CANDIDATE Q&A: John Lawrence
Lawrence is currently Chairman of the Falls Church Planning Commission. Professionally, he is head of Congressional Affairs for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a non-profit organization which assists foreign countries in conducting elections.
I was born and raised in a small town in northeast Ohio, coming to the DC area for college. I attended Georgetown University, receiving a Bachelors Degree from the School of Foreign Service and a Master’s Degree in Middle East Studies. I’ve lived, worked, and traveled throughout the Middle East and South Asia as well as parts of Europe, but have called Virginia my home for the past 27 years. My family and I have lived in the City of Falls Church since 1999.
My community activities include the following:
Chairman, Falls Church City Planning Commission, 2006-present (chairman 2009-present); Trustee, Board of Trustees, Mary Riley Styles Public Library, 2005-present; Member, Citizens for a Better City; Member, Parent-Teachers Association; Member, Falls Church City League of Women Voters; Vice Chair, Day Care Task Force (appointed by School Board), 2007-2008.
I live with my wife, Mary Ann Ralls who is also on the Public Utilities Commission, and our son, Evan, who is at Thomas Jefferson Elementary and loving it. We all live with our cat, Raisin, who holds the deed to our house.
1. Why do you want to be on City Council?
I’m worried about the direction the City has been taking. I think a majority of the Council has stopped listening to those who disagree with what the Council already thinks. When you couple this approach with the most serious downturn in the economy it seems to be a recipe for long-term disaster. As we work to get ourselves out of this ditch, we need a Council that can work together and I think I, and my fellow CBC candidates, can do that. I also have extensive experience working on key issues for the City (planning and a schools task force) that I can bring to bear along with an interest in moving things forward rather than just talking about the past.
2. What has City government done well in the last 10 years? What has it done poorly?
Well done: The City got development moving through Mixed Use and Special Exceptions, but that now appears to have been a short-term fix rather than a long-term solution.
Poorly done: Implementation of long-term planning. There has been some good planning, but the City’s plans are always changeable for what developers want. The City needs to be more assertive in controlling its own fate.
As we develop, we need to better figure out how to transition between commercial and residential properties. We have tried different ways, but haven’t found a good formula. If we can’t figure this out, almost every development will be a fight with neighbors.
Looking back at the studies and consultants, I can’t help but feel that we’re better at hiring consultants and doing studies than implementing conclusions.
3. If you could determine the physical nature of Falls Church , what would the City look like in 20 years in terms of buildings, green space, transportation, and other physical aspects?
Buildings: We would have good density near West Falls Church, on N. Washington near our border, at the Syms site, and near BJs. The former “city center” area would be developed but at a lower height than the outlying areas.
Transportation: As we get development, we will need an intelligent version of GEORGE. By “intelligent” I mean something that makes sense and is actually used.
Green Space: I’d like to see as much as we have now with better connections between parks. In addition, I’d like to work with the N. Virginia Parks Authority to establish community gardens along the bike path through Falls Church. This was done in the past, but lapsed.
Ideally, I’d love to have a village (city?) green on the north side of Broad Street with a new library opening onto it. These low-rise buildings could have condos on top with fantastic views that would truly create a sense of place.
4. Aside from the physical nature of the City, what should change and what should remain the same?
What should change: We need better cooperation with Arlington and Fairfax. We keep saying “No City can be an island unto itself,” yet we act like we can.
What should stay the same: I hope we would have the same commitment from the citizens that we have now. I want to keep the intensity people feel about living in Falls Church which is a true community.
5. How would you propose to balance the city budget? Please identify any specific spending cuts or revenue increases you would suggest.
We obviously need to raise both residential and commercial taxes and I think the idea of a special commercial overlay district fee is good as well. We should cut GEORGE in 2011 if Arlington will buy the buses (as I’ve been told they will) or in 2012 if we can’t sell them now.
As we outsource solid waste collection we should consider a pay-as-you-throw fee to encourage recycling. I’ve read of other areas that have trucks capable of weighing recycling and residents get benefits from recycling more. Pay-as-you-throw is a stick, but we also need a carrot to encourage more recycling. Going single-stream has more than doubled what my house recycles and I know we can do better. The great thing about Falls Church is that the residents would only need a tiny carrot because we’re all committed to recycling already.
Finally, I think we should press the issue of getting rid of our courthouse. Yes, there will be costs associated with doing that but they can’t match the estimated $14+ million to make the security changes needed.
6. When the City’s budget situation improves to allow capital improvement projects, which project would be your top priority?
My top priority would be the schools – expansion/renovation/replacement.
A close second would be expanding the library.
Spending $14-16 million on City Hall wouldn’t even make my list.
7. What is your position on the proposed affordable housing project, “The Wilden”?
A number of aspects of the project concern me. We have no commercial component guaranteed and, absent that, this project would put a purely residential building in the middle of a business district and take prime commercial land off the tax rolls for 30-40 years. Some call it “mixed use” but only 2% would not be residential and if that is our standard for defining “mixed use” then we really don’t know what we’re doing. In the last version of this project, we had the commercial nailed down and couldn’t find enough parking. Now we’ve found parking, perhaps, but say we can’t nail down the commercial. Why is that? It seems that we’re not learning lessons from past mistakes, but forgetting how we found past solutions. This is not progress. Nail down the commercial component and a lot of problems would go away.
Also the fact that we will be financing a decrease in affordable housing through this project once Winter Hill is sold is very worrisome. We will use City money to decrease affordable housing and then have no money in our budget to fund affordable housing. The Planning Commission pushed for all proceeds from Winter Hill to be returned to the City to pay off the loan early, but the Council saw fit to only require that a “portion” of the proceeds get “donated” to the City. Having a provision like this is not part of a solution – it’s part of the problem.
8. What was your position on moving City Council and School Board elections from May to November?
I opposed moving it. I opposed what was being done and how it was being done. If this is such a key issue, then use the wonderful voter turnout in November and put it on the ballot in 2010.
9. What changes, if any, should the City make regarding its water system following the recent litigation with Fairfax County Water Authority?
What changes we should make will really depend on what the final judgment is, but if we can no longer take a Return on Investment I would ask why should we keep it? Would the water system be better for the long-term good of the City if it were used to gain commercial land from other counties (and possibly our schools)? People need to objectively study that.
10. Are there any practices or programs you have seen in other communities – nearby or far away – that should be adopted by the City of Falls Church?
The City of Fairfax was willing to use debt to finance land purchases and to lease out that land until such time as it needed it for City purposes. We need to do this, but to find better uses for it than a coffee shed.
By Falls Church Times Staff
April 2, 2010