COMMUNITY COMMENT: Building Falls Church Together
By MIKE NOVOTNY
February 15, 2012
As residents of Falls Church, we are incredibly fortunate. We are the beneficiaries of earlier generations who decades ago created something special – a small, personal place with great schools. Great local institutions were created around that concept, like Citizens for a Better City (CBC) and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS), which have made our home even better.
And we are fortunate in other ways. By geography, we have incredible assets. Land within the Capital Beltway. I-66 and I-495, two Metro stations, two airports, and the crossroads of two major thoroughfares – Leesburg Pike and Lee Highway. We are one of the most affluent and best educated communities in the nation. And we are surrounded by some of the best examples of new urban development in the country. If utilized properly, through thoughtful planning and development, all of these assets can make our future even brighter.
High-quality development, however, has not always been our history. Stretches of our main street are home to haphazard buildings and tired storefronts, there is a lack of good public pedestrian space, and there is an abundance of asphalt parking lots. What we need is 21st Century planning that proactively addresses these issues and incorporates the spirit of the community.
For the past several years a number of us on the City’s Economic Development Authority have been pushing for “Area Planning,” also known as ”Sector Planning”. I wrote on this topic in an earlier article in the Falls Church Times in 2010. Since then we are fortunate that Jim Snyder agreed to become the City’s Planning Director, and that the current Council has made Area Planning a priority. Snyder is a world-class planner previously working in Arlington who is now laying the foundation for Falls Church City’s first Area Plan, focused on North Washington Street. The development of this plan, and others to follow targeting the West End, Broad Street and areas near Seven Corners, is extremely important if we are to take full advantage of the assets we have inherited.
Shirlington is an area far removed from any Metro station, but it has become a very dynamic place to live, work or enjoy dinner and a movie. Its strengths are a pedestrian-friendly area that supports restaurants, shops, and an artsy movie theater within a few compact blocks. The entire area was achieved through significant planning and related efforts on the part of Arlington County. The small scale of Shirlington makes it an especially good example for Falls Church City.
Clarendon shares some characteristics with Shirlington, preferring small shops and ethnic restaurants over shopping malls. Its progressive design, mix of retail, and availability of mass transit makes the area attractive to young professionals.
Bethesda. Downtown Bethesda really came to life with Bethesda Row, built in phases beginning in the early 1990’s by Federal Realty Investment Trust. Bethesda Row was a revitalization of a suburban commercial area into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly downtown. The design of the area and mix of uses provides a great example of how a downtown area can go through a complete transformation.
Ballston took a different approach and tried to create a “downtown” feel, with a greater emphasis on high-density office and residential, a shopping mall and hotels. Many people think Ballston is too big for a comparison with Falls Church City, and I agree. But still there are lessons we can take from Ballston and apply on a smaller scale. For example, Ballston has achieved a nearly 50/50 balance between office and residential uses, which drives a significant portion of Arlington’s tax base. Further, they are incorporating more street-level retail to enrich the area, and the County has modified its roads in the area to make them more pedestrian-friendly.
1. Develop the Vision, Allow for Variation. We need to establish a vision for the City’s commercial areas, but still allow variation between them. The areas near the East Falls Church and West Falls Church Metro stations, as well as the area near Seven Corners, have the best chance at attracting office space because of their proximity to Metro. Areas along Broad Street, on the other hand, which have more limited land and are farther from public transit, could be more focused on a retail and residential mix. South Washington has critical mass of land, is centrally located, and is buffered from most neighborhoods, which provides great potential for becoming our most urban and vibrant downtown area.
2. Street Level is Important. What happens at the street level of any new building is really important. This is the part of a development that people experience the most. Both the “design” and “use” of this space is critical. First-floor retail should be included in all new developments in our commercial areas, providing neighborhoods with amenities, encouraging pedestrian activity and attracting employers. There should be high-quality design standards to ensure attractive storefronts with transparency, ventilation for restaurants, and the ability of retailers to be unique and successful.
3. Public Space is Critical. Public space is also critical when planning an area. Good urban public spaces have wide sidewalks, quality street furniture (benches, bike racks, etc.), well-spaced tree pits, pedestrian-scale lighting, and interesting art and signage throughout. Travel lane widths should be squeezed down to 10-11 feet to slow car traffic and make room for bike lanes or on-street parking. There should be more frequent and well-marked pedestrian crosswalks, sometimes even mid-block, and sidewalk bump-outs at crossings to emphasize the pedestrian over the vehicle. Long stretches of sidewalk along Broad Street are too narrow and have long, raised planters that limit space for street furniture and pedestrian activity. This actually encourage cars to travel faster. It is not the design we want moving forward – we can do much better.
5. Transportation Is Crucial. Transportation is a crucial component of any area plan. For the North Washington area, for example, we absolutely must support the concept of the western gateway entrance to the East Falls Church Metro station, which Arlington proposed in its earlier planning efforts. This would significantly shorten the walking distance to the North Washington area and downtown Falls Church City. We also need to contemplate future streetcar service, currently being planned and implemented in Arlington, Fairfax and D.C.
I think these principles are important and will serve us well. But I also believe it is critical for planners to hear from others in the community regarding their values and desires. Any successful planning effort must be a joint partnership between jurisdiction, developers and residents. Creating this partnership and laying the foundation for a strong path forward is the real value of Area Planning, and I encourage all Falls Church residents to let their views be known.
Mike Novotny is a real estate development professional, a member of the Falls Church Economic Development Authority, and served on the City’s Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee.
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February 15, 2012