The City of Falls Church seemingly has it all — well, just about everything. While the City has great local restaurants, an abundance of grocery stores and every kind of fitness and medical professional you could dream of within two square miles, there doesn’t seem to be many retail shopping options inside the City proper.
Let’s be fair. There is Road Runner Sports in West Falls Plaza that has plenty of athletic gear on its racks. Local mom-and-pop shops such as Stylish Patina, Zoya’s Atelier and Matt’s Bridal are also parts of the City’s retail fabric with their diverse offerings. Doodlehopper 4 Kids has plenty of toy options for children. And small businesses where you can geek out, such as Super Bit Video Games or Victory Comics, are also merchandise retailers.
But what about a Finish Line or an Anthropologie? Or a Marshalls or TJ Maxx? Or even a Home Goods or Macy’s serving as the anchor client for one of the new projects in varying stages of development throughout the City? What is it about the City that it can be flush with so many options, except retail merchandisers? The answer is, there’s just not enough of people for them to be sold on it.
“Retailers such as Urban Outfitters, for example, have very sophisticated revenue forecasting that’s based on location, demographics, foot traffic, number of trips in the store, as well as location, adjacent or near other types of retailers that they know will increase traffic to their store,” Falls Church City Council member Ross Litkenhous said. He works with merchandising clients in his day job in the commercial real estate industry. “We just don’t have a lot of foot traffic in the City to support those types of companies that need to make those kinds of sales per square foot to make their business models work.”
Litkenhous said the problem is two-fold. One, there isn’t enough surface parking for those kinds of retailers to think they could be a draw outside of the City limits. And two, there just aren’t enough people period. Litkenhous did clarify that possible merchandisers don’t qualify their opinions with metrics — for instance, they don’t say things like “We need X amount of people and Y amount of parking to come here” — but even small businesses will do their own research and realize that it’s not the right fit for them.
Whether or not a lack of merchandise retailers is even a problem, though, is still up for debate.
“If you take a little broader view of the City of Falls Church, we sit between all Bailey’s Crossroads, Tysons Corner and Merrifield — all of which have those kinds of things in abundance,” local developer and Economic Development Authority chair, Bob Young said. “We’re a city of roughly 15,000. And I don’t see why any retailer, particularly given the shrinking footprints of brick and mortar stores, would think that they could survive in a small place like Falls Church.”
In his 20 years working in the City, Young said he’s never had a broker suggest that one of his buildings have a Levi’s or a men’s clothing store fill its space. Filling this role in the market isn’t something that Young feels is a must-have for the Falls Church — especially since those kinds of stores are contracting, not expanding, in the current economic climate. And he also doesn’t think that not luring in big name clothing or shoe stores is a knock against the City’s aspiration to have everything a person needs within a walk or bike ride from their front door.
However, Young did say that, if anyone could convince a merchandise retailer to come into the City, it would be developers at either Founders Row or the West End projects.
Mill Creek Residential Trust, the principal at Founders Row, has been “second-to-none” when it comes to curating retail clients, according to Young. He pointed to their success in helping establish the Mosaic District’s shops within Merrifield. To see if they could pull that same feat off with Founders Row is “a great test” to him. Regency, meanwhile, is the retail partner for the West End project, and Young said they’re one of the biggest in the country. “If anyone could bring them, they could. I just don’t think they will,” he added.
Targeting retail clients for any of these projects isn’t a prudent strategy to Litkenhous. For example, with Founders Row, Litkenhous said the City was insistent on bringing a movie theater to the site. Even as the project lost its commitment from Studio Movie Grill last fall after it went bankrupt, the City plowed ahead with its plans to bring in another theater by the end of 2021/beginning of 2022. So Litkenhous said the City passed a “theater tax” to subsidize that kind of business.
He said it’s “a bit of a dangerous precedent” to set when the City is acting against market forces. He also said it could work, and the Council has the authority to do it, which they acted on — “but then if the business can’t be supported based on the foot traffic, and then the sales in that store go down and it ends up closing, then you’re stuck with an empty space,” he added.
In Young’s opinion, specialty stores are the best bet when it comes to finding shopping in Falls Church. He took a trip out to Middleburg recently, and found a high end kids clothing store occupying about an 800 square foot space.
That would fit into Falls Church’s market, but he went on to say that those kind of owners are usually locals who live in the City. He’s not sure if someone would be able to support themselves or a family just off their business alone and also live in Falls Church as a retail merchandiser.
For Litkenhous, if the City wants to make itself more appealing to commercial retail clients, they’d need to commit to higher density within its limits. He thinks that’s a hard sell considering how Pearson Square, which was one of the first major mixed-use developments Falls Church took on as it was trying to change its reputation, ended up dropping its plan to be a luxury condominium and instead became multi-family affordable rentals.
He said that about-face poisoned the conversation about the mixed-use projects going forward because it became a net fiscal drag on the City in the form of high public service costs — such as accounting for the amount of children going to schools from that building. Litkenhous believed that that project alone was indelible in people’s problems with density.
“The truth of the matter is, if you want a vibrant retail environment, a vibrant business community with street level, retail businesses, office buildings, the only way that that happens is to have more feet on the street, or having more parking readily available,” Litkenhous said.