News

New F.C.Planning Chief Tells Council, ‘You Must Make Density Your Friend’

8 ‘Opportunity Areas’ For New Growth Targeted for Study

Falls Church’s new City Planning Director Jim Snyder, who helped orchestrate the commercial development of Arlington County before coming to work in F.C. earlier this year, told the F.C. City Council at its work session Tuesday that the “floor to area (FAR) ratios” in its prime commercial corridors are at this stage woefully short of where they need to be for the City to optimize its revenue potential for commercial development here. “You must make density your friend,” he urged them.

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F.C. PLANNING CHIEF Jim Snyder (left) with Virginia Tech’s Dr. Shelley Mastran and student. (Photo: News-Press)
8 ‘Opportunity Areas’ For New Growth Targeted for Study

Falls Church’s new City Planning Director Jim Snyder, who helped orchestrate the commercial development of Arlington County before coming to work in F.C. earlier this year, told the F.C. City Council at its work session Tuesday that the “floor to area (FAR) ratios” in its prime commercial corridors are at this stage woefully short of where they need to be for the City to optimize its revenue potential for commercial development here. “You must make density your friend,” he urged them.

Laying out his Planning Department’s plan for a systematic rewrite of the City’s Comprehensive Plan over the next five years, Snyder identified the same eight sectors, described as “Opportunity Areas,” in the commercially-zoned areas of the City laid out in the 2005 Comp Plan update, and noted that none of them are above 1.0 in FAR, whereas to be successful, they should all be above 2.5.

In fact, he noted all but one of them are significantly below 0.5 FAR, all except for the two-block segment of W. Broad where new mixed-use development in the last decade has occurred. That area is at a still considerably sub-par 0.9 FAR.

Members of the City’s Planning Commission were also invited to sit in, and to comment during the briefing.

While it is important to bring neighborhoods in on the discussions, as Council David Snyder repeatedly insisted, Jim Snyder said that coming to them with a blank slate is not a good idea.
Councilman Ira Kaylin agreed. “We are going to have to have more density to survive as an independent city,” Kaylin said. “It involves a management of expectations. If you hear from neighborhoods that they want low growth and no tax increases, they have to be told what their options really are.”

“Ensuring quality is really what this is all about,” City Manager Wyatt Shields chimed in. “We’re trying to set standards here.”

Snyder’s plan is to spend six months on each of eight commercial segments of the City, and while the entire project won’t be completed until 2015, getting the first one done in six months will be a daunting challenge, he said.

The sectors he identified, in order of priority, are 1. North Washington St., 2. Eastern gateway, 3. Gordon Road triangle, 4. City Center, 5. S. Washington, 6. West Broad (two sections) and 7. the far west end.

The N. Washington St. sector is not only closest to the Metro system (the East Falls Church Metro station), but Snyder noted that Arlington County adopted a planning model for development around that station that is very low-density in its commercial component.

That, he said, could open the door for the N. Washington sector in Falls Church, a quarter-mile from the Metro, to focus on commercial development.

It could possibly drawing on a plan drawn up by graduate planning students at the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia campus in Falls Church that would consolidate properties and generate 2.63 FARs with 121,000 square feet of retail, 248,000 square feet of office and 98,800 square feet of residential, including a park and the daylighting of the Four Mile Run creek there.
Snyder suggested that a hydraulic specialist may be retained to look into the feasibility of the daylighting component, which pundits have quipped could allow for the formation of a “Falls Church navy.”

An extended kick-off deliberative “retreat” is slated for the end of June with the Planning Commission and the Planning Department, and then the push will begin to tackle the first “sector” and have it completed in six months.

The planning process is not intended to dictate which kinds of specific businesses would or would not be welcomed to any particular sector, but would provide an overarching set of expectations that, presumably, would assist potential developers to recognize what the City is hoping for.

The effort, Snyder said, would be much like what Arlington County has done recently for its Crystal City and East Falls Church areas, and Fairfax County has done for Tysons Corner.
One difference in the effort lying ahead, however, is that the City will not have the benefit of financial resources to retain expensive consultants, as it has had in the past. That’s why, among other things, the City has encouraged the Virginia Tech Graduate Planning Studio, based in Alexandria, to study four of the key commercial and industrially-zoned areas in the city, completed under the director of Dr. Shelley Mastran.

The Virginia Tech studies completed were for the Eastern Gateway (near Seven Corners), N. Jefferson St. (nearest the East Falls Church Metro), the “Little City Center,” and the west-end Gordon Road Triangle.

As an example, Snyder showed the Council drawings of the student vision for the Gordon Road Triangle, a segment that is bounded on three sides by W. Broad, Shreve Road and Gordon Road. That visioning effort showed a series of four or five story buildings covering virtually the entire space, which now consists of a car dealership, a lumber yard, car repair and City-owned spaces.

While much of Arlington’s development successes have been linked to the Metro Rail stations there, and Tysons Corner will be exploiting four new Metro rail stations now under construction for the expansion of the new Silver Line, Snyder said that Falls Church’s lack of such resources (both Metro stations here being outside the City, in accordance with City leader wishes many years ago), it can overcome that with well-thought through transit options, such as shuttle services and shared parking.

He cited Shirlington as one area of Arlington that has been significantly redeveloped and built up without a nearby Metro rail station handy.