CANDIDATE Q&A: Dave Tarter
April 24, 2012
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 David Tarter, who currently serves as Chair of the Falls Church Economic Development Authority.
1. Why do you want to run for City Council?
Because I have such a great deal at stake in Falls Church. My family has lived here for years and we plan to be here for years to come. I have three children in our public school system. The City is an integral part of our lives, and our quality of life depends on the City’s success.
For the past 20 years I have been a commercial real estate and land use attorney in Northern Virginia. I’ve spent my days facilitating smart, well managed growth for the betterment of our neighboring communities.
I have gotten a great deal of pleasure out of helping these communities, and yet I have always wanted to make a bigger impact on my own community — Falls Church. Although I have had the opportunity to help our town as Chair of the Economic Development Authority and in other capacities, I feel like I have more to offer.
Serving on City Council will enable me to help the City manage smart growth and make more intelligent use of our commercial areas to ensure the excellence of our schools and City services, and rebuild our infrastructure while relieving the tax burden on homeowners.
I’m running for City Council because I believe that I can use my experience to get things done here. Our community is at a cross roads now. Getting the City moving in the right direction requires more than the good intentions of its leaders. It requires knowledgeable and experienced leadership.
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?
I strongly support area planning, also called sector planning. The way to attract desired development is to let the developers know exactly what you want. As Chair of the Economic Development Authority, I brought in Virginia Tech planners to assist us, and they created the West Jefferson Street Conceptual Plan, which has become the basis for the City’s first area plan. In addition, I advocated hiring Jim Snyder, the City’s innovative new Planning Director. He is already having a beneficial impact on the City.
As a land use lawyer working in neighboring communities, I have seen Arlington use sector plans to revitalize Clarendon, Ballston, Shirlington, Rosslyn, and other neighborhoods. The sector plans helped transform these areas from outdated, unwelcoming places to walkable, urban villages. Those communities are now green and walkable and open for business. Their vibrant commercial areas are well planned and utilized and effortlessly generate revenue to support schools and infrastructure.
In other words, the residents of those communities pay less to enjoy more. Their taxes are a full 25% lower than ours!
I know change isn’t easy in a community like Falls Church, a place many of us perceive as a little slice of perfection. But it’s necessary and can be less obtrusive than you may think. Sector planning does not necessarily entail tall, high-rise buildings. Quite the contrary. Good planning is really about context and sensitivity to existing neighborhoods. In fact, I would argue that there are few places in the City where buildings taller than 5 or 6 stories would be appropriate.
Good sector planning starts with substantial community involvement. Residents, City Staff, the Planning Commission, and others set the economic and redevelopment goals for the area’s future. It is a collaborative effort. Once the community vision for an area has been established and the plan approved, the City Council needs to hold its ground and wait for redevelopment to occur in the prescribed manner.
Redevelopment doesn’t, and shouldn’t happen overnight. It’s an evolutionary process that unfolds over time. Shirlington and Clarendon each took more than 20 years to redevelop. Crystal City is now on its second generation plan.
A good plan will include a mix of uses, such as office, retail, restaurants, entertainment, housing, and public open space to ensure a dynamic downtown. It will also address public improvements such as sidewalks, parking, public open space, crosswalks, street widths, street trees, and other details that can make all the difference.
I support the Planning Director’s plan to start by studying and re-planning eight “opportunity” nodes around the City. These areas are in key locations in commercial areas of the City. One of these areas, the eastern gateway, encompasses the former Syms site, which after decades was recently leased to a new tenant.
This was a missed opportunity for the City because this site can support a more intense business use, such an office building. If the City had a plan in place for this area, the property owner may have been able to attract a more intense office use. Instead, the building was repainted and renovated and will likely be a gym for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the twin First Virginia buildings next door generate over a million dollars in tax revenue a year for Fairfax County.
Ultimately, all of the commercial areas of Broad Street and Washington Street should be examined to make sure they are productive and attractive parts of our community.
3. What transportation improvements should the City make and why?
Falls Church has been branded The Little City, and for good reason. It consists of just 2.2 square miles. Although the City is small, we have not done enough to tie our community together.
We currently live under the old suburban commercial model popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, we’re overly reliant on cars. It’s wasteful, dirty, and expensive.
In addition to being cleaner and quieter, walking is sound business. When people walk, they stay closer to home for shopping and dining. They hang out in town longer and do more. And as the numbers of people downtown grow, the increased vibrancy feeds on itself.
In the long term, the City should plan for and seek to participate in regional transportation initiatives. One good example is the western entrance to the East Falls Church Metro station proposed by Arlington County. This plan would create a new Metro entrance from the area around the bridge over I-66, and would substantially reduce the walk time to the station for business, customers, and residents alike. It could have a tremendous economic impact on the City.
