Where to even begin with 2020? A year that started out focused on finalizing plans for the City of Falls Church’s largest development project in history as well as the promise of a new high school by its end has been turned sideways by a once-in-a-century global pandemic. Wondering what the situation is in the City seems so small given the drastic changes the country and the world has experienced in the past six months alone.
And yet, Falls Church has shown itself to be a reliable microcosm of how these changes can be handled. That could be addressing commercial real estate’s current dire outlook with steely patience, or taking an uncomfortable look back at the American history it chooses to honor with school names. Even when the story doesn’t involve Falls Church, per se, the City still finds itself playing a small, but vital role in helping tell it.
Mayor David Tarter spoke with the News-Press over email about these topics, and more, in the leading political figure of Falls Church’s annual State of the City interview.
News-Press: It’s been a one-of-a-kind year with the Covid-19 pandemic destabilizing so many parts about our society. How do you think the City of Falls Church has handled the pandemic, now that we’re nearly 6 months into it?
Mayor Tarter: Given the challenging circumstances, I think we have done a good job coping with the pandemic. I am very proud of our police and other front-line workers who have put their lives on the line for our common good. The city is doing what we can for those struggling financially, including providing rent and utility relief, free meals and food vouchers, and over $250,000 in direct small business assistance. We are in close contact with the governor’s office and our federal and state delegations to advocate for our city’s interests and to ensure that we are receiving our fair share of local assistance. We are working with our regional neighbors to coordinate our efforts and follow best practices. Our citizens are doing their part by following our health professionals’ advice.
N-P: While many other neighboring jurisdictions have had to delay their own Capital Improvement Projects due to the uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus, the City of Falls Church still has everything on track. How was the City able to stay the course with its CIPs?
Tarter: While much of our Capital Improvement Plan is still proceeding, we have re-examined our plans in light of the challenging financial situation. Many of our projects, like the new high school and the library, were already well underway and needed to keep moving along. Some other projects like stormwater upgrades and traffic calming improvements have been put on pause to ensure that they are still prudent in the current financial environment. We will be re-evaluating them in the coming months. If there is any silver lining in the current situation, it is that work has proceeded without interruption and all of our projects are on time and on budget. For new projects, borrowing costs are near all-time lows.
N-P: Speaking of developments, how do you see the conflict between Whole Foods as a part of the Broad and Washington project and its three neighboring businesses in Clare and Don’s Beach Shack, Thompson Italian and The State Theatre being resolved? Is there a win-win on the table?
Tarter: I hope so. Grocery stores have been one of the few financial bright spots in the current financial crisis, but we need to ensure that these unique and beloved local businesses continue to thrive. There is already limited parking in this area and I understand these establishments’ concern, especially during construction. Given the Whole Foods project’s mix of uses and peak parking demand, I hope that we can find a way for the development to provide enough extra dedicated and shared parking to meet all of these businesses’ demand. Ultimately, a more vibrant and successful downtown will benefit all. The project still has much review ahead and there will be many opportunities for all to be heard.
N-P: And with commercial real estate being so in flux right now as a result of the pandemic, are you confident that the developers behind the West End project will be able to deliver on their commitments to the City?
Tarter: What I am confident about is that Falls Church is a rock solid long-term real estate investment. While I cannot say what will happen over the next few months, I know that we as a city, and I hope our partners, are in it for the long haul. Despite the immediate uncertainty we are currently facing, we need to remember that our ground lease is for 99 years. By the time the developer is ready to put a shovel in the ground, it is possible, if not likely, that this pandemic will be mostly behind us. The West End will be the great place that we are all anticipating.
N-P: What will you miss most about Dan Sze’s presence on the City Council after working with him for the past six years? And what trait are you looking for in his replacement during the special election this fall?
Tarter: Dan can’t be replaced. He had a passion for this city and continually fought to make it a better, more equitable, and sustainable place for all. Dan loved technology and was never afraid to think and dream big. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge of all kinds, but never took himself too seriously. He was a dear friend who I will miss greatly. It is a huge loss for the city.
In terms of Dan’s successor, a passion for the city is where it all begins and ends.
N-P: On a similar note, what will you miss most about Barb Cram and her efforts in creating a culture for the City?
Tarter: Like Dan, Barb Cram is irreplaceable. She had a boundless energy that she harnessed for the benefit of this city. Whether it was Falls Church Arts, Watch Night, the CATCH Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, or downtown flower baskets, Barb did it all and she did it all with an easy-going charm and humility. Her life was focused on service to others. With justification, Barb was honored with every award the city has to offer. She was one of my favorite people.
N-P: What’s your stance on schools reopening virtually to start the year? Do you have a guess as to when students will return to learning in the classroom?
Tarter: I think that the schools made the right decision. When it comes to our kids, health and safety come first. I have two children at George Mason High School and a wife who works at Mt. Daniel Elementary School. I know it’s going to be a challenging year, but I have confidence in our school leadership. The year has just started but the schools seem to have made great strides with their virtual learning. With the coronavirus surging in many parts of the country and even within Virginia, they made the right call.
N-P: The name of George Mason High School, as well as Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, have come under scrutiny for how these Founding Fathers treated slaves. In your opinion, do these figures deserve to be honored by having a school named after them?
Tarter: We should continue to reexamine those we honor and exalt. We have rightly removed monuments to Confederates who fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy and to fracture our country — good riddance to them. Jefferson and Mason, although deeply flawed, present a more complex case. I understand those who believe that no person who owned another, no matter what era, should be lauded. Jefferson and Mason participated in, and profited from this most odious institution. They also played significant roles in the founding of the nation and creating our system of government, including the Bill of Rights. Should we as a city ensure that those we venerate continue to reflect our values? Yes, I think so. I welcome further community introspection and discussion on this issue. We can never be afraid to consider our past.
N-P: Falls Church joined the nation in hosting demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, including one you spoke at in Cherry Hill Park on June 7. What did the City’s participation in the demonstrations represent about its values?
Tarter: I really saw the community come together. I was impressed by the diversity at the events — people from all races, religions and backgrounds. I was proud of our students and young people who played such a prominent role in organizing and leading the events. It affirmed my belief that Falls Church is a caring, inclusive community that is welcoming to all.
N-P: At the same time, Virginia was still in its Phase 1 reopening at that time where gatherings were limited to 10 people or less; the event easily had hundreds of people attend. Was it responsible for you to endorse such a gathering with your presence in the middle of a pandemic?
Tarter: It’s a fair question. To my mind, there were two competing and very important issues presented that day: The health precautions associated with the pandemic, and the need to stand up for long overdue racial justice and reform. I would note that I wore a mask as did almost all of the folks that I saw there, but ultimately to me it was most important to stand with the community. I wanted everyone to know, unambiguously, that in this city, the government is on their side.
N-P: The City recently approved a ban on guns while on public property, which will go into effect in November. It’s unclear whether mass shooters intentionally target places that are designated as gun free zones, but there’s enough examples — Parkland in 2018 and most famously Sandy Hook in 2012 — where it’s fair to wonder if that is a motivating factor. What would you say to residents and visitors to the City who question how much safer the gun ban will make Falls Church?
Tarter: I am not sure that I agree that there is evidence that mass shooters intentionally target gun free zones. Irrespective, I believe our parks, library, and rec center are safer for our kids now that they are gun free. Falls Church is a safe place; we aim to keep it that way. Guns do not need to be everywhere.
N-P: Lastly, you just tied the record for being re-elected as Mayor four consecutive times. What’s your proudest accomplishment during your six years as the leading political figure in the City?
Tarter: First, let me say that I think we as a city have accomplished much these past years, but the credit goes mainly to our citizens who work hard, pay taxes, and do the heavy lifting for our community. My colleagues on council — Marybeth Connelly, Phil Duncan, Letty Hardi, Ross Litkenhous, and Dave Snyder — bring a wealth of talent and diligence to the office. Some of the things that we as a city can be proud of include our first ever triple AAA bond rating, creating a more walkable and vibrant downtown with new attractions like movie theaters and grocery stores, and the soon to completed, state of the art high school. Most recently, I am proud to see how our community has come together to get through these trying times.
It has been an honor to serve this city as mayor.