Part 1: Creating a Commercial Market in Falls Church
April 23, 2010
Without more detailed planning of our commercial areas and an expansion of our economic base, service cuts and residential tax hikes will become the norm, schools will suffer.
Our City desperately needs to create a vibrant commercial office and retail market within its borders, one that’s an appropriate size that befits our little City and has the right character and charm to call it our own. This commercial market must be large enough to generate significant new tax revenues to help pay for our schools and services, encourage great architecture and high-quality developments that will attract new tenants, create new public and open spaces for residents, and provide additional retail amenities in the City.
Commercial office and retail uses would bring new real estate and business taxes to Falls Church without burdening the school system with additional students. Mixed-use office and retail development can create lively areas in the City with new restaurants and storefronts, expand the tax base, and even help solve our parking shortages.
Such a market currently does not exist today and will not simply develop on its own. It will not be created by approving one development project at a time, which seems to be our current method. We cannot ask nor rely on developers to plan our City for us, we need to do that ourselves and invite developers to build it.
Creating a commercial market in Falls Church begins with detailed planning of our non-residential areas, often referred to as Sector Planning, and is an effort that goes well beyond a typical update to our City’s Comprehensive Plan.
What is Sector Planning?
Sector planning is a holistic and detailed approach to planning, essentially creating a master plan for an area and asking developers/owners to build specific pieces of it over time. We begin by designating a commercial area in the City and, in very simple terms, plan the heck out of it. The goal is to come up with a detailed planning document that outlines precisely what we want to see in the future, and adopt that document into our Comprehensive Plan
An overall process is established to study all aspects of potential redevelopment, including urban design, transportation, public infrastructure, recreational needs, zoning requirements, etc. Detailed design work is produced that examines alternative layouts, building heights, road and sidewalk sections, street renderings, etc., and an open and ongoing dialogue is held among City staff, council, boards and commissions, neighborhood groups, business and property owners and the development community.
Some of the details that would be studied and adopted in a final plan include:
- Building heights and massing block-by-block
- Building density based on FAR (Floor to Area Ratio)
- Lot coverage and potential lot consolidation
- “Build-to” lines showing how far buildings should be setback from the road
- Designated use types, e.g., office, residential, hotel, retail
- Future public parks and open spaces
- Future new roads that create more walkability
- Future transit hub location
- Future public parking garage location(s) if desired
- Detailed street and sidewalk sections showing the required right-of-way for bike lanes, on-street parking and potential rapid transit including buses and streetcars
- Standard sidewalk widths and other requirements that encourage walkability and leave room for sidewalk seating, street furniture, bike racks, lights, etc.
- Building design standards, including requirements for retail storefronts at the street level
Sector planning requires a mandate from City Council; a committment from Boards, Commissions and City Staff; participation from citizen groups and the public; and the help of consultants with expertise in planning, architecture and engineering.
At the end of the process, the final plan becomes the City’s calling card to tell the private markets what we are looking for in terms of redevelopment. It provides developers assurance that their projects will be approved if they build what we are asking for. And it provides communities confidence with what will be built in the future, rather than wrestling over each individual project.
Fortunately we have some great examples of successful sector plans created by other jurisdictions very close to Falls Church. Most redeveloped areas of Arlington started with sector plans including Ballston, Clarendon, Courthouse and Rosslyn. Columbia Pike and Shirlington offer additional examples in Arlington of successful detailed planning in areas “without” metro. Another example close to Falls Church is the White Flint sector plan, approved last month, which promises to pave the way for future redevelopment in that portion of Maryland.
Falls Church would likely end up with a different type of sector plan than some of these areas in terms of lower building heights, density, etc., but the planning principles are the same. In each of the examples, the jurisdiction and community started with lofty goals and a larger vision but did not stop there. They continued to draw-up a more specific master plan showing how the vision would be achieved, and as a result are able to market to builders and attract the kind of redevelopment desired rather than wait and hope for the best.
The closest we seem to have come to sector planning is the Streetworks Plan completed in 2002, which was a detailed concept plan for the four blocks in our downtown area. While it was a very thorough study, it omitted some of the critical details that would be determined in a sector plan, and only the high-level concepts were ultimately adopted into the Comprehensive Plan. The plan was also narrowly focused and did not address the adjacent commercial areas along South Washington. Despite this, the plan did succeed in sparking resident and developer interest in our downtown before the market slow-down. Perhaps we can begin with this earlier work and continue to build upon it.
Mike Novotny is a member of Falls Church City’s Economic Development Authority
Monday – Part 2: Why do we need to expand our economic base? How do we move forward?
COMMUNITY COMMENTS are welcome on any subject relevant to the City of Falls Church. They may be submitted to email@example.com. Shorter submissions may be published as a Letter to the Editor.
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April 23, 2010