Falls Church Veteran EDA Guru: Density Is Vital to City’s Future

Former F.C. EDA chair Ed Saltzberg addresses the Village Preservation and Improvement Society last Sunday. (Photo: News-Press)

The City of Falls Church has only begun to scratch the surface of its economic development potential, Ed Saltzburg, the City’s long-standing Economic Development Authority leader said here Sunday, but future growth will depend on some more significant population growth.

Saltzburg spoke to a meeting of over 30 people of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society meeting at the American Legion Hall.

Countering some popular misconceptions, Saltzburg said the City is far from overpopulated now, despite the increase from 9,500 to 14,300 in just over two decades. He said the City is considerably less dense, population-wise, than its immediate neighbors and than other burgeoning suburban areas in the Washington, D.C. Metro area like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Tacoma Park.

Significant revenue-generating dining, entertainment, retail and service businesses need a “critical mass” of population to thrive, he said, and that has not yet been achieved, despite a lot of new mixed use development, in Falls Church.

He said that a population in excess of 20.000 will be needed to accomplish that. Tacoma Park has more than 20,000 now, and is no bigger than Falls Church in terms of area.

Still, he said, the City is in excellent shape now and has a bright future. He said it is a blessing that the City did not attract large big-box retail since it began reaching out for serious development in the last 20 years.

It’s such retailers who are hurting the most, and have a gloomy future because of the Internet. On the other hand, the City has attracted smaller service businesses offering everything from haircuts to nail grooming, and their future is much brighter in an area that is attracting more people.
“Maybe I can’t buy clothes in Falls Church, but that may be a blessing, after all,” Saltzburg quipped.

He said that restaurants and entertainment are the keys to the City’s economic future, along with a lot more multi-family residential where the cost to the City of providing services, including the education of school-aged children, is far less than the quarter-acre single family home. While eight homes fill eight quarter acre lots in the City, there are 100 units in just two acres in the Broadway, for example. That higher density has yielded a lot more revenues to the schools while the single family homes are on average in the negative.

The 10 acres that the City is hoping to market for dense development on the high school campus site may be a catalyst that can spur the involvement of the Beyer Automotive effort at lot consolidation on the south side of West Broad, and entities such as WMATA, with almost two dozen underutilized acres at the West Falls Church Metro site, the University of Virginia-Virginia Tech property and the Atlantic Realty owners of the Giant shopping center, Falls Church Mayor David Tarter chimed in during the question and answer period.

Saltzburg threw in one more element to the economic development mix: affordable housing.

“Affordable housing is an economic driver,” he said. But the City’s stock of what is identified as affordable housing is shrinking, and depends on owners of entities such as Merrill House not renovating their product.

Even with the current City policy that requires a certain number of new units in mixed use projects to be set aside as “affordable,” the problem persists. Gary LaPorta reminded the audience that an “affordable” unit at one of the City’s new mixed-use projects still costs upwards of $1,800 a month, and to many younger or lower income families, that is hardly “affordable.”

There were no solutions offered, except for the fact that new mixed use developments may feature smaller and smaller rental units, such as the efficiencies and single-room occupancies, known as SROs, that are beginning to catch on around the country in the context of the “tiny houses” movement.

Neighboring Arlington’s move to permit secondary units on existing single family properties, known as “granny flats,” may be something that Falls Church could explore, even as it could run afoul of existing homeowners.

What’s holding Falls Church back now, Saltzburg asked rhetorically Sunday concerning future economic growth. There’s not enough room, not enough places and not enough people, he said.

There’s also competition in the area, high land costs, lack of population density and the considerable effort it takes the best developers to fill their existing retail spaces. He cited the case of local developer Bob Young’s effort to fill his new Southgate Shopping Center, also known as the Lily Building. Other developments have been less successful, at least in the short term, such as in the Lincoln at Tinner Hill project, which has a number of small retail units that have gone unfilled, even though Target has signed onto its larger retail space.

The best economic development yields for the City, ranked in order, Saltzburg said, are hotels, grocery stores, mixed use projects, Class A office space and retail.

Of late, developers of the Founders Row on W. Broad at N. West Street have been stalled by their inability to land a hotel, and Mayor Tarter has told the Insight developers of the E. Broad and N. Washington mixed use project, which won a preliminary approval to move ahead by the City Council last week, he’d like to see a smaller grocery store there.