It looked like it could shape up to be the first major overhaul of City government operations by the new Falls Church City Council and its new mayor Nader Baroukh.
But Monday’s Council work session turned out to be only an information sharing opportunity and agreement that, at best, only some “minor tweaks” need to be made to the City’s “special exception” ordinances that have allowed for the major mixed use development projects in downtown Falls Church since 2001.
The ordinances came up for “review” tonight by a joint work session of the City Council and Planning Commission, with such a mixed use project, the Gateway project for N. Washington St. of the Akridge Company, set to come up for consideration soon. That project was originally slated for tonight’s work session, but was postponed pending a refresher and possible changes to the City’s current “special use” provisions.
The new Council’s appetite for a major overhaul was doused by the comments of newcomer Ira Kaylin following the City staff’s explanation of how the current laws work. A former member of the City’s Economic Development Authority, Kaylin said he has “examined the measures carefully” and said they “are a good model,” and the process with them “works quite well.”
At fundamental issue, as Planning Commissioner Lindy Hockenberry pointed out, is the “philosophical” issue of residential vs. commercial development in the City. “This needs to be put out there, to be brought to the open, to avoid polarization in the community,” she said.
Council member and former mayor Robin Gardner said she hoped there would not be a reversion to the approach of the 1990s, when City leaders insisted on only commercial development in its commercially-zoned corridors and “the market wasn’t there for it.” Removing the “special exception” approach now won’t encourage commercial development now, either she said.
It was when the City government recognized the needs of the market and fashioned the “special exception” process in 2000 that the momentum developed for the succession of large-scale projects, it was noted. The Broadway, The Byron, Pearson Square, the Reed Building, The Spectrum and the “Flower Building” ensued in rapid success and have salvaged the City’s flagging residential real estate-derived revenues in the current recession. An ambitious City Center plan was also approved, but not developed due to the onset of the recession.
In a letter to the City Council this week, former Vice Mayor Marty Meserve underscored the point by claiming a draft Blueprint for Action supported by four members of the Council, including the mayor, “misrepresent the City’s intentions and motivations during the early 2000s.”
“Under (then City Manager, the late) Dan McKeever’s leadership, there was a significant change of course in the way the City viewed and courted economic development,” she wrote. “I believe that understanding the reasons behind the Council decisions will help guide decision-making in new economic conditions.”
She added, “Housing was never seen as a revenue generator, but rather as the ingredient that would encourage developers to invest in the City and provide the necessary office and retail opportunities that we were seeking,” adding, “Whether we believe their rationales or not, we still have to respect the beliefs that guide developers when analyzing the potential of a given location or parcel. This is the market talking, and if we aren’t speaking the same language, we don’t have the credibility we need to be equal partners in the conversation.”