By Ross Litkenhous
Amazon HQ2 is coming to Northern Virginia. I should probably preface that with: I don’t have any inside knowledge, nor am I working for or even remotely acquainted with anyone at Amazon who could give me even a discrete nod affirming that claim. I have as much firsthand knowledge as probably anyone else reading this paper. Zero. All I have is a gut feeling and my own rationale leading me to that conclusion. It’s a credible rationale, but still only an opinion.
And like many of you, I’ve heard rumors; some compelling, mostly hearsay. I’ve read about increased web traffic to northern Virginia news sites originating from Seattle based IP addresses, and I’ve even heard about an uptick in wealthy Seattle “business executives” buying homes sight unseen in Arlington and the surrounding areas. But my favorite is the ever present, “there’s a guy I know who says…” that I always seem to hear about in hushed tones at networking events. Again, mostly unfounded, but nevertheless amusing.
Regardless, my conclusion remains, I think Amazon HQ2 is coming to Northern Virginia (most likely the Crystal City site) and if I was a betting man, I’d wager the same. Make no mistake, that announcement and the subsequent events unfolding afterwards would fundamentally change the landscape of Greater D.C. in positive ways but also undoubtedly create challenges in parallel. But this commentary isn’t about Amazon or even what that means for Falls Church. This is about our own high stakes future that is unfolding in real time right here and now.
In real estate, herd mentality can be pervasive. In many ways, when certain markets become hot, that herd mentality is inescapable. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are pioneers and those who blaze trails. But it is the momentum those pioneers and then first adopters forge that brings the herd to a gallop.
Falls Church has reached that inflection point. We are tucked in between Tysons, a growing behemoth, and Arlington; a mighty collection of vibrant submarkets we seem obsessed with comparing ourselves to on a regular basis. And as much as we like or dislike that, the truth remains that the growth around us is shaping our city in ways that we must manage. For example, regardless of our own development efforts, traffic is and will continue to be an issue, even if we choose to stand still. We work hard to mitigate that, but as a major throughway between our towering neighbors, the battle is uphill.
If the Amazon whispers I hear are more rumor than fact, then the comments I hear regarding the herd’s focus on Falls Church is something different. As someone who works in the real estate industry I spend quite a bit of time studying markets, dissecting trends and talking with industry participants about what they are seeing, hearing and doing. One thing is clear, Falls Church is on the herd’s radar. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Seeing the herd on the horizon was inevitable, be it now, or in 10 years. A jurisdiction can’t continue to rack up national accolades in health, wealth and education, sit seven miles from the nation’s capital inside the beltway and expect to fly under the radar forever.
As the herd comes knocking, the deals and dollars will get much bigger and more prominent. Our biggest challenge this year won’t be managing Amazon’s indirect impact to Falls Church, it will be managing our own pipeline, as developers and investors look to capitalize on all of the amazing things that we as a community have created and woven into the very fabric of this city.
One of the things that has impressed me the most during my short time on City Council, is the level of commitment, care and thoughtfulness put forth by all of the volunteers, boards, commissions and staff that help make this city what it is. The hours are countless, the sweat equity is real. And that culture of volunteerism is what is needed for us to navigate this next wave of economic and commercial development. We are in the driver’s seat and should demand the same level of excellence in design, quality and performance that we demand of ourselves when we lead and volunteer in other initiatives. So this is a rallying cry. Make your voices heard. Embrace our new found popularity but demand the best in everything we consider. Study, analyze, discuss, debate and collaborate. Even if you like it, work to make it better. Not to arbitrarily delay plans, or to drag out decisions, but to collect the best of our collective expertise to drive hard bargains and deliver great projects. We may not get Amazon in northern Virginia, but the herd is just over the horizon, so be ready.
Ross Litkenhous is a member of the Falls Church City Council.