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A Conversation with The Economist’s Ryan Avent on Growth, Development in Falls Church

Last week, Falls Church’s Bob Burnett conducted a conversation over e-mail with The Economist’s Online Economics Editor Ryan Avent on development and growth issues facing the City of Falls Church. Avent is the primary contributor to The Economist’s Free Exchange blog, and in addition, his work has appeared at Condé Nast Portfolio, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Washington Independent, the Washington Examiner, Streetsblog, Grist and DCist.

Last week, Falls Church’s Bob Burnett conducted a conversation over e-mail with The Economist’s Online Economics Editor Ryan Avent on development and growth issues facing the City of Falls Church. Avent is the primary contributor to The Economist’s Free Exchange blog, and in addition, his work has appeared atCondé Nast Portfolio, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Washington Independent, the Washington ExaminerStreetsblog, Grist and DCist.

Bob Burnett: Richard Florida describes the DC region as “a powerful talent magnet” in his new book “The Great Reset”. What do you see as a way for Falls Church City to be a magnet within the magnet?

Ryan Avent: To do this, you want to accomplish two things. First, you need to provide local businesses and residents with good access to other commercial centers, like Tysons, Arlington, and downtown Washington. And second, you need to maintain and improve your neighborhood amenities — residents and businesses will want a pleasant atmosphere, convenient retail options, all without choking traffic.

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Ryan Avent is the online economics editor for The Economist.

Tysons and Arlington offer competing visions for how to generate access. In Tysons, the model is to build along major roads and highways and offer lots of parking. In Arlington, the model is to put people, commercial and retail space together so that most small trips can be accomplished on foot and many longer trips can be done via transit. I’m partial to the Arlington model. I think it allows for flexibility in getting around and can accommodate a lot of growth without adding much traffic. And I think it makes for a more positive impact of growth on nearby residential neighborhoods.

Certainly Falls Church could go either way. I think that by developing centers of mixed-use, walkable development, and by connecting those centers with nearby Metro stations on the Orange Line (and eventually the Silver Line) through things like Circulator buses, you can accommodate a healthy mix of growth.

Bob Burnett: Falls Church wants “walkability” and to maintain a “small town feel”. How do you see these factors and economic development coming together for a small place like Falls Church City–especially in the context of the future Tysons Corner?

Ryan Avent: Walkability means density, which is a scary word. Density tends to make people think of tall buildings and crowds and traffic jams. But it doesn’t have to work like that. Most old main
streets in small towns are relatively dense. Old Town Alexandria is dense. But it’s not daunting.

Walkability does require you to build in a different way, however. If you build a lot of parking for new developments, then those developments will be farther apart and less attractive to pedestrians, and so you don’t get a walkable neighborhood. To make a street work, you need to build right up to the sidewalk and allow a mix of commercial and residential space. Then you don’t need as much parking, because many of people patronizing the local businesses will be within easy walking distance.

To bring it all together, you need functional transit — which can mean buses — to allow pedestrians to get around over longer distances. You want to be able to move people through the Falls Church area, and to local Metro stations. And if you also offer reliable connections to the new, walkable Tysons, then you make it still more attractive to be a Falls Church resident. Good connections to Tysons will allow Falls Church residents to take advantage of Tysons’ greater density while maintaining a small town feel.

Bob Burnett: Recently you wrote about suburban sprawl (and stated “zoning is about exclusion”). Current thinking in Falls Church is to maintain commercial-specific development in specifically designated commercial zones. Is this a realistic approach? How have you seen zoning being an effective tool in positive economic development for small communities?

Ryan Avent: There is a tendency in many suburban communities to want to keep the city at bay. This is understandable. At the same time, there are real downsides to this approach. If you’re going to keep land uses separate, then you’re going to have to drive to get around, and as the Washington area grows — and this is beyond the control of Falls Church — driving around will become ever more unpleasant. This is the dilemma faced by a lot of smaller neighborhoods around the metro area. They don’t necessarily want in-fill development within sight of residential neighborhoods, but at the same time, driving to work or run errands is becoming ever more painful.

What a growing number of neighborhoods are finding is that embracing some new, mixed-use development is the best way to preserve the local quality of life. By adjusting rules to allow the growth of walkable town centers, residents give up some of their sense of suburban isolation. But at the same time, many daily activities become much more convenient. You see this in parts of Arlington. There are single-family home neighborhoods in Arlington within sight of development along the Orange Line, where it is much harder to ignore the fact that you’re in the middle of a big metropolitan area than it was before. At the same time, those residential streets remain quiet and green, and just down the road is a diverse collection of dining options, shops, and neighborhood-serving retail.

An office cluster isn’t going to give you that diverse collection of amenities. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a copy store and a coffee shop. You’ll get the development without the convenience of new options for local residents.

 

Bob Burnett: You mention mixed-use. The community is really split on mixed use; there are several buildings that have gone up that are mixed-use that are slowly attracting retail and the condos are either selling flatly or the buildings have been flipped as rentals. Plus there is big concern of adding to the overall population that will expand the school population diluting the quality of education. So-what’s to be said from an economic standpoint about the risk vs. reward factors of mixed-use in a small community?

