By Stewart Schwartz & Sonya Breehey
The best way to understand how to make our communities more sustainable and livable, is to get out and walk. That’s why the Coalition for Smarter Growth led one of our signature walking tours, this time in West Falls Church, from George Mason High School to the Railroad Cottages, along the W&OD Trail, and back along Broad Street (Route 7). We were joined by 40 people for the tour, meeting up at the Capital Bikeshare station next to Haycock Road. A number of our attendees arrived by bike and Metro.
We were welcomed by Mayor David Tarter and Councilmembers Letty Hardi, Phil Duncan and Ross Litkenhous from the City of Falls Church, Councilmember Pasha Majdi from the Town of Vienna, Delegate Marcus Simon, city planning commission and transportation commission members, staff, residents, and volunteer advocates from across Northern Virginia. Mayor Tarter provided an update on plans for the entire West Falls Church Metro area including Falls Church’s new high school and redevelopment area, the Virginia Tech campus, and the Metro station parking lots.
Walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income development next to our Metro stations is essential if we are to grow without making traffic worse and essential for cutting the transportation emissions that are now the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in our region. Transit-oriented development will also expand the city’s tax base, providing funding for schools and other services.
Councilmember Hardi discussed safety issues facing people crossing Broad Street. Delegate Simon and others talked about safety issues along Shreve Road where a person was tragically killed by a vehicle as she walked on the sidewalk. The region is experiencing a big uptick in pedestrians and cyclists killed or injured by vehicles, and redesigning our streets to be safer for all users is imperative. Fortunately, a project is in the works to make the Route 7/Haycock Road intersection safer, and additional safe crossings are planned as part of the city’s redevelopment project. Meanwhile, Delegate Simon and other officials are pursuing safety improvements for Shreve Road.
We then walked a short distance along the W&OD to the Railroad Cottages — a highlight of the tour. When proposed, these 10 cottage style homes on 1.25 acres were the subject of significant concern from neighbors. The triangular site next to the W&OD trail originally allowed for four building sites. But in view of the significant housing needs in our region, and a desire to create environmentally sustainable homes with a sense of community, the project’s visionary development team proposed 10 cottages and a shared common house. The cottages are arranged along a central pathway, with cars parked away from the homes.
The homes were built to “Earthcraft Gold” energy-efficiency and sustainability standards and use Universal Design to allow for mobility when aging in place. It’s an 18-minute walk from the cottages to the West Falls Church Metro, 14 minutes by bike to the East Falls Church Metro on the W&OD trail, and a five-to-10-minute walk to a range of shopping and services along Broad Street. The stormwater management is cutting edge — controlling stormwater runoff to the same level as a healthy forest.
The residents of the Railroad Cottages graciously opened their doors to us, showing us their homes and describing what it’s like to live in the community. Project visionary Theresa Sullivan Twiford, architect Jack Wilbern of Butz Wilbern Architects, and developer Joe Wetzel of the Young Group, told us about the approval process and its many challenges.
Our planning and zoning rules in the region do not make it easy to build clustered homes, and the time and cost for special approvals adds to the cost of each new home. It is easier to build “by-right” very large, nearly full-lot occupying houses, which on this site would have cost $1.5 million or more, than to build these smaller 1340 to 1380 square foot homes.
Given our region’s housing needs, 10 homes within walking and bicycling distance to Metro are better than four. Still, at about $800,000 apiece, these homes remain out of reach for most families. They point the way, however, to the potential for smaller homes, and especially duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes, to provide more options with greater affordability.
We need to identify the best places for these homes in terms of access to transit, jobs and services, and make the design, zoning and approval process easier. Otherwise, our grown children and many sectors of our workforce will simply not be able to afford to live in our community. Creating more walkable, transit-oriented communities is how we can grow sustainably, provide the homes we need, and fight climate change. Fortunately, as the tour showed, the City of Falls Church is emerging as a leader in this effort.
Stewart Schwartz is the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Sonya Breehey is their Northern Virginia advocacy manager.