Giving up the independence of the City of Falls Church to a larger surrounding jurisdiction would be preferable to the City’s on-going need for economic development to meet its budgetary needs, a former Planning Commissioner and president of F.C.’s Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) said publicly Monday night.
The shocking comment by respected community activist Keith Thurston came during a heavily-attended public hearing about the Atlantic Realty’s City Center plan held during a joint work session of the F.C. City Council and Planning Commission at the Community Center.
The City Council is expected to vote this coming Monday on whether or not to give a preliminary “first reading” nod to the City Center plan.
Thurston’s comment followed his reference to a letter from current VPIS President Barry Buschow to the Council which sharply assailed critical components of the economic viability of the project. The letter charged that the building heights of the project “are very much out of proportion,” and added that “it is most disappointing that the basic goals for the City Center promised to the citizens are being ignored.”
“If we are going to continue needing this kind of economic development to bail us out, and end up with a city we don’t like, I would rather cede ourselves” to Arlington or Fairfax County,” Thurston then said, repeating the comment to the News-Press after the session. He did not specify who the “we” in his comment was referring to, however.
Proponents of the City Center plan have stressed that its density is indispensable for its economic viability. The project, on 5.2 acres including and adjacent to the current Bowl America facility, is composed of a six-story office building, a 10-story hotel, a 10-story senior condominium project, a large grocery store, retail spaces and over 400 residential rental units in a building ranging in height from six to 11 stories. A triangular park adjacent a traffic round-about is also included.
A new element, added this week, would be an office and residential building that would include 170 rental units designated as “affordable housing” (see article elsewhere this issue).
In addition to its affordable housing amenity, upon completion the project would yield a conservatively-estimated $2.8 million annually in revenues to the City.
Contradicting the views expressed by Buschow on behalf of the VPIS and Thurston was another former Planning Commissioner, currently on the board of the Falls Church Housing Corporation, Bob Burnett.
Burnett cited leading “smart growth” and conservationist data to say, “The term, ‘human scale,’ is not a phrase that should be used to exclusively denote the relationship of a building’s height to a person, or how a building height is disruptive when in proximity to parks or other buildings.”
Instead, he said, “human scale” is defined, in conservation terms, as how a neighborhood is scaled in terms of “walkable proximity to amenities, diverse housing and businesses.”
“Smart growth” market research shows, he said, that “a majority of future housing demand lies in smaller homes and lots, townhouses and condominiums in neighborhoods where jobs and activities are close at hand.” There is also, he said, a positive correlation between high density development and environmental goals. Nationally, “shifting projected new growth to compact patterns will save 85 million tons of CO2 annually by 2030,” he said, citing an Urban Land Institute report.
In contrast to this view, the VPIS’ Buschow said in his letter, “Heights over 85 feet have a negative impact. The buildings are simply too tall and dense in the context of adjacent residential areas and parks….Citizens have asked repeatedly and respectfully for a more human scale for this element of the project.”
But Buschow did not specify how many citizens have asked for this. At Monday’s hearing, a considerable preponderance of citizens who spoke were firmly in favor of the project, including three who said they and their families live within a very close distance from it.
Among the proponents of the development were supporters of affordable housing and small businesses in the City, representatives and supporters of the Falls Church Housing Corporation (FCHC) and the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce.
FCHC President Dr. Steve Rogers, former vice-mayor of Falls Church, spoke adamantly in favor, especially with the newly-added affordable housing component. Among Chamber members who spoke were City resident and business owners Paul Barkley and Tom Gittins. Among other things, they noted the negative impact on small businesses if the project were scaled back in size, driving up the cost of retail space.
A representative from the Levine School, which provides musical education and training, also spoke in favor of the project, noting they’ve made preliminary plans to move into the office building component of the project.
Long-time City residents and community advocates Charles Langalis and Ted Lutz also spoke in favor. Langalis said the project will make Falls Church a “pedestrian-friendly city” and Ted Lutz hailed the “opportunity for lower-income housing.”
Leonard Crowzer of the Senior Citizens Center hailed the idea of having “a source of food (the proposed Harris Teeter) nearby” for seniors. Janet Qualters of the Winter Shelter Board, Bob Wilden of the FCHC Board and Michael Slonin were among citizens with community service ties who spoke.