F.C. Mayor Predicts Slow Down But No Fiscal Crisis: Gives Annual ‘State of City’ Talk to FCNP

The recent years’ boom in large-scale mixed use projects along the City of Falls Church’s commercial corridors is expected to wane, but the tax revenues generated by the new developments to date will insulate the city from critical fiscal shortfalls that are plaguing neighboring Fairfax County.

That was the assessment provided by Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, recently re-elected to a third four-year term on the City Council and a second two-year term as mayor, in an interview at the offices of the News-Press last week.

The interview constituted the News-Press’ annual “State of the City” discussion with the mayor of Falls Church, a tradition dating to the early 1990s. Rather than a press conference format, it has provided mayors an uncensored opportunity to convey to Falls Church readers their outlook.

Gardner was relaxed and pleased at the accomplishments of the City Council since she was first elected in 2000, including last week’s approval of the City’s first ever new affordable housing structure, the City Center South Apartments.

After more than a decade with no significant new developments, it was on Sept. 10, 2001 that the Council approved the first of a sequence of large-scale projects, The Broadway. It was followed by approvals for The Byron, Pearson Square, The Spectrum and the Read Building, all of which have been completed and occupied.

Then the Council approved the $319 million Atlantic Realty City Center plan, a new Jefferson One office building in the 800 block of West Broad now under construction, a mixed use apartment complex by the Hekemian Company on North Washington, a Hilton Garden Inn Hotel and last week’s affordable City Center South Apartments.

But because of the overall national economic slowdown and credit crunch, the development boom may be over for awhile, Gardner noted. There is only one more project currently in the pipeline, The Gateway proposed by the Akridge Company for North Washington Street, which will come up for final Council approval in October.

Then there is the issue of financing and construction of currently-approved projects, such as the City Center, the Hekemian and Hilton projects. Gardner said she was unaware if any of them are running into financing issues due to the current credit crunch.

The mayor said the focus will now shift to marketing initiatives aimed at filling the retail space in the recently-completed projects and encouraging the “critical mass” that will bring new shoppers, diners and entertainment-seekers to Falls Church.

Also on the “front burner” for the City Council will be a comprehensive rewrite of the City’s zoning ordinances, a project considered long overdue and necessary to accommodate the City’s transition from a more rural posture to a more urban one. The city’s ideal location, from a transportation and accessibility standpoint, in the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, makes the transition inevitable, Gardner said.

“We need the right kind of zoning to help us design the kind of livable, walkable community we want” as the transition occurs, she said. A consultant retained by the City Council has already been working on the zoning re-write, and Gardner said it will be in the direction of so-called “form-based” or “block” zoning that focuses more on how the Council wants an area to look, rather than on what kind of use it will have.

Issues such as buffering and uses for substandard lots in residential areas will also be addressed, she said. Zoning issues are snoozers for the public, but vital for the City’s future, the mayor said.

She noted that, unlike neighboring Fairfax County, where many among its 1.1 million residents in outlying areas have suffered enormously due to the subprime mortgage and foreclosure meltdown, Falls Church has encountered no fiscal “red flags” from its chief financial officer.

Fairfax County Supervisors have already begun an urgent process of identifying where cuts may be required in the current budget and in next year’s due to a sharp downturn in real estate values that will leave significant shortfalls in tax revenues.

But Gardner said Falls Church is not experiencing a significant further decline in real estate values, and added tax revenues accruing from new large-scale projects as they are completed will further insulate the city from either draconian budget cuts or major tax increases.

She said the Council will not get its first “snapshot” of the city’s fiscal condition in the new fiscal year, which began July 1, until its annual fall retreat in October, but that she does not expect any surprises.

Marketing to fill existing retail space will be another major thrust, she said, adding she hoped the city’s Economic Development Authority will step up on that issue.

She was bullish about the City’s ability to attract outside dollars, noting that an initiative to designate the city as an “arts district” under a new Virginia law will help.

She cited the success of the Tinner Hill Foundation’s first annual blues festival this summer as evidence of that potential, along with existing popular venues such as the State Theatre and restaurants offering live music.

In terms of the city’s long-term prospects, she said that while there are large sums of money included as “placeholders” in its capital improvement projections, for a new school and a new city hall, it is not at all clear at this time what the real financial needs will be.

She said an initial consultants’ study on options for a new city hall and/or police station was unacceptable, because its proposals were far too expensive.

She said she’s committed to continuing fulfilling the city’s stated goal of encouraging diversity, including of incomes and ages, and to act against any tendencies for it to assume the characteristics of a “gated community” of the rich.