Local Commentary

Editoral: That Elusive `Critical Mass

“Critical mass” is being touted as the savior of the City of Falls Church. When it comes to discussions at City Hall of how the City’s aggressive redevelopment efforts will eventually deliver the desired results, the conventional wisdom has been that it will happen when “critical mass” shows up. In our editor’s youth, the running joke in his family was that they’d get whatever they dreamed of having “when Hopperton comes.”

The question for Falls Church is whether this “critical mass” phenomenon is any more real than Hopperton was. Generally, the notion of “critical mass” refers to the point at which retailers, including national brands, begin figuring out that they, too, really want to be represented with a storefront in a given area.

At Monday’s Falls Church City Council work session, attempts by a combination of expert retail consultants, members of the Council and the City staff to describe what constitutes the point of “critical mass” was reminiscent of efforts around a campfire to conjure physical descriptions of the ever-elusive, bird-like, or was it ferret-like, snipe.

One attempt described “critical mass” as the accumulation of 400,000 to 500,000 square feet of retail space in a finite area, such as Bethesda Row in Maryland’s Montgomery County, or the Clarendon section of Arlington, where a perception is achieved that it is a “destination” for large numbers of potential customers. (Falls Church has about 80,000 square feet in its new developments so far). But then the question arose about how large or small an area would have to contain that amount of footage, and whether or not current projects in the 500 block of West Broad Street would be too far away from where the City Center is planned to contribute to this “critical mass,” or not.

Then came the inclusion of the population factor in the discussion, the notion that it is not only square footage, but the presence of thousands of new residents in condos and rentals immediately contiguous to retail centers which also factors into “critical mass.” At that point, one Council member commented wryly, “Don’t forget, the term, ‘critical mass,’ really comes from a nuclear reaction.”

There was no definitive resolution to this discussion, except that some felt “maintaining the vision” was more important than fixating on the achievement of some elusive “critical mass.” We agree with this approach, based on our own experience. In the early 1990s’, the first very difficult years for the News-Press, it was believed that the only way the paper could survive was by finding a big spender or two to buy huge advertising accounts. It never happened. Instead, we kept on slugging it out to get every new account, no matter how small, that came our way. Now almost 17 years later, we still don’t have “critical mass.” But we’ve made it by hard work, perseverance and going after everything we could get. That’s how Falls Church will make it, too.