Local Commentary

Editorial: Homegrown City Planning

The first of the City of Falls Church’s commercial area development plans, the one for North Washington Street rolled out a year ago, was frankly underwhelming. But what the City’s Planning Director Jim Snyder and his team have done with the second and third installments in the process are something else, altogether.

The South Washington plan first presented last year but fully fleshed out at a public forum in April and then set before the Falls Church City Council this week is a visionary delight, especially when coupled with the Center City plan, which was given its first public review earlier this month.

The plans (see story, elsewhere this edition) have been developed without the benefit of the many consultants that City officials over many years past utilized to provide a vision, which needed to be sufficiently but not overly expansive while preserving much of the character of the City. There was a lot of money spent on a lot of failures, those numerous volumes proverbially “gathering dust on the back room shelves” dating back to the 1970s.

Surely there are enough civic activists in Falls Church to recall some of them. Architect Paul Barkley reminded our readers in the last decade of the first downtown redevelopment plan that called for a tunnel under the intersection of Broad and Washington, the straightening of Park Avenue and the turning Park and Broad into parallel streets going one way in opposite directions. Then there were the storied plans from around 1990, and then the Street Scape plan of a decade later. Both which were the products of consensus-building efforts dominated by a village-obsessed citizenry that from the standpoint of commercial viability were entirely unrealistic.

The only person at City Hall who undertook the effort from the perspective of issues like appropriate “floor to area ratios” (FARs) and the need for reliable projections of expected revenues to the City was the late David Holmes, whose tenure as the City’s Economic Development chief was too short.

But with a major boost from him, nonetheless, the City has stumbled forward to develop some of these critical tools, and much of the mixed use development here since 2000 would not have been possible without them.

Now, hopefully past the great recession’s terrible interruption into all that, Snyder has demonstrated the skill and vision to task his department with a fresh home-grown variety of the kind of planning we’ve needed all along.

What we have before us now is something that is both extraordinary in terms of what it signals about might come to pass, and respectful of valued existing businesses, such as those in the first few blocks of W. Broad (such as Brown’s Hardware). Some elements can only be alluded to right now, but alert citizens should be noting the City Council’s closed door deliberations on land acquisition these days, and (hint, hint!) passing references to a new City Center next to the historic Falls Church Episcopal.