CANDIDATE Q&A: John Lawrence
The Falls Church Times recently invited each candidate running in the May 1 election for Falls Church City Council to respond to a seven-part questionnaire. Today we publish the responses of John Lawrence, who currently serves as Vice Chairman of the Falls Church Planning Commission.
My wife, Mary Ann, and I moved to Falls Church almost 14 years ago shortly after getting married. We wanted a place where we could raise a family and stay for a lifetime. We found it. The other part of the family took a few years, but our son Evan was born in 2002 and we couldn’t be happier here.
I have been very active in the City and community for many years. I am currently the Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission (Chairman, 2009-2010), a Trustee of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, a member of a joint School Board-Planning Commission-City Council school facilities working group (“LEAPFROG”), and former Vice Chairman of the School Board-appointed Day Care Task Force. I’ve also done my best to coach Little League baseball as well as Community Center basketball and I apologize to all the kids who’ve had to suffer through this.
In 2007, I was appointed to the Planning Commission and, for those of you who have been around for a while, you know that I ran into a baptism by fire called “City Center.” In the next year, I was certified as a Planning Commissioner in the Commonwealth of Virginia and my colleagues recognized my dedication to the Commission’s work by voting me Vice Chairman in 2008. For 2009-2010, I served as Chairman and have since moved back to Vice Chair as the Commission has term limits. My work has given me a comprehensive view of the City, as the Commission is tasked with making recommendations to the Council on the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) each year, including school facilities as well as working on any significant commercial development in the City.
And related to school facilities, I serve as a Commission representative to the joint School Board-Planning Commission-City Council working group (“LEAPFROG”) looking at long-term facilities issues and needs. As part of this work, I strongly supported the City’s application for interest-free bonds from the state and have pressed for quick action on the expansion of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School – a project that should break ground this summer. I am acutely aware of the school facilities needs we face.
No other candidate possesses my practical and conceptual depth of experience when it comes to planning and development in the City as well as support for the schools and knowledge of the major facilities needs we face. We need to strongly press for new commercial development, with an eye toward not only being able to decrease the tax rate, but also start saving for a new high school which is in our future and we can’t keep ignoring this elephant in the room. If we don’t start practical planning NOW, taxes will only continue to rise and our schools will continue to get patched up on an ad hoc basis, which is a recipe for a very expensive disaster down the road. Please vote for me on May 1 and get us on the road to improvement, not the same old status quo. [Lawrence's campaign website is www.jdlforfallschurch.com.]
1. Why do you want to be on City Council?
I want to be on Council because I’m frustrated with having to watch what I see as good investment opportunities languish as we take a “sit back and see” approach to developers who come to us. It may be a surprise to many, but we’ve received quite a few serious expressions of interest in development in the City. Some have even indicated that they can self-finance their projects. And yet the current Council still approaches such opportunities with too much caution and not enough aggressiveness. We shouldn’t sit back and wait for a developer to tell us how a project can work for us because they’re in business to make it work for them. We should actively work with them to show how we can BOTH make it work.
For the City, we have complicated issues related to development: potential revenue, density, impact on residences, traffic issues, noise, additional burden on City facilities, etc. But for a developer, it’s easier: The numbers need to add up or they won’t do it. For them, it’s simple math and if we can’t show them that 2+2 will equal 4 (or pretty damn close), we won’t be able to get them to invest. Period. I have the practical planning and development experience from many years on the Planning Commission to be able to work this process. In addition, in my day job I handle Congressional Affairs for a non-profit and, just like working with developers; it’s all about building relationships backed up by practical expertise. We need to develop relationships with builders so that we can achieve our complicated goals at the same time the developers achieve their simple ones.
2. Do you support the City’s current “area planning” effort and redevelopment of our commercial corridors? If not, why not? If so, what areas of the City would you focus on, and what kinds of development would you like to see there?
Seriously? I’ll give $100 to any candidate who answers “no” to this question. Really. I will.
Area planning is key and I strongly support it. The Planning Commission recognized this years ago and has incorporated this approach into our Comprehensive Plan for many years (previously known as “Opportunity Areas”). Now the Commission, which I have chaired in the past and on which I am now vice chair, is going further with these area plans. They are developed in conjunction with the citizens in extensive public discussion, amended and improved upon by the Planning Commission, and then sent to the Council for final consideration and passage. We’ve done one and we have seven to go which is why I have fought for the past year to get more money devoted to the Planning Department. I applaud the City Manager for adding two new planning positions in his proposed budget and strongly urge the Council to approve them. Without the staff resources we can’t plan what we want for the City and if we can’t plan for what we want, we have no chance of ever getting it.
We need to focus on the 8 areas already in our Comp. Plan that represent the key areas where we can concentrate good commercial development, including: north and south Washington Street, the City Center area, and the east and west gateways. Here we can have much more dense development than we have traditionally had while still sheltering our residential areas to the greatest extent possible and preserving the overwhelming residential nature of our City. What should go there? First priority would be commercial offices, followed by retail, and in select areas, residential. This is not a chicken-and-egg proposition. We need to press for a range of commercial/residential investment simultaneously and be willing to put our money where the City’s mouth is to help make this development happen.
3. What transportation improvements should the City make and why?
First, we need to take full advantage of the grants we have in hand and move quickly on S. Washington Street improvements, including intermodal connections, safer crosswalks, etc.
We also need to decide where our priorities are for additional parking and get public spaces in any development that goes in. In addition, we need to look for places to put small parking decks that can serve an entire area easily. We don’t need huge decks. We need decks that work.
All developments with a residential component (unless right next to another) should have a BikeShare station mandated. I see how heavily these stations are used in DC and it’s just a matter of time before WMATA installs them at East and West Falls Church. In the meantime, we should have developers put them in projects so that we are building an intra-city network that would allow people to ride easily between points throughout Falls Church.
And as we get increased, successful commercial development, we’ll need to look again at a circulator bus. Yes, I know. I can hear some of you groan. Not a well-intentioned, but flawed GEORGE system with giant buses, but something smaller and more practical. As we get more dense, we need to find ways to decrease car use and encourage people to park/walk, bike/walk, etc. A nimble circulator should be part of this.
We also have a very thorough Pedestrian and Bike plan on the table now and we should complete extensive public consultations and start implementing this vision. Some of the proposals, such as eliminating on-street parking on both sides of heavily trafficked streets, need to, and no doubt will, be changed, but that’s what the public consultation process is all about. We need a plan that will work in practical terms for the people of this City not something that is just theoretically perfect on paper.
As for proposals for a light rail/streetcar/trolley down Broad Street, all I can say is that no one has convinced me that this makes any sense. I realize other jurisdictions are looking into it, but that just reminds me of my mother’s old saying: “If Fairfax County jumped off a roof, would you?” I can’t say I would.
4. What should the City do regarding the unfunded liability of teacher pensions?
Trying to get out ahead of this issue — rather than waiting for Richmond to hit us with it at some unspecified time in the future — is the right way to go and I applaud the Council and School Board for doing this. But I do not agree that ALL proceeds from a possible sale of the water system should automatically go toward this pension fund (see Question 6). We need to use some of this money for very practical immediate purposes (like encouraging economic development) not just automatically put it all in a lockbox.
5. How do you propose to address recurring flooding issues experienced by some residents and improve storm water management throughout the City?
I think the Watershed/Stormwater Management Plan proposed by City staff is a great place to start. It shows that the City wants to address this issue in a comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, way. This plan also clearly recognizes that what we have to deal with is not only a question of water quantity, but also water quality as part of our contribution to helping the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
I like the idea of a pervious surface fee to go into an Enterprise Fund to help mitigate water issues, but given the massive amount of staff time needed to calculate residential pervious surfaces and monitor changes, I think this should be a flat fee. For commercial projects, however, such a calculation of a fee based on percentage of surface covered could work. But there needs to be a carrot, not just a stick and if a business (or residence) can show that they’ve decreased their pervious surface we need a system to recognize and reward that with a decreased fee. Otherwise, this is just a penalty for “bad” practices rather than an incentive to encourage “good” practices.
6. Should the City sell its water system? How should any proceeds be used?
Given that almost all deliberations on the sale have been behind closed doors, I can’t address questions such as whether or not Fairfax County’s assertion that we need their permission to do anything is valid. Assuming it is not and we can sell the system (as opposed to being hijacked into a “merger” with Fairfax) we should sell it. We need to use an overwhelming majority of the proceeds for savings or for pensions as has been proposed by one Council member. I do not think, however, that ALL the proceeds should go toward pensions unless the amount we receive ends up being very small and if that’s the case, I’d question whether or not a sale makes sense at this time. We’ve put tens of millions of dollars into one of the best, most reliable systems in the DC area for more than half a century. We need to be paid appropriately for that asset, our investment, our risks, and our forethought.
7. 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?
Other jurisdictions have managed to implement revenue-sharing programs for their school budgets. We need to study how they were able to do it and why it worked and decide – finally – whether or not to proceed. We need to decide and stop talking, bitterly, around this issue every year. If we can’t make it a win-win for the City AND the schools, it can’t work. We need to stop talking around it. We need to study it and vote. Others have done it. Can we?
This is the final of seven candidate questionnaire responses published by the Falls Church Times, and we would like to thank Mr. Lawrence and all the candidates for their participation. Below are links to the responses of each candidate.
The candidates also have provided responses for the Voters Guide of the League of Women Voters and the Candidate Q&A of the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society. We encourage all registered voters to review these materials and vote on Tuesday May 1.
By Falls Church Times Staff
April 27, 2012