It’s been another big year in the City of Falls Church. Some major projects are nearing the moment where they break ground just as others are ready to cut the ribbon, all the while there have been contentious issues such as school name changes and the everyday adherence to Covid-19 precautions.
Falls Church City Mayor David Tarter is a man on the forefront of a lot of these issues. He’s helped position the City as a development-friendly locale that can work with its larger neighbors to get things done. And he’s experienced some of the trials of the past year, particularly as a parent who watched two of his seniors go through most of their final year virtually.
Tarter took some time to chat with the News-Press when he wasn’t packing up the car to take those very same kids off to college. The full transcript of the conversation is below.
News-Press: Fairfax and WMATA have both agreed to redevelop their land next to the City’s own redeveloped 10-acre parcel, making Falls Church a partner in a mega-development the likes of which it hasn’t seen before. What does being a part of this deal say about the direction the City of Falls Church is heading in?
Mayor Tarter: It is big news. The 10-acre West Falls project is the largest in the City’s history. Combined with the WMATA and Virginia Tech sites, you’re talking over 40 acres with prime metro access.
We spent years planning, soliciting developer bids, putting together a complex public-private partnership, working with our neighbors, holding dozens of town hall meetings, and hammering out an innovative development plan to create what I believe will be a show piece project.
To ensure long term economic viability and vibrancy, the City insisted on a mix of uses which include office, hotel, senior living, condominiums, and a retail promenade, all of which will work together to create a special sense of place and a regional destination. To top it all off, the project’s tax revenue alone should more than pay for the new high school and eventually allow us to lower our tax rate even more than we did this year.
With this project and others, we have set the wheels in motion with economic growth that will pay dividends for years to come.
N-P: Can you speak to how being a stakeholder in this deal is a boon for Falls Church’s reputation in the region?
Tarter: As a small place, it has always been important for the City to work well and maintain good relations with our neighbors. We have been in discussions with Virginia Tech, WMATA, and Fairfax County for some time about how to best utilize our 10-acre site, and perhaps more importantly, how we can all work together to ensure that our projects enhance each other and best utilize Metro accessibility. This project will continue to raise the City’s regional profile and affirms the City’s commitment to smart, sustainable development.
N-P: Speaking of development, we know Founders Row should be welcoming in residents within the next month. How satisfying is it to watch a major development you’ve been a part of from the beginning finally come to life?
Tarter: It is very satisfying to see projects finally completed and occupied. For most, the process has been years in the making, starting with small area plans, which re-imagined our commercial areas to be more walkable, dynamic and economically successful.
With Founder’s Row, Harris Teeter, Target, the approved Whole Foods and West Falls projects, we are starting to realize this vision. These projects and others are creating a more vibrant downtown where residents and visitors can shop, dine and do business within the City. They’ve also provided important community benefits such as affordable housing, a new home for Creative Cauldron, our local theater, and tax revenue to support our schools. And they’ve allowed us, for the first time in years, to meaningfully lower the tax rate.
N-P: Can you tell us anything about the movie theater — if there’s going to be a movie theater at all?
Tarter: As you know, Covid dealt a tremendous blow to the movie theater industry, including the one planned for Founders Row, which declared bankruptcy. The project approval continues to require a movie theater and I know the developer is working hard to secure one. They have escrowed $3.6 million with the City for its buildout. Falls Church needs more entertainment and places for families to gather and it is my hope and expectation that we will ultimately get a movie theater there.
N-P: Another thing our readers have mentioned to us is the traffic congestion Founders Row has caused at the Broad St. & West St. intersection. Others are worried that Haycock Rd. & Leesburg Pike will be next once the West End project gets underway. With these developments attracting more people, the congestion is likely to stay, so is there anything the City is doing — or can do — to make these major arteries less of a nuisance for drivers?
Tarter: We know that traffic can be a real problem here and so the City requires traffic studies and usually developer-funded traffic improvements with each new development. With these additions, most new projects are estimated to maintain or improve pre-existing traffic throughput. Both Founders Row and the West Falls project include significant measures to minimize congestion and provide better pedestrian and bike routes. Founders Row is still under construction and their traffic measures have not yet been fully implemented. Once completed, traffic flow around the site should improve.
In addition, the City continues to seek and obtain state and regional funding for congestion relief, pedestrian and bike improvements and mass transit. Recent successes include $15 million for traffic and pedestrian improvements at Haycock Road and Leesburg Pike, $10 million for a smart streets program with Virginia Tech at the West Falls site, $8.3 million for Park Avenue as part of the Great Streets program, and in the longer term, Bus Rapid Transit along Leesburg Pike.
