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Mayor Upbeat in His Final ‘State of City’ Interview

City of Falls Church Mayor David Tarter is serving his tenth and final year on The Falls Church City Council, and eighth as mayor.  He announced as much early in the year. However the deadline to file having passed in May, his departure is now certain.  

On the ballot for the Council this November are Vice Mayor Letty Hardi (the favorite to become the City’s next mayor, should she win re-election and win majority support of the council), and first time candidates Tim Stevens, Justine Underhill and Erin Flynn.  Existing council members Marybeth Connelly, Debbie Hinscott, Carolyn Lian, and David Snyder are not up for election this year.

In what is now an annual tradition, Mayor Tarter met with the News-Press last week for a “state of the city” interview to discuss the issues affecting our community today, and what makes Falls Church such an incredible place to live.

2023 has been a rollercoaster year, in a string of rollercoaster years.  Housing costs remain sky-high. The Covid-19 pandemic is “over” — because it’s now endemic.  The recession deemed inevitable earlier in the summer seems to have been avoided, with a “soft landing” now predicted.  Indeed, inflation seems to have leveled off, but many prices remain at 20-year highs.  The costs of housing, food, and gas — though relatively stable when viewed “year-over-year” — are still much higher than they were two years ago.  

The median household incomes of F.C. and Loudoun County are now the two highest in the nation (within $100 of one another, and over $17,000 higher than the third).  January 6 rioters are going to prison, and a former President is facing 91 felony charges (and counting).

After two years in a pandemic (that felt like twenty), and four years with a President Trump (that felt like forty), most of us are still getting reacclimated to a world where handshakes, hugs, and perhaps the occasional “five second rule” exist.  

No matter how much we may want to move on, we still haven’t found our “new normal” — at least not yet.

2023 has already seen Falls Church play an outsized role (as usual) in local politics.  Despite representing under eight percent of district voters, F.C. delivered 43.75 percent of the margin of victory for Saddam Salim, in a Democratic Primary where he was outspent nearly six-to-one, by “incumbent” Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax).  Salim is the Democratic nominee to represent The Little City in the Virginia Senate, which he is all but certain to win when voters cast their ballots on November 7.

After ten years on the council, and eight as Mayor, David Tarter is a person uniquely qualified to provide insights on what the future has in store for our beloved little city.  Below is the text of last week’s interview with Mayor Tarter.

Q: The City of Falls Church has a unique sense of community for our region. Why do you think that is?  How do we preserve that?

A: Falls Church has a wonderful small town feel and a great sense of community that is hard to come by these days. 

Our “secret sauce” has a number of ingredients.  First and foremost is the way we work together as a community.  Throughout my time in office, I have found our discourse to be courteous, civil and tolerant of opposing opinions.  Our citizens are welcoming, informed, engaged, and willing to share their knowledge and passion for the betterment of the broader community.  Our small size lets folks really get to know and care about each other and our schools bring families together with shared purpose.

We can preserve this special place by continuing to be decent, caring, and understanding of others.

Q: Home prices have surged to the extent that many existing residents likely wouldn’t have been able to move here. How do we balance the need for more affordable housing with the need for increasing equity to incentivize owning in the first place? 

A: Rising home prices present a real challenge. They indicate that the City is a desirable place where people want to live and raise families but have priced many out of our housing market.

The City remains committed to providing meaningful affordable housing options to address this challenge. 

Through its Amazon Reach grants, Falls Church has started an innovative program that allows folks to build equity through affordable housing ownership.  The City and its non-profit partner purchase and renovate homes, place ADU covenants on them, and then resell them to people who live or work in the City.  The program just launched this spring, and already three homes have been purchased, and two are under contract to be resold to City residents.  The goal is to have 18 new affordable homeowners in the coming year. 

The City also continues its partnership with Wesley Housing to buy and relet quadplexes in Virginia Village.  So far, five have been purchased with more units on the way as they become available, with the long-term goal of redeveloping the assemblage as new affordable housing.

Falls Church continues to obtain new affordable housing units with each new special exception project, with more than a hundred added in the past several years alone.

