Touting an enormous potential for the future development of the City of Falls Church, a leading representative of the Akridge Company from Washington D.C. laid out a blueprint for moving forward at a special briefing to the City’s Economic Development Authority last week.

Joe Svatos, a vice president of the company that has worked in fits and starts in the City since 1999, said that Falls Church’s location makes it special, set between two Metro stations, equal-distant from two major airports and two major commercial centers (Tysons and the District), on an interstate, on the beltway and in the line of three major regional roads (Rt. 29, Rt. 50 and Rt. 7).

This “ideal location” in conjunction with the fact that, despite its small size, there are still significant areas along the City’s commercial corridors that have not been developed make Falls Church a prime candidate for significant new growth, he said.

In the context of this, he said there are three key issues to consider. The first is marketing (“The world has to know Falls Church is here,” he said), the second is density (“Things have changed a lot in the last half dozen years in Falls Church,” he quipped. “Things like density and height are no longer necessarily bad words”). The third is affordable housing policy.

Svatos visited the offices of the News-Press last Friday to reprise his presentation to the EDA. He said that Akridge intends to continue as a major player in the development of Falls Church. It currently has a plan for a mixed-use project along N. Washington St. that met with a favorable response from the City Council when it was first presented to them in a work session last fall.

On the issue of marketing, or branding, the City of Falls Church, he cited the precedent of Old Town Alexandria 25 years ago. “Falls Church needs to target smaller office users, such as trade associations and smaller professional offices,” he said. “It needs to pitch its location and accessibility and its small town, village atmosphere in the midst of this urban center.”

He proposed a “private-public partnership” to market the city, saying things such as special incentives aimed at the target market also need to be considered. He acknowledged that a re-assessment of the City’s business license (BPOL) tax may be needed, since the City’s higher rate for the kind of businesses it should try to attract runs counter to this objective.

Concerning density and height matters, he said that density equals dollars and that he has witnessed attitudes changing in the City in recent years. Citing examples of Rosslyn and Clarendon in Arlington, he said the right zoning to permit greater density can be key to a neighborhood-friendly development boom.

Many Falls Church properties in its commercially-zoned areas currently have
”floor to area ratios” (FARs) of .4, he said, when they could have attractive and lucrative ones of from 3 to 5. Use of creative architectural design and staggered heights can create a “funky” look, he said, that is widely accepted by existing residents to an area.

Density, he said, should be targeted to key areas of the City such as nearer the Metros at either end of the City. “A well thought-out plan takes years to implement but is preferable to case-by-case rezoning,” he said. “With such an approach, people can see that more height and density are not bad.”

In this context, a re-thinking of parking ratios required for projects needs to occur. “Notions of shared parking, plus incentives for use of public transportation, need to replace old formulas for suburban parking,” he said.

To stay ahead of changing trends in office and residential demand, officials need to permit more flexibility for projects, he said, allowing developers to “keep ahead of the curve” in these markets.

On the matter of affordable housing, he recommended that the City follow the lead of Arlington and other regional jurisdictions to allow cash equivalent donations to local affordable housing groups, as opposed to dedicating a percentage of units in each project to the goal. “The same value contained in eight affordable units agreed to in one Falls Church project now under construction could be leveraged to provide for 58 units if it were given in cash,” he said.