between taller, denser commercial districts and residential districts – all the rules for the building envelope from heights, setbacks, stepbacks, lot coverage, units per acre represent reasonable transitions.
- While I don’t think the back of the Spectrum is “terrible”, we’ve heard different points of view, so we’ve specifically designed this so it won’t be like the Spectrum – which is nearly 10′ taller and has narrower sidewalks and smaller setbacks than what’s being proposed in T Zones.
I also want to set the record straight on some additional misconceptions:
“It’s not affordable enough” or “this won’t do enough for housing”
- T zones was never about affordable housing but unfortunately has been co-opted as “not affordable enough” therefore we shouldn’t do it. Modernizing T Zones was about encouraging small infill development especially in underutilized areas like T Zones, especially for housing types we don’t have – knowing that we’d have several big projects across the city and my belief that a more interesting city should have a mix of buildings and densities and not just multi acre large projects.
- T zones, at 3% of the city’s land, can’t possibly address affordable housing on its own, but it can begin to add more housing stock we don’t have and yield more diverse housing options beyond apartments and $2M single family homes. The latest research shows that adding market rate housing across the price spectrum does help alleviate prices. And while $800K-1M doesn’t seem “affordable enough” – it’s now the median home price in Falls Church. And that kind of starter home stock is sorely needed.
“This is a blank check for developers”
- Untrue. While this may seem like less “citizen approval” than what happens with large mixed use projects, I believe it’s appropriate for 3 reasons: 1) the small size of projects that could even happen in T zones are less 1 acre development 2) either a grading plan, site plan, or special use permit process still happens 3) we’ve already carefully defined both the building envelope maximums and densities allowed within the envelopes to be appropriate to transition districts, so we know what we’re going to get. We don’t want every corner to have multi-acre, tall buildings and instead want more small, infill development especially with middle housing we don’t have. The latter is often done by small developers. And a long, expensive process has been cost prohibitive for the smaller players, which is why T zones haven’t changed over 20+ years and why we also don’t see many small scale developments. If we want to encourage small scale development and housing production, given how tightly we’ve defined the T Zones rules – to me, the risk is low and certainly lower than further inaction.
- Risk and return – I know zoning changes are not without risk – but having the staff diligently work through multiple iterations, market test this, the guardrails we’ve put in place, environment protections that don’t exist today, learning from each past project, listening to the community and incorporating their feedback – I believe the risk of inaction outweighs that small, small risk of making these changes tonight. If we keep the rules the same as what it’s been today – the market has shown us it’s economically infeasible and unbuildable – nothing will continue to get built as has been the case in T zones for 20+ years.
If we are to live our values of being a more inclusive community, communities have to evolve and adapt based on the needs of the community and future. This is a small incremental change that will feel scary today – and that fear is natural – but I promise you that tomorrow the sky will not fall.
And a challenge for us up here – it is disheartening to see how unnecessarily divisive this is. We’re going to disagree, but how we treat each other matters. We will continue to have serious policy discussions about the future of the city. We can and we should be better than perpetuating misinformation or lobbing accusations at each other about special interests – or worse, accusing staff who have been nothing but diligent and professional. Emotions and tempers are hot in the community, but the tone starts with us – so I challenge us to be better.
(2) West Falls Update
We approved the new senior building developer and operator, Experience Senior Living by a 6-0-1 vote, which will be the final component in Phase 1 of the West Falls project. We expect the developer to largely follow the previously approved plan that was approved in 2022: a maximum of 217 dwelling units, including 22 memory care studio units, 55 assisted living units (studios and one-bedrooms), and 140 independent living units (one-bedroom and two-bedrooms) and 7,700 square feet of ground floor retail use.
(3) FY23 Budget Report
In addition to the news that Virginia passed a state budget (with a few notable earmarks for Falls Church – $3M for Oak St Elementary improvements and $9M for stormwater mitigation projects – both are significant and meaningful for a small city), we also got a good news report on our city’s financials for FY23 that wrapped up in June.
The quick summary is that we’re ending the year with a $5.2M surplus ($4.3M higher revenues, or about 4% higher + $900K underspending, or about 0.8%). Most revenue categories have recovered
to or exceeded pre-pandemic levels in FY2023 with the exception of hotel taxes which are at 80% of pre-Covid levels. Local taxes (meals tax, gross receipts/BPOL, sales tax, hotel tax) make up 25% of our total revenues, which shows a continued success story of strong local growth.
If you’re a numbers person, this report has a lot more detail; I pulled out two excerpts that are good views of economic indicators over the past 10 years as well as deeper dive into BPOL, meals taxes, and sales taxes especially around grocery and online sales categories, where I often fields questions. BPOL and meals taxes in particular have shown amazing growth – besides the overall categories growing, we have also grown the number of businesses and average taxes as well – pointing to the success of our economic development efforts.
More discussion to come in our next work session on potential uses of the surplus (about $900K will go to FCCPS per our revenue sharing, $200K will be obligated to our fund balance which we maintain as part of our fiscal policy) – which leaves about $4.1M available to City Council for discussion on potential projects and needs. There are some unknowns in the upcoming budget season – Metro funding is a looming concern for the region, for example – so in addition to taxpayer burden, that will be top of mind for me.
What’s Coming Up:
Monday, October 2 – City Council Work Session*
Wednesday, October 4 – Meet the Council Office Hours
Monday, October 16 – City Council Work Session*
Monday, October 23 – City Council Meeting*
*Mondays (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings
- The Vote411.org voter information is published and includes information about all City Council and School Board candidates.
- Patch.com has published theirs for all four City Council candidates; here is mine.
- We’ve also been asked to submit candidate questionnaires from VPIS (Village Preservation and Improvement Society) which is not published yet, so I’ll share those when available.
Thanks to our friends at the CBC for compiling a handy calendar of upcoming forums where you can meet and hear from the candidates: