In Exclusive ‘State Of City’ Interview With News-Press
Expanding the ability of the City of Falls Church to attract outside dollars to shore up its economy and tax base is a key objective for Mayor Robin Gardner.
Gardner laid out this and a wide array of plans and goals for Falls Church over the course of the News-Press’ routinely-annual, exclusive “State of the City” interview with the mayor that took place in Gardner’s Ellison Street home Monday.
Following four years on the Falls Church City Council, Gardner took over as mayor last summer after six years in the post by her predecessor Dan Gardner (no relation). She provided her first exclusive interview to the News-Press at her dining room table with her husband, Mike, and two young children, David and Emma, nowhere to be found at the time.
This question-and-answer recount is a paraphrasing, taken from notes, of the interview:
News-Press: Would you say the City of Falls Church is moving in the right direction, and fast enough?
Gardner: Personally, I do, even though sometimes it might not feel like it. Right now, we’re taking some lumps as people have to deal with traffic and related problems due to buildings that are now under construction. But more people will see the benefit of this when the construction is done. We have to spread out our revenue generation, taking it off the backs of our single-family residences by promoting revenue diversity.
Some are fearful of going too fast, feeling we may be pulling the wool over their eyes or that we are in bed with developers. So, we are looking carefully for developments that are beneficial to the city and pleasing to the community. We are demanding that developers think outside the scope they’re traditionally used to for the sake of this.
News-Press: Are the developers the City is working with ‘getting it’ in this regard?
Gardner: We are always negotiating with them and it is not always easy. It means that we’re not always able to move as quickly as either we or they would like. And we have to hear from the community.
News-Press: With all the development that has occurred in the last six years, if you could do it over again, would you do anything differently?
Gardner: I think that building setbacks from the street would have been scrutinized more carefully and that we would seek more upfront involvement from the community. But it’s been a learning process.
We’ve brought in The Broadway, the Byron, Spectrum, Pearson Square with the Tax Analysts building, Hekemian’s project has been approved, and the Read Building is up. Prior to that there’d been nothing for 15 years. It feels we’ve been moving fast, but we’re actually just catching up.
News-Press: A report from the City’s Economic Development Office last week indicated that with these projects you listed, in each case, the City was able to extract more value in proffers per square foot than in the ones before. I presume you see this as progress.
Gardner: At first, it was most important for us to signal to the wider development community that the City of Falls Church was “open for business.” But the demands we have placed on developers have been more stringent since then. It would not be beneficial to the city to have 10 more buildings just like The Broadway.
News-Press: With national and regional negative trends in housing now, is Falls Church beginning to experience a slowdown in the rate at which developers want to get involved here?
Gardner: We are expecting Akridge to come forward with its plans for North Washington Street in the early fall. Developers generally do not want to introduce anything new in the summer, and we’ve indicated that we don’t want to make any big decisions in the summer when a lot of people are away and it might be perceived that we are slipping something by the public when they’re on vacation. But the City Center project is also moving ahead. It is very large and we need to work on seeing how it fits into the area.
We are still negotiating on that one, taking issues such as density into account. Also, now that Pearson Square has switched from condos sales to rentals, we have to see how that might effect the housing stock in the City Center, where there have been plans for a lot of rental apartments, as well. We don’t want to become a city mainly of rentals.
News-Press: Are you concerned about the housing market regionally and nationally, and how that might impact Falls Church?
Gardner: I am concerned. We’ve already seen some shift away from condo sales to rentals, and while we need more of that, it would not be good to have all the new housing here be completely rental. The city prides itself on home ownership and there needs to be a balance.
News-Press: City Manager Wyatt Shields said recently that he doesn’t expect tax revenues from residential real estate to be anything better than flat for the coming budget cycle. What kind of impact will that have?
Gardner: The new building now under construction will continue to generate additional, new revenue, as it did last year. It will be good if we do not have to raise the tax rate next spring, but not if it hurts the schools. I will not shy away from cutting parts of the budget where it is possible.
News-Press: Do you expect that you will have to raise the tax rate next spring?
Gardner: I will work hard to make sure we don’t.
News-Press: What do we have to do to ensure the long-term survivability of Falls Church?
Gardner: We have to continue mixed-use development. The schools have to have what they need. We have to maintain a strong sense of community and must not be willing to be simply a bedroom or pass-through for Fairfax County or Arlington.
News-Press: What impact will the planned explosion of development in Tysons Corner have on Falls Church?
Gardner: We can’t compete with that. We have to make sure that with what happens here, people will look at our community and say, ‘Falls Church has really nice stores and parks and walkable places,’ and they will park and stop here. We have to be attractive to surrounding jurisdictions.
News-Press: Dr. Steven Fuller of George Mason University spoke here last year about the $4 billion in annual disposable income that floats in the areas right around Falls Church. How do you get those dollars into Falls Church?
Gardner: Well, this is me speaking. I think we need some kind of attraction, a children’s museum, say. We need entertainment available all hours of the day, not just the evenings, to bring families to. (F.C. Councilman) Dan Maller said it best. He said, ‘We need to have it so that when mom and dad come to visit, we take them to downtown Falls Church to see this or that.’ The city needs to be a destination.
