By Richard McCommons
I read with dismay recently, letters to the editor and an ad in the Falls Church News-Press expressing concerns regarding the demise of the quality of life in Falls Church: too many grocery stores, too many new people, too many new school children, too much new traffic, too few trees and too many ugly new buildings.
Over 35 years ago we built our home here. At that time, as far as I know, nobody said we were too many of anything. We added to the school cost and population, increased traffic; and perhaps some people complained about the architectural style for our new home.
When my family moved to Falls Church there was too little of almost everything necessary for a distinctive cohesive town center. When we were looking for a place to live that would add to the quality of our life, the real estate agent told us that the “Small town/Village of Falls Church” would be just the place. I remember driving around the “village” and wondering, “Village, what village? The town was pretty much a strip development stretching east and west along Route 7 and north and south along Route 29. It was a hodge podge of houses converted to retail establishments and strip centers with large parking lots in front. Broad and Washington Streets were essentially routes passing through to shops, restaurants and entertainment in Seven Corners, Tysons Corner and Arlington. There were two blocks of Broad Street with one and two story non-descript midcentury retail shops on one side of the street, and vacant lots on the other side. There was a large vacant lot on the southwest corner of Broad and Washington and a midrise white brick office building on the diagonally opposite corner, all contributing to the ambiance of “village”? There were no sidewalk trees along Broad Street, no traffic medians with trees, no sidewalk cafes, no ice cream shops, no ethnic restaurants, no toy store, no antique shops, no Art Space, no choice of grocery stores within walking distance of most homes. There were, however, many large parking lots, car repair shops, service stations and car sales lots most of which remain today. There was a City Hall, one block off Broad Street. It was built diagonally across a corner lot with so many front doors that it was like entering the pentagon trying to find the desired department. There were of course several superb qualities which remain today: the wonderful welcoming small town library, Cherry Hill Farm, a community center, eventually a farmers market, a Fourth of July parade, a Memorial Day fun run, a wonderful hardware store, beautiful churches and churchyards, tree lined residential streets and high quality schools.
Our property taxes continue to rise despite some wishes to “hold the line” on physical change. In the meantime there has been increased building just outside the perimeter of our town which has not helped our tax base. This has allowed these new developments to take advantage of a close association with Falls Church without paying our higher property taxes. Construction to the east added to the lower tax base of Arlington by creating several apartment/condo projects with small retail shops, as well as, at least two restaurants with outdoor seating drawing customers from our town. To the west side of town, just outside our perimeter on Lincoln Avenue, an entire block of million dollar plus homes were constructed along with numerous teardown reconstructions on surrounding county streets. These homes are financially more attractive than the same value homes constructed within our town limits because of Fairfax’s lower tax rate. This type of construction is continuing just across from the high school. All these areas, are within easy access and are impacting our town with no Falls Church property tax obligation attached. I hope we are finally learning that we can add our own projects and control the quality of our town while at the same time enhancing our tax base.
All of these issues cited in the letters are a continuation of the same old misguided fears: “too much,” “ruination of our little town’s quality,” “having to choose between our old life and a new Mosaic life,” etc. These letters are remembering a past that did not exist, ignoring the construction continuing apace just outside our control, or are projecting a future that will not be. They are ignoring basic facts. Despite many admirable qualities, we’ve never had a cohesive downtown character; we are not now and will not be a “Mosaic District.” There will not be too many grocery stores but rather an increase in choice and quality. Nobody is writing to complain about too many auto repair shops, service stations, car sales lots or vast street front shopping center parking lots. There will not be too much traffic. When is there ever just enough traffic? All of the projects completed or being proposed will have underground parking for residents as well as shoppers. All of the projects will add street amenities, most with trees lining streets and more not fewer pedestrian oriented retail shops.
The Kensington article in the September 17, News-Press cites the demographic consequences of the recent projects: New tax revenue per new school resident is more than twice what it cost to educate a new student coming from these condos or rentals. The City leadership deserves a hearty congratulations for wisely guiding our small town toward a more equitable tax base and an enriched town life.
Richard McCommons is an Emeritus member of the American Institute of Architects.