Local Commentary

Editorial: Bricks, Mortar & Human Capital

Thoughtful citizens in Falls Church will be called on during the upcoming annual budget deliberations to ground their preferences in some serious policy principles that border on the philosophical. In short, the alternatives are between old fashioned “bricks and mortar” capital projects and the needs of “human capital.”

We favor prioritizing the latter to the former, and with the onset of the digital age, it is appropriate from more than just a moral perspective. It is increasingly cost effective, and for anyone with foresight, essential to the long-term survivability of just about everything on this planet (at least from the human point of view).

The City should be learning from the private sector on this one, too. Amid all the drastic news of contractions in the regional office market comes the realization that it is partly due to all the effects of federal government sequestration and economic contraction, and partly due to the fact that even thriving businesses and non-government agencies simply don’t need the same amount of bricks-and-mortar as before because with the Internet and growing mobility and flexibility of their employees, the same amount of offices, desks, desktop computers, land line phones, fax machines, copiers, and so forth are not required.

No one is arguing there is no need for office space at all, but the old fashioned slavish adherence to the inviolability of the big corner office, the big mahogany desk, the bank of filing cabinets and all that simply holds no more. It also helps that the personality profile of the “millennial generation” adheres far less to these needs.

So, how does this translate into City “capital improvement project” (CIP), school budget, library, parks and recreation, police, court, public parking and other city operational policies? The CIP is almost entirely “bricks and mortar”-oriented and when issues of renovation and modernization arise, the solution is traditionally almost entirely thought of in terms of fresh brick and fresh mortar.

Consider, for example, which new physical projects actually save space and which require more. Public parking is a case of the former. It is efficient to develop structured parking. For less space, you get more use by utilizing something we often forget about: the air space above.

In the case of the library, we know how cherished it is by so many, but not so much for actual library uses as for the reading classes, discussion groups and other social functions it provides. We don’t think books should go away, or ever will, but there surely can be ways to enhance the benefits that people find in libraries without keeping the same old construction model.

For the schools, maintaining their quality is more a matter of meeting the demands of their biggest costs – teacher and staff salaries – than physical space per se. Suffering tight spaces is far less detrimental than losing a competitive edge to attract and retain the best teachers.