Q: The City has also provided funds for shorter term housing through a grant to Welcoming Falls Church for the support for refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere.With T-Zone and development discussions often becoming heated, what do you think are the most important things residents should look for as they develop opinions on proposals?

A: Some of the things I consider when evaluating new proposals are:  Does it improve overall quality of life for the community?  How will it impact neighbors and established neighborhoods?  Does it address major community priorities like affordability, environmental sustainability, and tree canopy?  Will it promote walkability?  How does it look, and will fit in with the urban form we are seeking?  What are the tax and fiscal implications?  Will it stand the test of time?  Will there be unintended consequences?  

Details matter.  Falls Church has limited land and mistakes will last the long life of a building.

Q: The culture wars have come to VA, and Falls Church has taken a strong progressive stance. What inoculates us from the hateful rhetoric and responses to the “other” that we are seeing elsewhere?

A: We do – we are all responsible for the dialogue and discourse here in the City.  We are not immune to the divisive language and bitter rancor found elsewhere in the country.  We have seen that democracy and its institutions are fragile and must be fought for.  I believe the way that we work together is key to our success — we use our energy to build ourselves up, not tear each other down.  Don’t tolerate those who spew hate and divisiveness for their own gain.  

Get out and vote.  Enough already!

Q: The City has seen, for example, Target come in and rather abruptly fail and pull out. Why do you think that is? Is street-level retail sustainable at current levels? 

A: Ground floor retail is viable here in the City.  When I first started on the Economic Development Authority almost two decades ago, I heard folks say that Falls Church could not support a retail market, yet each year we have successful new arrivals like Harris Teeter, Aldi, Thompson Italian, among others. And there is more on the way, with Whole Foods, new movie theaters and 120,000 square feet of new retail at the West Falls project coming online shortly.  The City has low retail vacancy rates that compare favorably with nearby localities. 

I was disappointed to see Target leave.  I don’t know the specific reasons for their departure but I presume that their sales were lackluster.  I don’t think that this space was optimally designed for their store.  It was originally planned for a boutique grocery that didn’t arrive, with its main entrance on Washington Street instead of facing Maple Avenue and its Falls Church customers. 

Ultimately, the best way to attract and maintain retail is to create a walkable, vibrant downtown where people want to be.  Well-designed space with plenty of glass and outdoor seating, complimented by wide sidewalks, trees and lighting will draw visitors to our commercial areas.  

Q: In order for more businesses to thrive, the City seems to need more customers — how do we address that? More residential? Commercial development? Infrastructure? How high do we build?  How do we balance sustainability goals with capacity needs? 

A: Falls Church should develop at its own scale and pace.  Creating an attractive, lively downtown will provide an enticing market and environment.  I think the height of the new projects on our main streets of seven or eight stories is about right for most places. 

Businesses cannot and should not be wholly dependent on City residents for their customer base.  We are too small in and of ourselves to support this level of retail.  The good news is we don’t have to.  We are part of a broader region and just as City residents patronize neighboring shopping districts like Merrifield and Tysons Corner, these neighboring residents will patronize ours.  

Q: Tysons added two movie theaters during the pandemic. Do you think Falls Church will have a movie theater in the near future? 

A: I believe so.  Founders Row has committed to provide a movie theater as part of their approval and they are proceeding with a stated spring 2024 opening.  Covid threw a monkey wrench into the movie business but the industry is recovering and evolving.  The Founders Row theaters will be part of that new model with an IMAX style theater and dining and drinks being part of the experience.  I look forward to walking to the movies as our citizens once did when the State Theater provided feature movies instead of live entertainment.

Q: With the pandemic emergency officially in the rear-view mirror, have you noticed behavioral or lifestyle changes in how residents interact with one another, eateries, or retail stores (both positive and negative)?

A: As best I can see, most of our local retail community is thriving.  Many residents have continued to work from home and are patronizing our businesses and adding new life to our commercial areas. It’s great to see folks support local establishments.

