When I wrote in this space almost two years ago, I said I was worried – worried about the financial solvency and long-term viability of the City. I’m glad to say that my worries are greatly reduced now. The City Council took serious steps to stop the financial bleeding and, although painful, they were needed. Now we need to focus on growing – in economic terms, in revenue terms, and in business terms.
And that focus needs to be aggressive, proactive, and the Council needs to set that tone with both the staff and our citizens. Here are some shocking numbers to show why this is key.
Of the City’s 2.2 square miles, about 82% of the acreage is residential/institutional/ parks, whereas only 18% is commercial/mixed use/industrial. Yes, 18%. There may be changes around the edges, but basically, this is the split we need to deal with. So getting that 18% right is vital.
We have some development going in which is great — 24-Hour Fitness, Northgate, Dominion Jewelers, etc. Having holes dug in the ground is always a good sign, but Northgate (on N. Washington St.) dragged out for about five years from start to breaking ground. We can’t pretend that we have the luxury of waiting like that anymore.
We’ve shown flashes of aggressive brilliance in the past, with BJs as a prime example. The City stopped that site from becoming a car wasteland. Staff were innovative about tax revenue sharing, the developer was cooperative, neighborhood outreach was active, and the whole process was expedited. Now we have a successful business that is an active part of the community including as a financial partner supporting the schools. A win-win-win.
But that was the exception. Normally, the City waits for developers to come in and then has meeting after meeting after meeting to discuss different aspects. We know we’re a very special place to live and work and we act like everyone else should know that as well. We need to actively pursue developers and not just wait for them to come to us. I’ve been part of closed meetings on potential development and have been shocked that months later we’ve not made much progress. I understand about due diligence, but there’s a fine line between due diligence and just sitting back. Are Merrifield and Tysons sitting back? Absolutely not.
We need to actively pursue developers and not just wait for them to come to us.
One gap we have is too small a voice for Planning – on staff and on the Council. If we don’t plan for what we want, we’ll always be reactive and take what others want to give us. The Planning Commission is moving on area plans, but the Planning staff is small, overstretched, and at its limit even with a new director. You can’t plan for the future when dealing with the daily meat grinder of reviewing current plans. Our staff is stuck looking at what others have proposed for our City and have no time to help the City plan for what we want for our City. The Council needs to put more money toward planning and we also need a planning voice on the Council. No one on that body now has a planning background or has served on the Planning Commission, yet land use is one of its primary responsibilities.
All this means that we need to be more business-friendly and that doesn’t mean doing whatever businesses want. But we certainly don’t need to tell businesses what level of transparency their front windows can have (yes, a City body tried that). The City needs to figure out what we want, give solid, helpful direction, and then get out of the way. On the Planning Commission I and some others recently pushed to provide more flexibility for empty retail space at the Byron and Pearson Square and I fought (unsuccessfully) for flexibility in the Northgate retail believing that if they could get a marquee tenant for the whole building that would be a prize for the City.
And new development helps the schools in two ways. First, it would decrease the relative tax burden on residences and businesses and would help grow the City’s bottom line which directly affects school funding. Given the 82-18 split mentioned earlier, we either grow revenue from new development or keep increasing the burden on existing residents and businesses. Second, our local businesses are partners with the schools through the Business in Education program, the Falls Church Education Foundation, and credits given to schools for purchase made locally.
Aggressive pursuit of new development. Being pro-business and pro-City at the same time. Finding increased revenues for the City and schools. We can do it. We just need to Get It Done.
John D. Lawrence is vice chair of the Falls Church City Planning Commission, a trustee of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, and a candidate for F.C. City Council in 2012.