Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Falls Church Needs Long Range Planning, Expertise

The May municipal election and party selections could herald a real change for the way our city is governed. The petulant were purged and some candidates with real promise–and good manners–were elected. This is a hopeful sign because the city needs a substantive change in the direction of its governance in the fiscally challenged years ahead.

Falls Church may beneficially advertise itself as “The Little City,” but when it come to having the revenue generating depth necessary to meet the needs of its citizens over the next few years our fiscal options make us “The Tiny City.”

And it’s not just about a significant jump in homeowner taxes for a year or two; we are witnessing draconian structural fiscal issues. Consider what Richard Sommerfield, Chair of the City’s Long Range Planning Group, in brief, had to say in a telling and insightful recent interview in the Falls Church Times.

“First and foremost I’m concerned about the sustainability of the Little City. I don’t believe that you can blame the City’s budgetary crisis on the Great Recession…Second, I am concerned about our diminished economies of scale. We are only 4,600 households with a City government trying to offer the services and run a school system many times larger than what we are financially capable of providing…Third, I’m concerned about the financial impact of budgetary decisions on every household in Falls Church. We worked through the math and the 17-cent real estate tax increase will reduce discretionary household incomes by about 9%. That is a big number…At the end of the day we need to also consider what is affordable”.

Tactically, the Council will have to grapple with these fiscal realities over the next few years. Our focus as community and Council, however, must be to determine and define a strategic way forward that can over the next decade build the fiscal generating capability necessary to sustain the City for the long term.

While writing this, I am sitting in my hotel room looking out over Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where effective politics is coupled with capable governance to produce one of the most beautiful and successful cities in the United States

The Chicago area is also home to several of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural marvels, including his home and several houses he designed in Oak Park. The city also has masterful examples of the work of his mentor, Louis Sullivan who coined the architectural term “form follows function.” They were both designers of beautiful as well as purposeful structures.

“The policy gauntlet has been thrown down by the voters to the new Council: Do you want to do or do you just want to be?”

In Falls Church, less than 10 years ago, we were on the very cusp of beginning the process to fulfill a vision defined by the community–the citizens had grasp the need for a city that functioned ultimately at enhanced revenue generating levels and yet had the form of a neighborhood community.

It was called Street Works and the Street Works Company was the originator of the conceptual plan of what Falls Church’s City Center could be–with the emphasis on conceptual. To have any chance of success the concept needed to move to the next phase–which professional group would manage the project for the Council?

It did not happen.

It should have.

It could have.

It still can.

Why it did not is a long story of miscalculation and mendacity–but also an opportunity not yet lost. In that vein, the Street Works Company and many similar, have the expertise and proven record redeveloping communities under the guidance of the Council and citizens.

Decades have been lost by those would and have governed us believing that redevelopment can be accomplished on an ad hoc basis without long range planning and expertise. Accordingly, what you see in Falls Church is not a reflection of professional development, but rather what looks like a “Do It Yourself Job.”

The first step can be taken by the new Council working with the Long Range Planning Group and using professional assistance as needed. It would answer this seminal question: How much and what categories of commercial density will the City need in order to sustain services and the schools without savaging a family’s discretionary income and driving away development opportunities.

The policy gauntlet has been thrown down by the voters to the new Council: Do you want to do or do you just want to be?

Additionally, the Council must help enhance the spirit of civil discourse so that no citizen feels threatened by uttering his own words and opinions. That means that those who prefer toxic rhetoric over policy debate, who willingly grovel in an abyss of divisiveness, should not escape the rebuke of our elected officials.

We will be waiting, watching and listening.



Sam Mabry is a former Vice Mayor and member of the Falls Church City Council. He has also served as Chief of Staff to the U.S. House of Representatives Majority Whip.