The theme of the Falls Church City Council’s planning retreat last weekend was “Powerful Responsibilities/Magnificent Opportunities,” but the focus of the seven Council members was zeroed in on less than “powerful” or “magnificent” results at the meeting. Instead, they want the City staff to get on with making what Mayor David Tarter called the “simple little things” that, he said, “Would get a lot of bang for the buck.”
There was a general sense expressed by the Council members that it has been taking too long for even their modest initiatives to get translated into results. Tarter’s comment at the outset of the five-hour meeting, “We need to find a way to get things done in a concrete fashion,” resonated throughout the day.
Their concerns were for things like the long-discussed downtown streetscape improvements, including additional bike racks and new bus stops (with electronic signs to notify passengers when the buses are due to arrive), and other amenities to make the downtown area more pedestrian friendly, more walkable and bikeable.
“Things are primed to happen, and the public interest and political will are here. But there needs to be a sense of urgency,” Councilman Phil Duncan said. “We need to have things happen faster,” Councilman Dan Sze added.
(However, while it is hard to imagine that something as simple as a bus stop would inflame some neighborhood enmity, but apparently that is the case in the one planned for W. Broad Street in front of the imminent Harris Teeter. Neighbors behind the site, in the Winter Hill Homeowners Association, are objecting even though the entire bulk of the new building buffers it from that proposed bus stop.)
Many of the small improvements discussed Saturday have already been approved by the City Council and the funds allocated, making them really just a matter of getting on with it.
Things like better signalization along West Broad (Rt. 7) and the addition of some left turn lanes were raised at the Council Saturday meeting held in the library of the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School (amid books like one entitled, “My Teacher Is an Alien”).
Also annoying Council members is the lack of closure on some impending issues like the library and City Hall renovations, if there are to be such, new parking projects, the disposition of the now-uncertain Mt. Daniel Elementary’s destiny, and the same for the 36 acres ceded into the City where the high school and middle school currently sit. There was also a sentiment for focusing resources on “land banking.”
The meeting began with a “warm up” session where Council members were invited to share how they came to move to Falls Church in the first place. Dan Sze said it was because there were so many trees in the neighborhoods. Phil Duncan said it had to do with where the woman who would become his wife lived. Marybeth Connelly said it was because she won a gift certificate to the Red Lobster. David Snyder said he liked taking his family to Anthony’s. Karen Oliver knew it for years as a pass-through between McLean and Seven Corners. David Tarter grew up in the area to begin with. Letty Hardi said when she came to visit the young man who was to become her husband that she was told, “Turn right at the Taco Bell.”
None wound up living in Falls Church because they appreciated its “special sense of place and history,” and Oliver, in fact, lamented the fact that the City is not doing a better job of conveying those things. Citing the many new people coming into town to fill the new mixed use projects, she said,“We need to tell people much, much better what we are doing, who we are, why we are a special place, and how to understand the culture.”
Diversity and affordable housing also became important subjects for the Council, although overlooked in its earlier exercises to list priorities, with Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester doing the honors applying multi-colored felt-tipped pens to butcher paper taped up on the walls.
After a lengthy session in which a large contingent of heads of the City’s volunteer boards and commissions were invited in to share their priorities, the Council members got back together in the early afternoon and tried to make more sense of it all.
This is when the issues of diversity and affordability (the lack of them both in Falls Church) came up. Cited was a survey of City government division leaders taken earlier last week, designed for them to measure the City’s performance against its nine principles of the Council’s earlier-developed “2015 vision,” the scorecard has “a diverse community” come in, by far, at the very bottom of the list, with only eight percent saying “good or very good,” and 56 percent saying “bad or very bad.”
Duncan noted that to even apply for a rental unit designated as “affordable” at the new West Broad (Harris Teeter) project, a household needs to earn $70,000 to $80,000 a year. All new homes now being built in Falls Church require an income of $200,000 or higher to afford, said City Manager Wyatt Shields.
Ideas kicked around on the affordable housing subject included zoning changes to permit “elder cottages,” “carriage homes,” or quad-plex housing. Duncan noted that it was only a few years ago that the Council came up just one vote short of approving an building dedicated to senior affordable housing.
Although the current Council seems to demonstrate more accord of purpose than ones in many a recent year, nothing has come forward yet to address the affordable housing issue.
On the issue of economic development, the Council mulled the notion being circulated that “it is 30 percent cheaper (from a tax standpoint) to live in Arlington than Falls Church.” Though no specific proposals were put on the table Saturday, it seemed to spur the notion that expediting the growing number of new projects in the pipeline should also be a Council priority.