Now that the City Council campaign has had time to cool down, three new members are being seated and City Hall staffing and organizational changes are taking place, it seems a propitious time to reflect on how we proceed as a community regarding one of the dominant themes of that campaign: new development.
It appears to me that there is virtually unanimous agreement among thoughtful citizens of Falls Church that new commercial development must occur in order for the tax burden to shift from its lopsided, unsustainable mix: 75+% residential v. 25% commercial to a reasonable goal of 50-50. There is no such agreement, however, on HOW we get there.
I would like to suggest citizens and the new Council consider modifications to the current process and rules that I believe would move us a very long way in that direction. My thoughts center around three key areas: Predictability, Flexibility and Celerity, the latter, of course, being a synonym for Speed but with a nice “ity” ending. (Sounds learned as well).
The single most important factor in obtaining the type of development the community desires is to make the current process far more predictable that it has been in the past decade or so. This will require a massive overhaul of the existing 50 year old Zoning Code. That rewrite will see the light of day starting in the next couple of months.
Predictability will also require a Public Facilities Manual. There is no manual now which is a major deterrent to development in the City of Falls Church. Finally, the City’s Comprehensive Plan is scheduled for a thorough five year review.
The single most important factor in obtaining the type of development the community desires is to make the current process far more predictable.
Revised production of those three “rules of the road” plus an agreed upon “expected time frame” would go a long way toward making the current process far more predictable and therefore far more attractive to the many developers who have chosen not to work in the City to date.
Having argued for better establishing the rules of the development process, I now want to propose that those same rules will require some flexibility in how those-and all other-rules are applied. Flexibility to obtain what the City really wants is critical. I am not suggesting that we let those damn developers get away with everything. Rather, only that we act like the small city we are and engage in collegial, accessible problem-solving when an applicant’s goal is considered congruent with the City’s interests. Developers encounter too many counterproductive games of “gotcha.”
I recognize that rules for bending the rules are infinitely harder to establish than the rules themselves, but that is one of the huge advantages our small size provides us and we should use this advantage whenever possible.
Quick response and process time is the third leg of the stool here. That is, to find ways to obtain all types of approvals in more reasonable timeframes than are presently possible is critical to the City obtaining the kinds of timely development it clearly desires. This shift in approach can and should range from permits to build out or remodel commercial office and retail spaces to even more critically establishing standard time frames for re-zonings, special exceptions and site plans.
At present, obtaining a building permit for a simple office space usually takes several weeks and can take several months while the process for a Special Exception, Rezoning or Site Plan usually takes upwards of a year, and that is after the pre-application process that takes several months all by itself. If the City has a desirable project on the table, why can it not be approved in a few to several months in toto? I strongly believe that such a goal can be achieved while still providing an opportunity to have the process provide opportunity to all who desire to have their fair input.
Finally, a word on “vision.” I agree we need advance planning to determine and better communicate what we desire for our commercial districts. Such plans, once completed, would also permit the process to move with greater speed/celerity. The danger is in getting there. The City can not afford the luxury of holding up all opportunity in search of the perfect plans. Adding “sector” planning elements to the City’s most desirable commercial areas can and should be completed within the context of the upcoming Comp Plan review but must not be permitted to hold up the several new projects that we all hope will be put forward soon.
Whether one believes that it is merely important or, as some have argued, critical to the City’s survival as a stand-alone entity, I would assert that new development of the City’s commercial areas is the single most important step that be taken to move the City toward a more sustainable and prosperous future.
Bob Young is the president of Falls Church-based development companies Jefferson One, LLC and The Young Group, Inc.