Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: F.C. Faces Missed Opportunities

It has now been over a decade since Falls Church made the decision to encourage rather than discourage commercial development in the City as it had for so many years. That decision, consistently supported by a large majority of the citizenry, has yielded at best modest gains. Several new projects have actually been built and now contribute significantly to the tax base, but the percentage of commercial to residential revenue remains far below the oft-stated goal of 50-50. With the adoption of new Comprehensive Plans for the East Falls Church Metro, Merrifield and Tysons Corner areas of Arlington and Fairfax Counties, we have virtually run out of time. Falls Church must either take advantage of these situations or we will be consumed and overwhelmed by them.

It has now been over a decade since Falls Church made the decision to encourage rather than discourage commercial development in the City as it had for so many years. That decision, consistently supported by a large majority of the citizenry, has yielded at best modest gains. Several new projects have actually been built and now contribute significantly to the tax base, but the percentage of commercial to residential revenue remains far below the oft-stated goal of 50-50. With the adoption of new Comprehensive Plans for the East Falls Church Metro, Merrifield and Tysons Corner areas of Arlington and Fairfax Counties, we have virtually run out of time. Falls Church must either take advantage of these situations or we will be consumed and overwhelmed by them.

At the root of the opportunity (I prefer this word to “problem”) are two intertwined issues: (1) mixed use projects that include significant numbers of residential units, and (2) “commercial only” projects. In the former case, while a large majority of the citizens clearly have no problem with such projects (mixed use), they continue to be discouraged by the City’s leadership on the theory that residential units will bring a higher cost of services, and therefore will not have the same net new revenue to the City. While this is true to a certain extent, it is the case that residential condos and even rental apartments do bring substantial new revenue to the City as well as new residents to shop here not only during lunch but in the evening and weekends as well. Thus, normal “multiplier” calculations would suggest that residential condos bring as much or more in taxes to the City as office space and have the added benefit of providing much greater support for our businesses. Make no mistake: If we do not have more residents of the type attracted to condos (young professionals, empty nesters), we will not be able to attract the types of retail tenants we all seek.

With respect to “commercial only,” 100,000 sq. ft. office buildings of the type some believe should be the only new product permitted, we have only to point to the new Akridge Gateway Project on North Washington Street as an example of how a project is being held up indefinitely because of the requirement, imposed by the City when it was approved, that this building be started before the residential component could be initiated. It is no secret that Akridge cannot and will not start the commercial building, and therefore the entire project, until they are able to pre-lease at least 50% of the space at rates over $30/sq. ft., said rates unlikely to be achieved for some years in the current economy. Don’t hold your breath to see that one come out of the ground!

It is very clear that the City must do everything possible to bring certain kinds of development to the City – and soon – or it will lose the opportunities it now has for a generation or more. First and foremost, if a grocery store is not built soon in the City, it will be built around the East Falls Church Metro. The same goes for a hotel. Those will be major lost opportunities. When it comes to office space, I believe our future lies not in a bunch of 100,000+ square foot buildings, but a whole bunch in the range of 10,000 to 100,000 sq. ft. There are a number of reasons for this, chief among them the difficulty of assembling land for larger projects. In order to get the 500,000 to 1,000,000 total sq. ft. built in the next 10 years that we need, the City is simply going to have to be more proactive in the process. Sector plans need to be done. A revised zoning code completed with an emphasis on new (and lower) parking ratios, focused first on the commercial aspects and leaving the more controversial residential changes to come later. The City staff needs to find a way to emulate other jurisdictions which actually proactively seek out tenants and bring them to landlords. Yes, that means more staff, either in house or outsourced, as well as more planning staff if we are to get these essential things done. What better place to invest taxpayer dollars than in speeding up and revising the development process? Over just a few years, that investment would be repaid many-fold. Finally, let’s also consider incentivizing the kinds of projects we really want as some of our neighboring jurisdictions have done.

The only viable future for Falls Church economic development is first class, mixed use projects. They will tend to be smaller than in Tysons Corner or Merrifield and be 4-6 stories tall with only rare exceptions. They should have a good mix of residential and office, with retail on the first floor but only in locations where it is viable. We need to get on with it now, or we will be left in the dust of our adjoining jurisdictions, one way or the other.

-Bob Young is a developer who has built a number of Falls Church buildings and is active on its Chamber of Commerce board.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*