Local Commentary

Editorial: By Right, Not Gifts

The good news is that there is going to be another major round of commercial development along the West Broad Street corridor, the two office buildings and hotel being planned for the north side of the 700 and 800 blocks. You can read all about it on page one of this edition. These new structures will be right next door to the new Broadway, Byron, Spectrum and Reed projects in the 400 and 500 blocks (there is no 600 block of West Broad St., by the way).

These projects will bring much needed additional tax revenues and add to the vitality of the West Broad corridor that is rapidly becoming, de facto, the real center of Falls Church. While the official City Center project languishes at the mercy of intolerably high asking prices for land there, some developers have been over a number of recent years quietly assembling the small commercially-zoned lots a few blocks further west, and now we are seeing the fruits of that foresight and willingness to capitalize on opportunity.

But there is another side to these new projects that will not bring so much joy to those at City Hall who have been able to turn away some developers outright and extract millions in proffers and concessions from others involved in the City’s recent spate of commercial-zone growth. That is, these new projects all fall under the rubric of “by right,” meaning they’ll be built within all existing City zoning code limits. As such, they do not require any negotiations and concessions for a vote of approval by the City Council. All they need are site plan approvals from the Planning Commission and the Planners are severely constrained by the law from being able to arbitrarily or capriciously reject a site plan that passes legal muster.

Although the City will benefit from the property tax and other revenue benefits of the new developments, it will not get the bulging gift bag of proffers, or goodies, including millions to the schools, for open space, street improvements, undergrounding of utilities, and so forth, that came with earlier projects requiring a “special exception” vote hung over developers’ heads by the City Council.

A combination of factors are responsible for this new reality, including, first and foremost, the realities of the market. But that reality, for a developer, includes the fact that the level of proffers the City has demanded are unaffordable in this market. It is also really no secret that some developers are simply tired of being  fleeced and otherwise jerked around by the City in order to build something, and are inclined to eschew more expansive projects for things that require no special negotiating, concessions or approvals.

In this context, it is unsettling that there seems to be no effort from City Hall, or its economic development team, to urge the developer in this case to reconsider, to try something bigger and better that will offer the City more in terms of tax revenues and, yes, proffers.