Another possibility is the streetcar service that is already planned to run from Potomac Yards, through Crystal City, Pentagon City, and up Columbia Pike to Bailey’s Crossroads. Expansion of this service through Falls Church to Tyson’s Corner and to the East and West Falls Church Metro stations seems a natural extension and could provide the catalyst for substantial economic development here.
4. What should the City do regarding the unfunded liability of teacher pensions?
The issue of unfunded teacher pensions is no laughing matter. If we do nothing but absorb it, it could lead to sharply higher homeowner taxes. And I don’t think any of us want to go there.
This is a very real issue for us. It arises because of losses in the plan during the recession due to declines in the stock market and other factors which caused teacher pensions to become underfunded. Add to that, the state legislature’s decision to transfer responsibility for the payment of certain teacher pension costs from the state to localities (essentially an unfunded mandate), and you have the potential for significant City liability.
On the other hand, I do think that situations like this one underscore the need to be creative and efficient in using the assets we have. I know I may sound a bit like a broken record, but intelligently redeveloping our downtown to create a stronger commercial tax base becomes even more crucial when unexpected mandates like this come down.
You know what else could have a strong positive influence in resolving the teacher pension mandate? The sale of our water system. There is no doubt in my mind that a set aside of long-term pension funds, created by such a sale, is preferential to the use of general funds. Pension funds can be invested in long term investments that provide much better returns than the meager amounts currently available for short term cash investments. General funds, on the other hand, can not be invested in long term assets and therefore receive low returns similar to your checking account.
5. How do you propose to address recurring flooding issues experienced by some residents and improve storm water management throughout the City?
Flooding is a catastrophe for those affected by it. It literally invades their homes, destroys their belongings, and robs them of value. With actual sewage backing up into some of these homes, it can even be a significant health problem. Insurance doesn’t even begin to cover all the consequences.
Failing to address this issue as soon as possible would be a mistake. I know. I have been dealing with flooding for eight-plus years. I personally share this frustration.
So what’s the solution?
Storm water management techniques such as rain gardens and the use of pervious surfaces can only do so much. To fix this we will ultimately need to put pipes in the ground. As far as I’m concerned, today would not be too soon to start digging.
I support the proposed enterprise fund to pay for needed improvements. This fund would be financed with storm water utility fees.
The time for action is now.
6. Should the City sell its water system? How should any proceeds be used?
I support the City’s recently announced decision to seek invitations to bid on our Water System. The City would not be required to accept the highest bidder or, for that matter, any bidder.
But let me make this clear: The water system is a non-performing asset. Keeping it without obtaining a return on investment is the civic equivalent of putting your retirement savings under your mattress.
Any sale proceeds should be wisely retained and used for the long term benefit of the community. Just as important as getting a fair price is ensuring that the proceeds are wisely retained and are not squandered away. Possible long terms uses of the proceeds include investing the money for unfunded pensions, long term school facility requirements, such as the discussed replacement for George Mason High School, and for economic development.
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?
Through my commercial real estate practice, I have become familiar with a number of practices and programs in neighboring jurisdictions that could be of great benefit to Falls Church.
For instance, in Arlington’s Colonial Village neighborhood, a pre-existing problem with parking was hampering restaurant and other merchants’ evening business. To alleviate the problem, a developer was granted a special exception approval for an office building, but with the requirement that its garage be opened (at market rates) in the evening.
I like solutions like this one because everyone wins. It was an efficient and inexpensive way to solve a problem. Without this kind of creative thinking, the community would have been left to fend for itself or struggle with the costs of building its own structured or underground lot. Instead everyone got what they needed and the community won.
There’s a lesson there for Falls Church. Finding a way to utilize the Kaiser lot next to the State Theatre would be an efficient way to solve the parking problem in that area of town.
Another tool I like is Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). Used in a number of locations around the area, they provide a mechanism for a public private partnership to promote local businesses with services such as local beautification and streetscape enhancement, local transportation enhancement such as shuttle buses and parking assistance, community events, and local-area marketing and promotion.
Other practices that I might recommend aren’t too glamorous, but they go a long way to improving a city. One is a fund contributed to by all special exception projects that would ultimately underground all utilities in commercial areas.
Similarly, “shared” cars, such as Zipcars can reduce the number of vehicles on the road and the need for expensive on-site parking.
Also, new projects in Arlington are being encouraged to provide charging stations in garages for electric vehicles.
And for dog lovers, leash free dog parks can be much enjoyed by pet and owner.
To sum it all up, we are incredibly lucky to be residents of Falls Church, but we are not without our challenges. The question is, will we be equal to the hard work and difficult decisions that are ahead of us? I know that we are, and it would be my pleasure to help lead the way.
This is the fourth of seven candidate questionnaire responses published by the Falls Church Times, and we would like to thank Mr. Tarter 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 24, 2012