Three of seven candidates for the Falls Church City Council in the upcoming May 6 election failed to appear for a debate sponsored by the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Tuesday at the Community Center.
The candidates, all independents running for the first time, missed a strong discussion focused on business and commercial development issues. Again, the sharpest distinction between the two incumbents seeking re-election to third terms, Mayor Robin Gardner and Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry, and independent Nader Baroukh centered on the referendum that will also be on the May 6 ballot.
Gardner, Hockenberry and their ally Lawrence Webb, all endorsed by the venerable City civic association, the Citizens for a Better City, expressed their strong opposition to the referendum, which would place a fixed restriction on the percentage of commercial to residential development in Falls Church.
Baroukh, an opponent of the City Center project recently approved unanimously by the City Council, said the referendum involved a “complex issue,” but that he supported its passage. Baroukh is also running for City Council for the first time, and was the only self-proclaimed “independent,” as in non-CBC endorsed, candidate to show for the debate Tuesday.
Among the “no-show” candidates was Ed Hillegas, who also failed to appear at a candidates’ forum co-sponsored by the F.C. League of Women Voters and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society last week at City Hall.
Margaret Housen and Patric Lepczyzk, candidates who attended the forum last week, also failed to show for the Chamber-sponsored debate. Housen delivered a letter to Sally Cole, executive director of the Chamber, the day of the debate saying, “I have concluded my participation in a debate sponsored by a group engaged actively in an attempt to foil efforts to pass the referendum, which I support, would be an effort in futility,” and declining her invitation to participate.
Lepczyzk offered no explanation. She indicated that she opposed the referendum at the forum last week, but surprised the audience when she passed on a question asking for her comment on the city budget.
Questions from local business leaders, moderated by Chamber President Gary LaPorta, focused on the impact on small local businesses of new development, and the need for affordable “work force housing” to permit workers to live near where they work.
All the candidates spoke in favor of an array of tax credits and incentives and on the longer-term benefits to all existing businesses of more population living downtown and a greater mass of retail, overall, attracting shoppers.
Noting that a recent poll showed 92% of all workers in Falls Church businesses drive their cars to get to work, all also discussed the need for affordable housing and the environmental benefits of being able to walk to work.
But the benefit of a vibrant residential component to commercially-zoned developments was a bone of contention between Gardner, Hockenberry and Webb, on the one side, and Barkouh, on the other.
“I have worked with the Chamber of Commerce to help invite a dynamic environment for business,” Gardner said. “Falls Church is a strong, close-knit community with both cohesiveness and diversity. It’s a unique place and tops among surrounding jurisdictions,” she said.
The City “needs a critical mass of people for a solid customer base” to support the current business community,” Hockenberry said.
Baroukh questioned when a “critical mass” would appear, and warned of the “downside risks” over the long term of too much residential in the City’s commercially-zoned areas. He cited pressures on the schools and services and said that the tax benefits of the existing mixed-use projects will only be short-term.
Hockenberry, however, said that the benefits will continue to flow over many years, noting that in just two years, the benefit of the projects have held down the residential real estate tax rate almost 12 cents.
For existing businesses during the new construction, she and Webb proposed that developers might be asked to proffer “affordable leasing rates” for small businesses just as they are asked to proffer affordable housing.
Baroukh criticized the current Council for “approving almost any mixed use project no matter what the proportion of commercial to residential,” while Hockenberry retorted that the Council, in fact, turned down proposals for the current Pearson Square site three times, and “sent Hekemian packing” more than once.
Gardner noted that there is nothing limiting all commercial projects in the City now, but that until more mixed-use flexibility was put into the City’s development options through the “special exception” process, there were no takers. “We tried, but got nothing for 20 years until we did that,” she said.
Hockenberry added that the value of the property that is now home to The Byron jumped from $800,000, when only a poorly-performing Red Lobster was there, to $33 million now.
Baroukh said, “I am not anti-development. It’s about how to go about it, and having clear criteria for what to expect.”
Webb said, as another candidate running for the first time, “I will bring new eyes” to the City Council process.