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

Height Map recently approved as part of the White Flint Sector Plan

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 protected]. Shorter submissions may be published as a Letter to the Editor.

April 23, 2010 


15 Responses to “COMMUNITY COMMENT:
Part 1: Creating a Commercial Market in Falls Church”

  1. Nikki Graves Henderson on April 23rd, 2010 7:48 am

    When I arrived in the city (2002) I wondered why no one had incorporated the historic Falls Church, the old blacksmith shop, the 121 Building, Henderson House, Big Chimneys, or the wonderful little strip on the S. Washington Street corridor and its unique ethnic businesses, funky little shops or open spaces such as Tinner Hill, (although partially in Fairfax County – – & speaking of walkability – a person could get killed trying to cross S. Washington at any point after Annandale all the way up to Cameron St – there will have to be some serious attention paid to that in the future/go @ 6:00 pm- but I suppose everyone knows that is the secret fast lane to & from Fairfax/Loudon Cty during rush hour) and Cavalier Park – and its enchanting walking trail). Now that Creative Cauldron has created a shining light on that end of town that draws a steady stream of visitors and Pearson Square has a community of residents highly invested in the city that are eager to live, shop and play in the little city – the human element is there. . . what we need is long term, strategic planning. . . the planning you’re speaking of sounds like a good start!

  2. Johannah Barry, Falls Church City on April 23rd, 2010 10:28 am

    Mike, this is precisely the comprehensive and coherent thinking around development that we need. I fail to understand the mendicant attitude of city officials who wait, anxiously wringing their hands, for development to appear. With serious stakeholder (neighborhood) involvement, we can present and market a vision into which development can be incorporated. Without it, we have protracted negotiations with neighborhoods and developers and in the end nothing moves forward and everyone is disappointed. As an E Jefferson Street resident, trust me on this one. This is hard work you propose, but I think City residents are ready to roll up their collective sleeves and engage in resource development that will serve this city well. Long term strategic planning, long range vision, and neighborhoods which reflect the unique nature and character of Falls Church. This is all do-able. Let’s get going.

  3. Ron Peppe (Falls Church City) on April 23rd, 2010 2:46 pm

    Mike- thanks for presently this so clearly. It certainly seems to make sense going forward. Is anyone opposing doing it this way to keep things moving ahead?


  4. Bob Burnett Falls Church City on April 23rd, 2010 4:42 pm

    Mike-thanks for your work on this. I visited the White Flint Sector Plan goals and the following outline was included below. As you can see many aspects point (as does the street rendering image included above) to great things associated with people being in proximity to the development. That means an element of residential inclusion-in fact the White Flint plan includes affordable housing. As you mentioned, White Flint was successful in moving their sector plan forward. Let’s hope we learn from their success and include the elements they found important in creating “place”.

    White Flint Plan’s Goals:
    * create thriving, diverse mixed use center with highest intensity closest to Metro and along Rockville Pike
    * create new parks and open spaces
    * transform Rockville Pike into a boulevard with a landscape median, street trees and improved crosswalks
    * develop a transportation network that includes a grid of new public streets
    * improve the pedestrian and bicycling environment
    * promote sustainable development
    * create new public facilities
    * provide affordable housing
    * promote innovative ways to finance and manage new infrastructure

  5. Ira Kaylin, Falls Church City on April 23rd, 2010 5:29 pm


    Thanks for your excellent article. The concept of Sector planning, particularly as it pertains to the S. Maple Ave area, serves two purposes: first, it will help create a vital and exciting part of town which at the moment is severely underutilized; second it would increase revenues to the City.

    As a member of the Economic Development Authority, I was able to see a previous detailed presentation on the concept of Sector planning. Mike will no doubt explain some of the financial benefits in his next installment. Without giving away “the ending of the story” it can be said that development of this “Sector” could, by itself, go a long way to meeting the City’s future revenue requirements. It could be an integral component of the City’s long term fiscal self sufficiency.

    It is precisely the types of issues raised by Nikki Graves Henderson that a planning approach as outlined by Mike could be addressed as a whole. Piecemeal solutions have not worked in the past and they are less likely to be successful in the future.

    Such planning could serve as the long term foundation for a vibrant Falls Church City where, the charm of the residential core of the City could be retained, while generating revenue that will permit the City to maintain its school system and essential City services. Development could take place at the perimeter of the City along established business corridors.

