City of Falls Church Mayor David Tarter believes things are looking up for Falls Church. Three major commercial developments in the West End project, the Broad and Washington St. project and the Founder’s Row project all promise to enliven the City’s already rich business community with quality additions for residents and passersby alike to patronize. The completion of those three projects, along with the public renovations taking place at City Hall, Mary Riley Styles Library and the construction of the new George Mason High School, all contribute to tangible signs of progress for the City.
Furthermore, Tarter discussed how these developments will buttress the City’s efforts to create a spirited downtown area, but also how the City needs to be inventive when addressing the less-than-ideal parking situation that will inevitably compound as more outside attention is brought to Falls Church.
On broader topics, Tarter emphasized how Falls Church can follow its own development template without attempting to mimic what areas such as Tysons or Arlington are doing, while also digging into the potential that either Amazon or Apple’s new headquarters would hold for the City and its residents.
News-Press: There’s a lot of private development projects in the works right now, with the West End development, the Broad and Washington St. development and the Founder’s Row development all progressing. What excites you the most about these projects?
Mayor Tarter: To me, the goal is to create a vibrant, walkable downtown — an exciting place where people can shop, do business and be entertained all without leaving the City. These projects are another piece of that puzzle. Giving the million cars that passthrough Falls Church every month more reasons to stop and support our economy is critical to our long-term success. It’s also important to balance our tax base to help pay for all the good things we want to do, like building the new high school and keeping our schools and City services strong. These new projects are also about quality of life and I’m looking forward to walking to a movie, to new restaurants and shops and the new vitality and new excitement those additions will bring within a comfortable walking distance from people’s homes. The Harris Teeter has been great for our downtown and I see people there all the time. Our downtown is a work in progress but I’m very excited about what we’ve approved.
N-P: Is there an extra layer of excitement toward the developments because, not so long ago, Falls Church was less accommodating toward developers, and now, it’s a very attractive place for new businesses to locate to?
Tarter: Falls Church has always been and some ways remains a bit of a hidden gem. It has always appealed to developers, but we’re just more open to the right kind of development now than we have been in past years. To me, the opportunity to create a really vibrant, walkable, bikeable downtown is very exciting.
N-P: It’s almost as if Falls Church is recognizing its worth now.
Tarter: I think we better understand what we want and how to get there. I believe that our planning efforts and community engagement have laid the groundwork for our success. Our director of community planning, Jim Snyder, has also been crucial to these efforts. We try to learn from each project and to raise the bar with each development. For example, our last projects have obtained affordable units for the life of the developments instead of the 20 years that we previously obtained. With the leadership of Councilman Sze, we have raised the bar on environmental issues with new buildings obtaining LEED gold, a high level of environmental sustainability. Each development builds on top of the others and helps creates a critical mass.
N-P: Is there any possibility of a larger project near the West End site? Something involving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the Virginia Tech and University of Virginia satellite campus and the Beyer dealerships to make greater use of the land being freed up by the high school project?
Tarter: I am not aware of any mega project in the works, but in many ways, these areas are underutilized and underdeveloped given their proximity to Metro. These sites have a lot of long term potential. We certainly want to work with our neighbors to ensure that development is coordinated and complimentary. Ultimately, the WMATA and UVA\Virginia sites are located in Fairfax County and so their use would be up to Fairfax County leadership. I would hope that our 10-acre development will catalyze high quality development in neighboring parts of Falls Church.
N-P: Have you heard any murmurs that Amazon or Apple may relocate their new headquarters to Northern Virginia?
Tarter: I don’t have any inside information, but I would just say as someone who’s been around here for a long time and spent my career in commercial real estate, the Northern Virginia-Washington, D.C. area is the perfect location for Amazon or Apple. The region has so much to offer – an educated workforce, great schools, good transit, proximity to the seat of government, airports. We’ve got it all. I would not be surprised at all if this region gets Amazon or Apple or both.
N-P: And what kind of ripple effect do you think if either Amazon or Apple would have on the City were they to locate their new headquarters in Northern Virginia?
Tarter: It would have a tremendous impact. First off, in addition to the high paying, skilled jobs that Amazon or Apple themselves would provide, there would be huge spinoff business that would be generated by these companies. The multiplier effect from their suppliers and contractors would be substantial. Surely, there would be a number of start-ups and similar enterprises that would want to be located in close proximity to these companies. With its great quality of life and location, wonderful schools, and small-town feel, Falls Church would be very appealing to new high-tech businesses. We already have some cutting-edge technology companies here in the City like Viget Labs. Amazon or Apple would be an exciting addition to the area.
N-P: During an interview in our Summer 2018 Real Estate issue with Councilmember Ross Litkenhous about Amazon or Apple coming to Northern Virginia, he felt that either one of the companies’ arrivals would be a boon for technology education in City schools. Do you see the same opportunity with either companies’ arrival to the area?