Q: City activism has recently spawned an organization, Falls Church Forward, pushing for progressive change as well as retention of our community identity.  How does community activism affect the City and its identity?

A: Citizen involvement and activism are important to our community and its success.  Our citizens are educated, involved and have high expectations for our government.  They promote helpful dialogue.  This activism leads to a highly informed population and electorate. Ultimately, an informed electorate is critical for the community. 

Q: You have said you will not run for another term as Mayor. Is that still the case? Do you plan to remain on the City Council?

A: No, my term will end in December.  Come January, I will be a free agent.

Q: What is the City’s biggest specific achievement that happened “under your watch,” that you are proud of your participation in influencing?

A: The City has had a number of successes these past years — finally constructing our long-sought new high school, renovating our library, city hall, and the rest of our schools, obtaining our first triple AAA bond rating from all of the rating agencies, enlivening our downtown with new development, shopping and dining options, and significant investments in affordable housing, traffic calming, sidewalks, storm water and other critical infrastructure — all the while lowering our tax rate these past few years and preserving our small town charm.

Yet, as Mayor, I have viewed one of my primary roles as fostering collaboration among my colleagues, City staff, and our community overall.  I believe that the things we have accomplished are the result of us sharing values and working together towards common goals.

Q: What was your biggest challenge as Mayor, and what did you learn from it?

A: My biggest challenge as Mayor was probably Covid.  The pandemic came on so quick and there was so much unknown.  People were dying.  I learned that despite our best efforts, there is much in life we cannot control.

Q: How does development in neighboring communities like Tysons affect the City, for better or worse?

A: As a small jurisdiction surrounded by larger places, we are, like it or not, significantly impacted by what happens with our neighbors.  Tysons Corner is one of those places.  It provides national headquarters for major American companies and the jobs that go with it, in addition to first-rate shopping, services and restaurants.  It also brings traffic and congestion.  We may not compete with Tysons Corner, but we can complement each other, with Falls Church offering a small-town charm and unique family-oriented character.  We, by the way, have worked closely with our Fairfax County government neighbors for the betterment of both communities.  Our 10-acre West Falls project next to Meridian High School is part of the much larger and broader West Falls Church Metro site area and benefits from extensive collaboration on transportation, traffic, bike and planning matters.

Q: What is the “secret sauce” for FCCPS, in light of recently being announced as one of the country’s top school systems? How will the recent collective bargaining agreement affect our schools?

A: It’s all about the people.  Our schools have extremely dedicated and talented teachers and staff.  Having three children come through the ranks through graduation and a wife who spent years working there, I have seen first-hand the knowledge, skill and passion these professionals bring to class every day.  The schools are also fortunate to have engaged parents and a supportive community with a shared vision. 

The new high school and other facilities are great, but the people make the place. 

It remains to be seen how collective bargaining will impact the schools.

Q: How has the addition of student ambassadors affected City committees and overall civic engagement?

A: It is great to see our students get involved in civic life at a young age.  They bring enthusiasm, energy, creativity and a new perspective to government.  It is refreshing and reassuring to know that the next generation is already leading the way. 

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I don’t know yet.  My children are now all off at university and it’s time for a new adventure.  I am open to new ideas and experiences.  I am not sure what’s next, but I am looking forward to it.

Q: Your departure comes after nearly ten full years as Mayor; is the City in good hands? 

A: Yes, I am confident that the City is in good hands.  As a small, special place, Falls Church has always punched above its weight with thoughtful leadership, dedicated and attentive staff, and a welcoming and involved citizenry.  I know that my colleagues on City Council, Marybeth Connelly, Letty Hardi, Debbie Hiscott, Carolyn Lian, and Dave Snyder will continue their diligent and productive efforts.

My long-time Council mate, Phil Duncan will also be retiring from public office and I want to make special mention of his long service to Falls Church.  Phil has spent decades bettering the City — you will find him at every grand opening, civic event and community gathering.  His affection and passion for all things Falls Church are readily apparent.

Lastly, if I could, I would like to once again thank the citizens of Falls Church for the opportunity to serve as Mayor these years.  

It has been the honor of a lifetime.