Ryan Avent: Well, one thing to note is that Falls Church isn’t the only place where new real estate developments are struggling to attract tenants. Every part of the metro area has had to deal with this amid broader economic weakness.

That said, you have to have realistic expectations about what can be accomplished with just a few buildings. Residents of one condo building can’t support a diverse array of ground floor retail. A certain critical mass of workers and residents has to be met to establish a self-sustaining walkable district, and getting there requires a certain level of commitment and patience from the city. That means making it easy for developers to build the right kind of buildings and planning pro-actively — letting investors know that you’re thinking progressively about building a better central place. It means committing to local transit. And it means patience.

I don’t think it’s correct to conclude that a growing population will reduce the quality of local education. Fairfax and Arlington counties have been able to maintain high standards while growing rapidly. But it’s also important to recognize that demographics are changing; that fewer families are having children. Households that live in denser, walkable neighborhoods probably won’t have as many children as those settling in single-family homes. So what you’re likely to find is that population growth will lead to a big increase in the tax base without a big leap in school-age population, which could ultimately be very good for current students.

Bob Burnett: What do you see as effective commercial development in Falls Church City? What does it “look like” from a building form point of view? How can density be used to reach our goals?

Ryan Avent: The nice thing about being in the Washington area is that many different communities are experimenting with new development, and you can see ways in which growth might or might not work for Falls Church. Ultimately, the residents of Falls Church will need to decide what they want their city to look like. But I think a good place to start is with the commercial corridor that runs along from I-66 along Washington Street to Broad Street, and up Broad Street to I-66. There is an excellent central place at Washington and Broad, and Metro stations near the ends of the corridor. You could easily run a circulator bus providing regular service from the East Falls Church station through this corridor to the West Falls Church station, with a spur up to Tysons.

There is already a lot of commercial development along this corridor. The trick is encouraging new forms that make the area work as a walkable whole. To do this, the city would want to move buildings up to the sidewalk, with parking to the rear of or underneath new buildings. New developments should have retail on the ground floor to attract pedestrians, with offices and residences above. Building heights of three or four stories could prevail along most of the corridor, though taller buildings would support more businesses. Nothing on the order of ten stories would be necessary to generate a walkable corridor, however.

The streets should be welcoming. Bike lanes are appropriate, along with tree cover, and outdoor seating for cafes and restaurants. The goal is to get people onto this main street, and the way to do that is to make it an appealing place to be — to eat and drink and walk around.

Bob Burnett: Falls Church City currently has a bus system that goes through the neighborhoods and goes to Metro called “George”. Many consider it underutilized and expensive. While currently inefficient, I fear cutting it as many wish to have it done will haunt us eventually. Any thoughts on better use for a local “circulator” bus system?

Ryan Avent: Transit and walkable development have a chicken and egg relationship. It’s difficult to do one without the other, but what comes first? In a city where most residents have to drive to get around, buses aren’t going to get much use. Cities are then likely to cut bus service, which makes developers reluctant to invest in buildings designed to favor walkability.

A commitment to the bus system is one of the factors that will convince developers and residents that interest in a new style of main street growth is real. Falls Church might be able to get away with not having a bus system if its Metro stations were in the heart of the city, but they’re not. And good access to Metro is going to be key in attracting residents to walkable development along Broad St. and Washington St.

It’s one of those things you have to stick with to get the kind of main street you want. But throughout the metro area we have evidence that Metro can drive investment in walkability, as can the promise of streetcars (as along Columbia Pike). In Falls Church, frequent, reliable circulator service can play that role at the outset, though as the main street becomes more successful a streetcar could well be on the table.

Bob Burnett: I’ve maintained Falls Church City is a cut-through for 25,000+ cars a day and the major roads dramatically impact the residents in negative ways. Would it be financial suicide for the City to change the nature of Broad St/Washington St. to be more pedestrian friendly to reduce the auto traffic?

Ryan Avent: No. The question Falls Church needs to ask itself is whether it wants people to use its main thoroughfares because they’re a good way to get through Falls Church or because they’re a good way to get to Falls Church. You can’t have both. If the road is designed to maximize the number of cars that can come through each day, then it will be a hostile environment for pedestrians, and you’re not going to be able to develop an attractive main street.

The other thing to remember is that while redesigning the street might reduce the business from through traffic, it will also increase the amount of local market demand from other sources. New residents along the corridor will patronize local businesses. Old residents who might previously have gotten in the car and driven outside of Falls Church to eat or shop may instead choose to head to the attractive new main street options. And a walkable corridor will facilitate biking and bus use, which will offset the effect of reduced driving.

 

 


 

Bob Burnett is Vice President & Creative Director of GVI, a video and multimedia company who produce educational and advocacy videos for clients such as The US Conference of Mayors, Urban Land Institute, The Department of State, Booz Allen Hamilton and The American Architectural Foundation.

 

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