This year marks the 45th year that this writer has practiced architecture in the City of Falls Church. As both observer and participant, I witnessed numerous efforts to develop and expand the city’s central business district. Creating a special identity and sense of place as well as promoting a healthy and expanding business community have been the principal goals.
The City of Falls Church with support from its planners, citizen groups and the Chamber of Commerce have engaged a wide variety of undertakings to achieve these goals. They include numerous planning studies, adopting planning and zoning techniques that attract development, sponsoring public charrettes to help develop public support for a specific concept, joining in public-private partnerships, and publicly investing in commercial real estate for use in future private development.
In a 1972 study, outside consultants – architects and planners – conducting an urban design study for the city concluded that there was no “there” there. In other words, people driving through the city’s business center were unaware that they were actually passing through Falls Church. Overcoming this phenomenon has been hampered by three significant factors. First, the city central business district is bisected by two major highways, US 29 and VA Rte. 7, which works against creating a cohesive retail and office center. Secondly, the city’s cluster of small, individually owned business properties in the city center have made it difficult to assemble enough land to support a unified and economically sound project.
Even the best real estate project can succumb to a severe downturn in the national economy.
The third factor, which is not unique to Falls Church, is “the economy stupid!” Even the best real estate project can succumb to a severe downturn in the national economy. That is why it is important to understand and base the city’s zoning requirements and plan review processes on techniques that promote economically feasible projects. Often one hears citizens state that they only want boutique shops or strictly all office uses in new projects. It is all right to hope for, or even plan for that, but if developers and their lenders cannot expect a reasonable return on their investment, the project will not be built.
A look at past city efforts can provide insight into how to seek successful projects in the future. In the late 1960’s when the city’s first mixed use zoning was adopted in the form of a PUD (Planned Use Development) ordinance, a number of proposals came forward, but only one was ever built, Oakwood Apartments on Roosevelt Blvd. A 1974 plan to develop the Diener tract, now home to the Pearson Square mixed-use project on South Maple Avenue, proposed to construct a 10-story building containing 460 condo units, retail shops, movie theater and roof-top pool. When the city council turned down the project, a pro-development city council member called the denial the “death knell for Falls Church.”
It would take more than 30 years before interest in this class of zoning would return. This time, at the recommendation of the Falls Church Private-Public Partnership, the City expanded the uses allowed in its Business zoning districts to include residential uses. The zoning district was further altered to require all mixed-use projects to be subject to a Special Exception approval process. This gave the city more leverage in negotiating the specific mix of residential uses to office and retail uses. Under this process, The Broadway, The Byron, The Spectrum on West Broad Street, and Pearson Square were approved and built. Many others were denied approval. One received approval but has yet to be built due to the poor rental market for apartments.
Falls Church has also acted as an enabler of commercial development through the land-banking of property. Since the late 1950’s the city has purchased land for public parking lots. One such purchase served as an inducement to locate a Post Office in downtown. Today these properties now give the City, as a participating land owner, the ability to exert greater sway in what their developer-partners will design.
An early successful example of land-banking began in the late 1970’s when the City purchased land at the corner of East Broad and South Washington. Two architectural firms were retained to sketch a number of development scenarios. The City then sought development proposal bids, with the requirement they also include contiguous privately owned property in their plan. This led to the construction of Independence Square, a group of professional condominium offices. Unfortunately, the project did not provide space for retail uses. As a result, this important corner lacked the vitality originally visualized.
Most recently, the City has used a combination of these development techniques to review and approve the long awaited City Center project. Sadly, this ambitious project including condominiums, Harris-Teeter grocery, hotel, new bowling facility, office building and more, fell victim to the market collapse of 2008. Nevertheless, these real estate development techniques will continue to be of importance when confidence in this restore in market.
Hopefully, the City will enjoy another 45 years of working hand-in-hand with developers to achieve the vision of a unique and economically viable Falls Church.
Paul Barkley is a longtime Falls Church Chamber of Commerce member and a City of F.C. resident.