Almost all of the issues facing Falls Church revolve, in one way or another, around commercial development. Ten years ago, mixed use commercial development, including residential, retail and commercial, took off around the City, but was halted by the recession. As the economy is rebounding, now is the perfect time for Falls Church to learn from the past. We need to define our goals for commercial development and analyze whether or not these are being met. So let’s take a quick look at what has worked, what hasn’t, and how we can improve development in the future.
First, what do we as a city want from commercial development? As I see it, we want commercial development that: 1) diversifies our tax base thus easing the tax burden on residential homes, 2) is environmentally friendly, 3) doesn’t over burden our excellent school system, and 4) adds to the community feel of Falls Church.
To meet goal 1, it is important for mixed use development to have successful retail and commercial components. How has this worked in recently built mixed use developments? Most have been successful but there are some glaring problems. At the Byron, Spectrum, and Pearson Square, many of the retail store fronts remain empty. The reason: location and parking. At the Byron, the two vacant retail space locations are the farthest from the limited available parking. At the Spectrum, the retail that remains unoccupied is furthest off of Broad Street and, again, has very limited parking, especially in the courtyard at street level. At Pearson Square, while it is exciting that Body Dynamics will be moving in, retail remains empty. With no public transportation nearby or daily foot traffic, it is clear this is an example of the right design in the wrong location. All new development must consider location and parking.
What about environmental goals? It is great that many of the past developments are LEED certified. As a community, we should strive for buildings that are as efficient as possible. However, let’s open it up to all green building certification programs. Also, as the flooding in the city during last September has reminded us, we must continually consider effects to stormwater management. I have talked to residents whose homes were flooded near Tripps Run by TJ Elementary, and I have heard stories of “sheets of water” flowing down from the nearby Byron development. While the precipitation the city received in September was rare, the increase of impervious surface over the past decade certainly did not help. Most new buildings include little or no green space. Further, the recently released Watershed Management Plan estimates that the city will have $33 million in water infrastructure needs over the next 15 years. Each new development must take stormwater management into account.
We can reach our goals for commercial development; now is the time to reflect and create a successful plan to move forward.
As an alumnus of Falls Church City schools, I am amazed at the growth of the school system over the past decade. Even the construction of the new Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School wasn’t able to ease the burdens of a booming student population. Most of the mixed use development has included one bedroom condos which limits the effect on student population. But, Pearson Square included two and three bedroom apartments which has increased student population and at the same time reduced expected revenues. All new development must consider effects on our resource-limited school system.
So what has worked? The city has been successful at bringing in some great retail and restaurants such as BJ’s, through tax incentives, and Mad Fox Brewery, and the 100% retail and office building at 800 West Broad is completely occupied. The Broad Dale and Falls Plaza shopping centers have ample parking, are regularly filled with patrons and empty retail space is reoccupied quickly. We need to build off of these successes and learn from our failures.
Moving forward, we can accomplish our goals for development by focusing on the North Washington Street area. Unlike other commercial areas in the city, this area has few land owners and easy access to I-66. Given the development across the border in Arlington and the proximity to the East Falls Church Metro silver/orange lines, this is the best location for business and retail in the city. If we include elements that we can market to retail such as anchor tenants, like a grocery store, office space to increase daytime foot traffic, and ample parking, this can become a vibrant retail area in the city. We can include green space, such as the amphitheater along Four Mile Run depicted in the Virginia Tech study and can add our own Falls Church story by incorporating the Pink Granite found under Tinner Hill (1 of 4 places this is found worldwide). We can reach our goals for commercial development; now is the time to reflect and create a successful plan to move forward.
William Henneberg is a candidate running for Falls Church City Council.