You would be hard pressed to find anyone more enthusiastic and optimistic about the future of the City of Falls Church than her current mayor, David Tarter.
Even though he’s charted an independent course during his first four years on the Council, including the last two as mayor, he was unreserved in this enthusiasm for the Little City and its prospects in what has become a Falls Church tradition – the annual late summer “State of the City” interview with the mayor conducted by the Falls Church News-Press.
Tarter sat in the office of the News-Press last week, on the fifth floor of the office building across from City Hall, where the big windows afford a panoramic view of much of the City’s 2.2 square miles, and in particular of the Rushmark Properties’ formidable mixed use project that seems to loom, as it is being constructed, in the 300 block of W. Broad St. and will be home to a major Harris Teeter grocery when completed in about another year.
“Falls Church is a great, unique community,” he said. “I’ve grown up in Northern Virginia, and I love Falls Church more than any other area. It’s a wonderful community.” He cited a poll naming Falls Church the 17th “most livable City in the U.S.”
In a surprise revelation, Tarter said that in the nine years he’s lived in Falls Church, he’s walked his children to school every day, to three different schools, in fact. One is now at George Mason High and two others are at the Henderson Middle School.
Tarter’s remarks to a series of questions about issues before the City focused on a balance between the City’s need for continuing economic development, and its “small town feel” that he thinks its residents value.
Asked about the challenges facing Falls Church, he went immediately to this issue, right after commenting about the impacts on the area caused by the federal government, such as the recent sequestration move that had a big impact on employment and resources for development.
“Balancing economic development with our small town feel with great schools, moving forward with economic growth while providing for our excellent city services will always be a challenge because as a small community it is not always as cost-effective to provide these as in much larger jurisdictions,” the mayor said.
“But we’re on the right track,” he added. Ground floor retail vacancies in the commercial corridors added with the last decades’ new mixed use developments “are beginning to fill up,” and four of eight small commercial area vision plans have been approved which help to inform developers of what the City wants in given areas.
With the adoption of a bike master plan, a “Mobility for All Modes” plan, the City is poised to plug into regional bike share plans, while infrastructure needs are being met with the development of the new West End Park, the Howard Herman Stream Bed restoration and important storm water improvements.
In the downtown area, there is $600,000 allocated for improvements in the business district that include new crosswalks, lighting, sidewalk fixes and bike and pedestrian features that will be completed in the next year or so to make the area more inviting to customers.
He said that proceeds from the City’s sale of its water system in January 2014 to Fairfax County “have been invested well, saving two cents on the tax rate every year and enabling important capital improvements. We’ve been good stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars.”
He said that among the challenges for the City are to become more integrated with the wider region, including to be able to draw more for economic development from a wider area. “We have two Metro stations with our names on them (East Falls Church and West Falls Church—ed.) and we working on doing more to integrate them with us. Hopefully Arlington will establish a bike share at the East Falls Church Metro and improve sidewalks coming into the City. The notion of shuttle buses into downtown Falls Church is now being mulled, as well.
For busses, he said that the City is interested in putting more electronic data on buses and at bus stops to facilitate people coming into town.
The mayor was an enthusiastic supporter of the holiday lights that were hung on trees in the downtown business area for the first time last December.
“They helped to create excitement about our downtown. With the other improvements we are now putting into place, it signals to people driving through that they may want to park and hang out here. More signage and efficient parking options will also help.
“Our downtown has a lot of potential,” he went on. “With the State Theatre as part of its core, it can be developed as an eclectic place with interesting possibilities. There is a lot of intent in the City to discover what it can become.”
As a boy growing up in Northern Virginia, he said, he saw places like Clarendon and Shirlington in Arlington be transformed from being run down to becoming improved and now very vibrant. “We would not want it on the same scale here, but the same idea,” he said.
So far, he said, he’s supported two of the four large scale mixed use projects that have come before the City Council in recent years. He voted for the Rushmark (Harris Teeter) project on W. Broad and the Lincoln Properties project on Tinner Hill, but he voted against the Kensington Senior Living project that nonetheless was approved by a 4-3 Council vote going onto the site of the former Burger King on W. Broad and the Mason Row project at N. West Street and W. Broad, which is still under Council review despite the mayor’s “No” vote on first reading.
With numerous changes made to the Mason Row plan, which will come back to the City Council later this month or in October, the mayor told the News-Press, “I will have an open mind on that.” The Kensington, he said, he opposed because he didn’t think it is the right location for that kind of project.
The beauty of being an independent City, Tarter said, “is that we control our own destiny.” It is a small population that can ensure it retains top schools and the quality of life it wants, and in a bigger community, “others would be making decisions for us.” In Falls Church, there are personalized services and it’s walkable. “You can walk in and talk to the City Manager and Superintendent of Schools,” unlike other places. Even things like snow removal may not be perfect, but are better compared to larger jurisdictions.
The mayor said that continued economic development should continue to replicate the mixed-use model that have been so successful in Falls Church to date, adding such value to the City and offsetting real estate tax burdens on individual citizens.
“It is before us to consider new types of housing for Falls Church,” he said. Growing discussions regionally and nationally, for example, of “micro unit” housing should be on the table. They serve the needs of young professionals without children, seniors and those in need of more affordable options for housing.”
This type of housing addressed the needs of all generations, he added, including the need for workforce and affordable housing. Discussions of it are “at the cutting edge” of new approaches and need to continue.
The mayor and his City Council colleagues will be back in their saddles starting next Tuesday at the Falls Church City Hall after their August recess.