By Eric Schultz
Falls Church is The Little City. It’s a picture perfect community that exudes a small-town feel: old mature trees, excellent small schools and beautiful houses. The residents enjoy bike trails, green spaces, parks and a farmer’s market. It’s a town where community leadership has been inclusive, collaborative, and connected. The town has even made “The Little City” the official town’s trademark.
Commercial development is inevitable and even expected, given that the city is in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions. New mixed-use developments have generated significant tax revenue for the City and brought in young professionals. As a result, as F.C. Chief Financial Officer Richard LaCondre reported lately: “The City of Falls Church is in a relatively strong financial position.” So one wonders – why the continuing rush to build still more and at such a fast pace?
The East Falls Church Area Plan, completed in 2011, proposed ideas that would be “sensitive to the residential neighborhoods,” and it especially aims to preserve single-family areas. In the downtown area, density is desirable but it must also be compatible with the character of the existing residential neighborhoods, as it approaches those neighborhoods. Unfortunately, it seems that every developer seeks a special exception for height and minimal setbacks. Seventy-five foot high buildings are being built 20 feet away from residential housing. The desire of developers to build taller and bigger, and thus make more money, threatens to negatively impact the peaceful suburban atmosphere of Falls Church. The requests to alter the zoning standards of the town come not from Falls Church’s own constituency but rather from developers.
The City’s Vision Statement requires protection of residential neighborhoods from the impact of commercial development and from other nonresidential uses by creating well-designed transitions between residential and commercial districts, and requires appropriate buffering between commercial and residential areas to protect neighborhoods from the negative impacts of noise, traffic, light, odors, and visual incompatibility.
New buildings should not be dramatically more massive than existing residential structures as they border residential neighborhoods. Hence, the height variances developers seek should not be granted if a complex borders with a residential zone. A step-down or cascading as part of the transition to residential neighborhoods should be required. Any proposed commercial property abutting a residential property should blend in harmoniously. It is up to the developer to preserve the character of the community and observe the established zoning restrictions. Laws, zones and restrictions were created by the authorities to benefit residents and to protect neighborhoods from various interest groups involved in the City’s development.
We’ve voted our authorities into office to encourage harmonious and coordinated development of our city. FC residents are generally not opposed to growth but they support thoughtful and sustainable development. Input into the upcoming projects from residents and community activists should be welcomed and fully expected in the City’s governance. Reassurances must be made and the concerns of the citizens must be respected. Planning authorities must insist that infrastructure is created at the same time or even before the housing is built rather than after or not at all.
Mixed-use developments should also be built in phases. Falls Church will build over 1,500 new apartments and 3 large grocery stores in the next few years. Furthermore, the Campus Redevelopment Project will add an unknown quantity of residential units. Shouldn’t the City wait to see the impact of existing properties on the traffic and their commercial viability before approving more construction? Only time will tell how the neighborhoods will develop.
To that end, it makes sense to argue for gentler, organic growth that meets the needs of the area. Let’s advocate for a slow-and-steady approach that safeguards against major upheaval, mismanagement or disruption of our communities. We trust in the city authorities to do the right thing and uphold principles of common sense planning in their decisions on upcoming developments. We urge our city authorities to refrain from making any zoning changes and approving oversized, out of scale complexes only because a developer promises to bring an organic grocery superstore, a movie theater or a chain hotel to our town. With this pace of development we’ll no longer be the “Little City” that prides itself on quiet, tree-lined streets and outstanding schools.
Eric Schultz is a City of Falls Church homeowner currently serving overseas as the U.S. Ambassador to Zambia.