News-Press: Is there any planning going on now to include something like this in downtown Falls Church?
Gardner: We haven’t decided what it is yet we want to have, but we should set aside some space. I like the idea of Port Discovery in Baltimore. It brings in tons of people, and is a concept that would be very attractive to Falls Church.
News-Press: But there is no concrete planning for this even as the parameters of the City Center are being carved out?
Gardner: In the City Center, we are working only on the south side of Broad Street right now. It is going to include a lot more. We have to take a holistic approach.
News-Press: But so far, there is nothing along these lines that is specific.
Gardner: There are some prospects, like we are talking to the Levine School about locating here.
News-Press: Where do things stand with the Falls Church Water System and the lawsuit the city has filed against Fairfax County’s encroaching on the city system’s historic service area?
Gardner: That is now going through the appeal process. We are providing excellent service to our 120,000 customers now, the water quality is outstanding and everything is running as it should. Problems we’ve had have been corrected and there are new water meters going out throughout the system now.
There are no changes in our relations with Fairfax County about this yet, but there have been some new development projects within our service area in Fairfax County that have been asked to look at both systems, Fairfax’s and ours, and have chosen to come with us.
News-Press: How are relations, overall, between Falls Church and its larger jurisdictional neighbors?
Gardner: Each member of the Falls Church City Council is involved in larger regional bodies in various ways. We are represented on the Council of Governments, the Transportation Commission, Energy Commission and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. We are relating to our peers on these bodies and are more active now than we’ve been before.
News-Press: What is the greatest promise for, and what is the greatest obstacle to, the continued development of Falls Church?
Gardner: (Pause). In terms of promise, it lies in the continued home building and mixed use development here, while enabling the community and encouraging it to participate, appreciating that with our size, everyone is close to many things and with close access to many services.
In terms of obstacles, I would say negative changes in the housing market leading to an inability to meet the needs of the schools. It would also be an inability to get enough retail services here so that we do not become merely a hallway between Bailey’s Crossroads and Tysons Corner.
News-Press: How serious is the housing situation for Falls Church now?
Gardner: Each year people are being costed out of their homes. How long can this continue? The problem is that people are moving out and others are now moving in. There is a house near mine being sold for $1.5 million that has been on the market for over two months. It would have sold by now before.
News-Press: Does the community have a strong commitment to maintaining the quality of the schools?
Gardner: There is a large group not connected to the schools. It includes older people who are being priced out of their homes and can’t pay taxes. My goal is to have a diverse community, not one kind of community. We need a more eclectic mix such that people, including children, can learn more from their neighbors, an environment that increases the level of tolerance.
News-Press: That begs the question of providing more affordable housing in the city.
Gardner: We’ve done an in-depth study of affordable housing stocks in the city and find that there is a considerable amount of older housing, and new affordable housing being brought as proffers attached to new development projects. The question becomes how much affordable housing we can afford. It is not just a Falls Church issue, but a regional issue. We need to make sure our neighbors are doing the same as we.
News-Press: Fairfax County seems to have a pretty aggressive affordable housing push underway.
Gardner: Consider how large Fairfax County is. It’s one million people. What are they providing as a percentage of that population? The same goes for Alexandria with 100,000 people. If Fairfax adds 1,000 affordable housing units for a million people, does that mean 100 is OK for Alexandria? How about Falls Church with 11,000 people? Does that mean 11 units are OK here? We have to ask, in a regional context, what is the responsibility of our 11,000 residents on this issue.
News-Press: So you would place the emphasis on bringing in outside dollars over more affordable housing as a way to attract new revenue to Falls Church.
News-Press: How about government infrastructure? The Council has OK’d money for a study of overhauling City Hall.
Gardner: We want it so that when citizens walk into the front door of City Hall, they can know where they’re going. We are looking for a redesign within a cost constraint. We can’t afford or need an opulent new City Hall like some other jurisdictions are building. We want one that is more ‘user friendly’ where the employees can be proud to work here.
News-Press: Do you want the government process, overall, to become more ‘user friendly’ for citizens or for developers?
Gardner: Citizen views are important, but when the rubber hits the road, it is the City Council that has to take a stand. We are now looking to streamline our zoning code with a thorough re-write. Citizen participation matters a lot, but when push comes to shove, we have to be prepared to do the right thing.
News-Press: In terms of zoning changes, do you think it would be appropriate to allow for greater densities, or building heights, in the City’s commercial zones?
Gardner: I think there can be some changes in some districts or pockets. It depends on how things go.
News-Press: In summary, what has your first year as mayor brought us?
Gardner: As a Council, our two most important goals have been to develop a vision of where we are headed and a decision-making process that is transparent. We’re working on our vision statement, and in terms of transparency, we’ve begun televising our work sessions, putting more schedules out in advance of meetings and putting more documentation of our work on line. I hope our citizens will take advantage of these.