Local Commentary

Editorial: A Council Race ‘Litmus Test’

Decisive “litmus test” issues have been hard to find in the Falls Church City Council election so far, even though Election Day is now less than three weeks away.

While there will be some events when all the candidates will be sharing a podium, such as the League of Women Voters/Village Preservation Society’s forum next Wednesday, most of the campaigning has been a combination of solo door knocking, sign planting, and small open houses limited to one or two candidates.

It has been more a matter of personalities than issues. Support for the City schools seems off the campaign priority list as no one wants to be on the wrong side of that one nowadays, a big achievement for the City’s outstanding school system.

But there is a very important “litmus test,” and it relates to large-scale development. Everybody agrees the City needs it to keep real estate taxes low, but there are sharp differences on how to attain it.

There are two positions: to encourage market-based criteria for development, or to subordinate it to Council mandates. We believe that allowing the market to define what kind of development works for Falls Church is the best way to go. In fact, we’d say that anyone who is campaigning on the need for Council-mandated strong commercial components to any new project is, whether aware of it or not, campaigning for no development.

The hard fact is that in this market, in this economy, in this region, in this time, significant commercial development in the City of Falls Church is simply not in the cards. We saw this in the recent decision by the Akridge Company to abandon its grandiose mixed use plan for N. Washington Street.

That plan, which would have brought important new revenues to the City, failed because Akridge could not secure a solid pre-lease commitment for a tenant in the commercial portion of the project, as mandated by the City Council. The math simply did not add up. The price per square foot Akridge had to ask for was simply not competitive with all that is out there in Northern Virginia offering the benefits of proximity to Metro, “critical mass” and other amenities at lower cost.

Falls Church is unique in many ways, including its quality of life that makes it attractive as a place to live. With this advantage, Falls Church could replicate the development model in Ballston, even without being on top of a Metro station. Those who like the idea of Arlington’s much lower real estate tax rate should take a closer look at how they did it.

The sequencing is this: 1. allow market forces to bring large amounts of new condo and apartment housing, including more affordable options, 2. the new resulting vibrancy creates market demand for more retail, including restaurants, 3. that, in turn, creates demand for more commercial.