Tarter: First let me say, Ross has an extensive understanding of real estate development and has been a great addition to Council, particularly as we work on the 10-acres of commercial development. Both Amazon and Apple would present major opportunities for our schools. We’ve got one of the top public-school systems in the country and our superintendent and school board are always looking for new opportunities and ways to raise the educational bar. A cutting-edge company nearby like Amazon or Apple would be a real great opportunity for our schools and for the companies themselves. You also have UVA and Virginia Tech next to our 10 acres, so there’s a lot of potential synergies between education, business and the City in that West End part of town, which I hope we can realize.
N-P: Parking has come into focus ever since the opening of Northside Social on the corner of Park and N. Maple Ave. Do you think there’s a parking situation that needs to be solved in the City?
Tarter: The parking situation in our downtown is sub-optimal right now and can be improved. We certainly can use more parking spaces, but much of the problem relates to the utilization and management of the spaces we already have. Many of the parking spaces are provided in small private lots, owned by different property owners and reserved for specific small businesses. For customers who want to patronize more than one business, there often is the need to re-park for each visit. There is too much towing. Ultimately, we need to work together to ensure that anyone who wants to shop or dine in Falls Church feels welcome and can safely park here. Councilmember Hardi will likely lead a taskforce on the issue and has been working on this issue, as has Councilmember Duncan, who’s chair of the Economic Development Committee. We as a Council understand the importance of this issue and will be continuing to address it.
N-P: The City has also been looking to introduce alternative modes of transportation, from using Bike Share to improving walkability. How is that factoring into helping curb the parking situation?
Tarter: Certainly, getting people out of cars is part of the solution and we’re working hard to do that. Council has initiated a number of projects to improve walkability and bikeability. As you may know, the City sought and received grants for the installation and operating costs of Bike Share, which we expect to rollout City-wide in the coming months. This will allow residents to checkout a bike and ride to our downtown or Metro and return it there. We have increased the bike parking standards for new developments to provide parking that is more convenient and in greater numbers. New projects like Founders Row are providing Bike Share stations at their expense and other ways to tie into and encourage use of the bike trail. We are also investing in new crosswalks, sidewalks, and traffic calming City-wide. We would like to encourage efficient use of parking and so have required the recently approved Broad and Washington project to provide additional parking that’s going to be open to the public. You’ll have to pay, but we hope that’ll relieve some of the pressure on downtown parking. We also need to take advantage of new technology that can improve the City. Councilman Snyder has been a proponent of this – whether it be electronic parking management, ways to better integrate ride sharing services, or even new methods of transportation such as scooters.
N-P: Is there any interest in doing either metered parking or a parking garage as a revenue generator for the City?
Tarter: I think that we should look at parking meters in certain areas of the City, particularly where there is high demand. Meters encourage turnover. Parking garages are very expensive to construct, but we should still consider them. More efficient use of the parking we have is cheaper. Kaiser Permanente has generously opened their garage for downtown patrons at certain times. It may be possible to expand their hours. Providing additional public parking with new developments such as the Broad and Washington project is also part of the solution.
N-P: How does the City maintain the balance between permitting new developments while also making sure it’s not trying to mimic the look and feel of nearby hubs such as Tysons or Arlington?
Tarter: It’s a challenge and one that we consider with each new proposal. Falls Church is a special place and we want to keep our unique character. The height and density of these communities would not be appropriate in our city, particularly since we don’t have any Metro stations here. Development is good for the City, but we need to take a measured approach, scrutinize each new proposal, and make sure that new development respects established neighborhoods and Falls Church’s character.
N-P: What is the greatest challenge the City needs to overcome in the near future?
Tarter: Our most significant near-term challenge is executing our ambitious capital improvement plan which includes constructing a new high school, 10 acres of commercial development, renovation of City Hall and the library and other improvements. It is not without risk. Construction costs have been rising, we don’t know where the economy will be in a few years, and some of our success depends on others such as the developer of the City’s 10-acre site. It is the most significant CIP program in the City’s history, but I believe that we are up to the task. We have, I believe, been prudent in our fiscal planning and have received for the first time in the City’s history, a triple A bond rating from all of the bond rating agencies. Our CIP plan is an investment in our children, our community and our future and well worth our efforts.
N-P: Just to cap off the interview, where do you see the City in five years and where do you see it in 25 years?
Tarter: In five years, I believe that we will have delivered a cutting edge new high school that will cement the City’s leadership in education. I expect that we will have completed our other major capital projects and I hope that the development of our 10-acre site will be well under way. We will continue to enhance the vibrancy of our downtown and increase City-wide walkability and bikeability.
Twenty-five years fits nicely with the City’s vision 2040 statement which was adopted last year with the leadership of Vice Mayor Connelly. The statement is on our website but to summarize, our hope is that in 2040, the City will be a welcoming and inclusive community with continued leadership in education, the environment, and alternative transportation, all while preserving our special character. I believe that Falls Church will continue to be sought out for its unique small-town charm and great schools and quality of life.
N-P: Is there anything else you would like to comment on that wasn’t addressed in the interview?
Tarter: I’d just like to say I’m very optimistic for the City of Falls Church. There is probably more going on than at any time in our history. We’re investing in our ourselves and our future. These are really exciting times for the City and I’m delighted to be a part of it.