Physical identity is a key aspect of self awareness. To understand part of who you are, you first have to know what you look like. When it comes to creating an identity of a geographical region, whether it be the City of Falls Church or its neighboring areas, it is often judged by the buildings that sprout up in its vicinity.
Those developments embody not only a fiscal means to an end, but a people’s idea of their community. However, when dated developments outnumber newer ones, it’s difficult for people to latch onto a sense of progressive uniformity that connects them – let alone feel their community is being pulled out of economic stagnation.
“Creep, crawl, walk has always been my saying about revitalization,” Eileen Garnett, who was advised to start the Annandale Revitalization Committee back in 1984 from then-Mason District Supervisor Tom Davis, said. “[But] we’re still creeping.”
Annandale provides a window into what the City would look like if development efforts hadn’t seen a significant uptick since the turn of the century. The region lays just south of the City of Falls Church, but resembles an older version of Falls Church proper that has been washed over in its recent history. That is, it was more of cut through rather than a destination.
The same could be said about neighboring Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners to the east. Both areas have been more defined by the major transportation arteries they facilitate as opposed to the commercial establishments they house. There are exceptions: Annandale is widely known for its Korean cuisine, Bailey’s has the allure of its Skyline entities and Seven Corners’ many stores are anchored by an active Home Depot. But these high-achievers can’t uplift the area’s business sector in isolation and indicate why revitalization committees have labored for the past 30-odd years.
Current Mason District Supervisor, Penny Gross, has focused on alleviating the commercial lag her province is experiencing, and done so with success.
“If I look around and see the things we’ve done the past 22 years, it’s really quite amazing,” Gross said. “Land use is very active in Mason District. It would be even more active if we kept track of the people that I’ve told to take a hike…We’ve got to have the right kind of development, it can’t be a fishing expedition.”
Garnett sees things differently. A bond approved for revitalizing Annandale and other districts in 1988 wasn’t spent out until just two years ago when trees were planted along a stretch of Columbia Pike. To her, that signaled that the wheels of progress were turning too slowly. Exacerbating this is a media blindspot that has hovered over the area since the Springfield-based Fairfax Journal went out of business in 2001, making Annandale somewhat invisible to outsiders.
Though both Garnett and Gross agree that Metro stations outside of walking distance is another contributing factor to the elusiveness of commercial prospects. In the City, the presence of two Metro stops with the locality’s name attached has heightened its profile exponentially. The convenience has made developers more willing to stick their shovels in the dirt and open up shop here.
Adding to that is the City’s intensive dedication to forming Small Area Plans that provide guidelines for developers while accommodating the citizens’ needs. So far, it’s been effective. Previous sites where the land was more valuable than the properties occupying it have been replaced. Namely, the Saab dealership where The Lincoln at Tinner Hill now sits and the mixed-use Harris Teeter development that replaced a strip of shops, including Anthony’s Pizza. And while Gross has seen money walk out the door due to time lapses in Mason District, the City has worked to efficiently meet the demands of interested developers.
“Delay costs money. It’s like a leak in your water pipes. You may not know it’s happening, but it’s not free,” Falls Church Director of Planning and Development Services Jim Snyder, said. “We recognize that delay is costly not only to the developers, but to the taxpayers. The longer the project takes to get through the system or to get built and ready and running, you’re not getting the tax revenue from that business.”
Developments in the City have ruffled some residents’ feathers. It’s not as if people don’t want the developments — eight mixed-use developments profiled this year accrued a $3.8 million net revenue for the City, showing that they’re fulfilling their role. But the rate at which the City has endorsed development has taken some adjusting to. Falls Church was fairly averse to development as recently as 20 years ago, but the times have changed and the City’s needed to adapt.
It’s why some people, such as the founder of DuBro Architects and Builders, Jeff DuBro, want Falls Church to find that balance between commercial growth and revenue while preserving the feel of its residential component. Snyder and the rest of the City government are sensitive to that and realize that the “Little City” brand is more than just a name to its citizens.
“One thing about Falls Church is it’s a traditional community,” Snyder continued. “We’re a small and authentic city with a personality.”
The solidarity in Falls Church’s identity has lent it a huge advantage in all aspects of its own revisioning. It created a plan, outlined where to focus its attention, and most of all, understands what its residents look for in their commercial exploits.
A true identity is what Garnett is still seeking to create in Annandale. From her perspective, all it takes to get the community trending in that direction is to land one big project. But after plans for a hotel and a mixed-use development failed to materialize, momentum stalled. With multiple studies done on the area highlighting its strengths and weaknesses, the information is out there. The only thing missing is the willingness to sell its potential.
Or, as Garnett puts it, “Somebody needs to get out there and work it.”