Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: More Work Needed to Resolve F.C.’s Economic Troubles

In the last election to be held in May, a subdued electorate voted in: Ron Peppe, Ira Kaylin, Johannah Barry and Dave Snyder. We are entering a period of time when it seems the vicissitudes of time and fate conspire against our great nation and, by translation, against our great citizens. What do these choices mean for us?

Coming home from downtown, I pass the stone marking the corner of the quadrangle that would have defined Washington DC. Can you imagine Benjamin Banneker laying down surveyor’s links in the primal forest of the future Falls Church over 200 years ago? Can you imagine the vision, commitment, and experience it took to complete that task?

Over the next four years, all leading indicators point to a period of continued stagnation in revenue generation. Voices grow loud for pure commercial development. Well-intentioned leaders believe they have the power to alter market forces and to encourage only those revenue producers they believe the people want in our downtown. There is the lucrative-sounding mantra of pure commercial development along Broad Street.

Let’s examine the soundness of this reasoning. First, the overbuilt commercial market will continue its downward spiral. Do we want to participate in another 20-35 percent decline in commercial value? Because this success means we will endure another 15,000 cars coursing through our choked streets and residential neighborhoods? We would also be in direct competition with Tysons Corner and Crystal City. How does that work and have you been to those desolate places after work? This is not to say that all commercial development is bad. But, there is a profound difference between wishing it were so and having it happen. By being narrowly reactive, the real effect will be that revenue bearing development will pass us by one more time. While no one person is responsible for our current predicament, it does need to be asked: “what is the plan? What will be introduced to our city that makes us viable?” At the end of this day, no one, not you, not your neighbor nor the elected officials will be able to fend off a declining tax base. The smart ones will leave, the rich ones will protect their interests; the rest of us have to figure out what it is that we want and what we do to keep what we cherish.

We have yet to hear anything that will establish a positive trajectory to resolving our economic predicament. To be sure, we have heard plenty of sanctimonious voices against the proposed senior housing project, the only revenue-generating development on the horizon. These voices ignore the catalytic effect of this development and also cast a blind eye to the plight of those aged-in-place citizens, including those brought here after the collapse of South Viet Nam, now living in 500 SF obsolete buildings. We need to create a new facility for our senior citizens. They deserve no less from the United States and from us. The Wilden project, approved but sustained support uncertain, will help create the possibility for additional affordable workforce housing. And that is what we need to give our City the competitive edge in supplying local human capital needed to support cost-effective commercial development within our borders.

The Wilden project, approved but sustained support uncertain, will help create the possibility for additional affordable workforce housing.

There is much more work to be done. We need to ensure we weather the recession. How this is accomplished will have profound long-term effects on our way of life. Developers continue to want to satisfy demand for housing for people without children and will create walkable communities for the sake of profit. As ever, our center can be a basis for renewal – to make over our proud but obsolete downtown, bring in innovative attractions to diversify the tax base and reduce traffic congestion. We need to be at once bold and careful with incentivizing developers and the greater cultural community. We need to create small, sector-based community development authorities and form a parking and transportation authority to build structures that promote and support the right kind of development, making it easier for people to be here.

The future needs to embrace the double greens of environmental responsibility and development revenue; along with consistent support for extraordinary schools and no to more breath-taking increase in our taxes. Our buildings cannot be built to the same old standards. If they are allowed to be, they will be obsolete the first time the doors are opened. I remain hopeful that I will not be the first and last architect and urban planner to be elected to City Council. Buildings and neighborhoods achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Development) Platinum certification can mean desirability for our city. I challenge the new council to understand and embrace these ideas which will enable Falls Church to emerge from this economic downturn as the preeminent location to live, work, and have fun.


Dan Sze has been a member of the Falls Church City Council since 2006. He did not run for re-election in Tuesday’s election.