There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the long term redevelopment of the City. And with good reason. Our wonderful community is at a critical juncture.
Our schools are facing rising enrollment, our storm water management and other public infrastructure is aging and, in many instances, failing, and we face the continuing threat of cutbacks to City staff and services.
Higher taxes are not the solution to our long term problems.
The answer is well-managed growth. And it is within our grasp.
As a local commercial real estate and land use attorney, I have dedicated my legal career to facilitating Smart Growth in Northern Virginia. Over the years, I have participated in a number of redevelopment projects, primarily in Arlington, that have brought substantial economic success to that county.
As a native of Northern Virginia, I have watched areas such as Shirlington and Clarendon, rundown neighborhoods in my childhood, transform to the vibrant, walkable communities they are today. Once tax-payer burdens, these areas were well planned by local government and private business interests to be self-sufficient and successful. Standing on their own two feet, they now provide their citizens the economic underpinnings for good schools and plentiful community services.
And here’s the kicker – they do all that at a tax rate that is 25 percent lower than Falls Church’s.
We need to make a similar commitment to our downtown areas. We need great organization in our government. We need a plan.
We shouldn’t aim for mere economic viability. We are better than that.
Here are some reasons why our commercial districts are financially underperforming. Number one, they’re aging poorly. Falls Church’s commercial districts are home to a number of architecturally insignificant buildings that are more than half a century old.
What’s worse, all businesses are not created equal in their ability to sustain Falls Church. For instance, right now much of our downtown real estate is dominated by industrial or auto-centered businesses – old car lots, rental and repair shops, and car washes.
You may not know this but car dealerships provide little income to the City. The taxes they generate on new car sales go straight to Richmond. Yet more than 21 prime acres of our downtown are devoted to vehicular sales and rentals.
Smart redevelopment of the largest dealership alone could bring an additional $1.5 million a year in new City tax revenues and reduce the tax rate by almost a nickel. And that’s just one business.
There are other lost opportunities, too. More than a million cars a month pass through Falls Church, but only a small percentage stop to patronize our businesses. We also have two Metro Stations that drive traffic to the area, but no plans for converting the users into customers of a more vibrant and viable downtown with greater revenues for all.
Where do we end up when we don’t take advantage of our own inherent strengths? Back at higher taxes and decline.
We shouldn’t aim for mere economic viability. We are better than that. Excellence is within our grasp. But we have to be strong enough and intelligent enough to create a better, more balanced City tax base.
That means articulating a long-range vision for Falls Church with a design framework and revitalization/redevelopment plan for these areas. As Chair of the Economic Development Authority, we set the stage for this vision by retaining Virginia Tech’s graduate planning department to re-imagine our City for expanded economic growth.
Part of what they produced was the West Jefferson Street conceptual plan. That is now the core of Falls Church’s first area plan.
I think it’s important to state that we do not need to compromise our community standards and values to spur development. Just the opposite. Smart Growth means achieving the things we cherish while preserving context and sensitivity to existing neighborhoods. A good plan means planning not to have soaring buildings out of proportion for our charming town or apartments as far as the eye can see.
We want development with commercial revenues that reduce our costs, not development at all costs.
Local shopping, eating, and entertainment opportunities that are walkable and family friendly, create community, and keep tax dollars at home.
I have a very personal stake in Falls Church and its school system with three young children at Mary Ellen Henderson and Thomas Jefferson schools, and my wife, Karen, a clinic aide at Mt. Daniel. Like all parents in our special town, I believe our schools are a civic gem that need to be preserved at all costs. But there are smarter ways to pay for them.
In short, I think we can enjoy the same level of excellence in our downtown commercial areas as we do in our school system.
But if we don’t, we most certainly will pay the price.
P. David Tarter is chair of the Economic Development Authority, and a member of the Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Traffic Calming Advisory Committee.