We are also working hard to make the City more pedestrian and bike friendly and to provide better last mile connections to the Metro to make it easier for folks to get out of their cars.
The reality is Falls Church is a small part of a large region. Most of the cars travelling on Washington and Broad Streets aren’t from City projects but are passing through from neighboring jurisdictions. We should not miss out on our own redevelopment opportunities in an attempt to single-handedly solve the region’s traffic problems.
N-P: We’ve come a long way since the start of the pandemic, but Covid is still with us. What do you think is the best way for Falls Church to learn to “live with” the virus?
Tarter: I hope that we won’t need to learn to live with the virus, but can vanquish Covid through increased vaccination, masks, possibly booster shots, and other health measures. City residents and businesses have been cooperative and done their part throughout the pandemic, which has kept the City’s hospitalizations and mortality relatively low. Our vaccination rates are also among the highest in the state. With the Delta variant and resurgent infections, however, we must not let down our guard. If you have not already done so, please get vaccinated.
N-P: The pandemic is also why there’s now $18 million in federal relief money coming to the City. How would you like to see it be used?
Tarter: I am grateful for our federal and state aid, which will be a significant benefit to our community. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been providing rent, utility, and food assistance to our most vulnerable residents. We have also provided hundreds of thousands of dollars of relief to our small businesses. Many are still suffering, however. Going forward, we need to ensure these folks get back on their feet, the unvaccinated get their shots, and our schools have the resources to get kids back in the classrooms. Longer term, to the extent permitted, I would like to see us invest in City infrastructure and other capital improvements, to provide long-term, recurring benefits to our community.
N-P: I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but congratulations on two of your kids graduating in June! It was definitely a unique year for students, especially for seniors in a milestone year. What was it like as a parent navigating the past year and a half of schooling?
Tarter: It has been a difficult stretch for all of us, but I think the real challenge was with the kids. I am sorry that they missed out on cherished school memories and some great life experiences. I hope that we can get the kids back to a relatively normal school experience soon.
Despite the difficulties of the past year, in many ways, they brought us closer together. I enjoyed the long walks, drives, movies and extra time we were able to spend together. As they head off to college, I will miss this, and I will miss them.
N-P: One other thing about the schools, but there are still some raw emotions about how the Mason/Meridian name change was handled. A few of your colleagues on the City Council lent their voice to this issue. I was wondering if you have an opinion on how the schools went about the process?
Tarter: I know that there are a number of people with strong feelings about the name change. I have heard from many of them. That’s understandable. This country has many unresolved issues around race, equality and the administration of justice that permeate our history. Many of our Founding Fathers, while instrumental in the creation of the United States and its democratic institutions, were deeply flawed and active participants of abhorrent practices like slavery. Whatever your feelings about the outcome, as best as I could see, the School Board provided all a chance to speak their mind and be heard. I know many are not happy with the outcome but I believe that the Board has always had good intentions and the best interests of the students at heart. It’s time to focus on getting the kids back on track.
N-P: How do you view your job differently now than when you first became mayor?
Tarter: I would say I am more confident and comfortable in the role but I continue to learn. I view my job as I did when I started, namely to do all I can to make this City a great, welcoming place for all to live and work, and ensure that our kids grow up happy, safe and well educated.
N-P: What has been the most challenging issue you’ve had to face in the last 12 months?
Tarter: Covid. In Falls Church as elsewhere, the virus has been a matter of life and death and has caused more American casualties than World War II.
Covid has been unrelenting. Our local government response has had to constantly change and evolve to keep up with this virus. In addition to my mayoral duties, I spent the last two years as chair of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, which represents the area’s 2.5 million residents and coordinated its response to the virus. At the height of the pandemic, we were meeting three times a week to coordinate our efforts, adopt best practices and advocate for the region’s interests.
It has been one heck of a year for all of us. I know better days are ahead.
N-P: How do you see the road ahead — say, the next 8-9 years left in the decade — and what are any potential hiccups to that vision?
Tarter: I am optimistic about our City’s future. We have planned for, and are now beginning to reap the rewards of smart, measured development.
This growth has allowed us to construct a new $120 million high school, renovate our library and city hall, purchase new park land, and continue to make investments in traffic calming, affordable housing, storm water, pedestrian and other needed infrastructure — all while lowering our tax rate.
ould there be issues with the economy or inflation? Of course, but I am confident we are well positioned to ride out any storm as we have the most recent Covid crisis. Falls Church is a community of smart, engaged and caring folks. We have a great future ahead of us.