    As to Ron’s question; there have been those who claim that the Sector planning has been tried in Falls Church and has failed for a variety of reasons. However, nothing of the scope, detail and comprehensiveness of Sector planning as it has been used in Arlington or other neighboring jurisdictions has been attempted in Falls Church. The City is evolving quickly, as has the economic environment in which Falls Church lives.

    I strongly support this initiative.


  6. Ira Kaylin, Falls Church City on April 23rd, 2010 5:38 pm

    A further thought.

    I would like to echo the comments made by Johannah regarding the need to provide developers a plan from which they can work; with knowledge that a mutually beneficial arrangement can be achieved.

    As to the comment by Bob Barnett, which was received as I was submitting mine; I fully agree.


  7. Sheila Frost – City of Falls Church on April 23rd, 2010 9:59 pm

    @ Nikki: I had a similar experience with the historic buildings/sites that you had when we first moved here. Maybe marketing these sites would help a little.

    I like the basic idea of sector planning for providing a thoughtful layout, but I think Falls Church City should do even better by working with developers who have out-of-the-box vision when it comes to design.

    In my opinion, the problem with revitalized spaces like Ballston and Clarendon is that despite the parking garages, the lovely sidewalks, mini parks, and spiffy looking buildings, they’re too sterile. And then it’s coupled with retail space devoted to “comfortable” chain stores. Why not break from current tradition and design the buildings so the retail spaces look different, one from another, even if they share walls? Sometimes I think these newly-built spaces look like prettier versions of strip malls, only with apartments on top. How about using something other than brick? Hire a Scandinavian or German or South African architect?

    How about if we make a concerted effort to encourage more eclectic and unique stores (to add to the ones we already have)? Our family makes special day trips to Carytown in Richmond because we like the mix of stores and restaurants there. Our latest find: the MOST INCREDIBLE chocolate store, For the Love of Chocolate (people wouldn’t care if the parking were hard to find-they’d stop and circle around anyway if we had one of those). A couple other ideas: a burger joint like Carytown Burger and Fries; a funky breakfast place, like Lynn’s Paradise Cafe in Louisville, KY; something like Voodoo Donuts in Portland, OR; a Macy’s Coffee and Bakery like in Flagstaff, AZ… Okay, I might be going a little off in the funky direction, but… it seems to me it would fit with the arts scene that folks would like to develop here.

    Just tossing around ideas!

  8. Carol Jackson on April 23rd, 2010 10:39 pm

    The Congress of New Urbanism has a stable of “sector planning” experts who specialize in conducting wholistic, detailed planning to include the variety of elements you all are agreeing are important to be in the mix for downtown commercial/cultural design district. Creative “outside the box” CNU teams are available for hire at costs that are extremely reasonable compared to the normal planning consultants for which you communities pay thru the nose and end up with a “one size fits all” solution depending on the breadth of expertise hired.

    There is a CNU gentleman who passed thru FC for another purpose a few years ago and caught the vision that our small territory is ripe for the type of creative, wholistic planning CNU teams can provide. He tried to interest City leadership at that time in providing such a team based planning proposal, but the timing was not right. I would love to put him in touch with the EDA, Mike and Ira. We do need a renewed vision for what we want in our commercial districts especially, but the whole town can be included in the type of planning CNU likes to do that involves reps from all segments of FC groups and citizens.

    I agree with Ron-let’s get going.

  9. Carol Jackson on April 23rd, 2010 10:47 pm

    P.S. Funky is good image for FC, as long as the quality is top notch-it gives the City a remembered image, especially since the retail and commercial dev experts have told us over and over again that FC City is not an attractive market to chains and mainstream retailers.

    Carytown image is perfect for FC. Too bad we don’t have more Main Street-like buildings with real live/work store fronts with mom and pop apartments overhead, but we can create those in future.

    Another resident of FC has a best friend who owns one of a kind hot dog “stands” named Jack’s Cosmic Dog. They are first class quality-retro decor and so popular with kids and everyone, such a casual place with quality food and memborable Kitsch would be an overnight success in FC.

  10. Carol Jackson on April 24th, 2010 7:19 am

    Check it out: WP Real Estate Section this morning features Roger Lewis column very applicable to this conversation and the type of planning FC has begun with Streetworks and hopefully the Zoning Code rewrite. It’s an encouraging picture of the end game we can all get behind to make progress by planning smart to redevelop our commercial districts to be places our future generations want to live now as young adults and will thank their elders for planning as the decades play out. I think Roger Lewis is a Congress of New Urbanism member-that association has a wide but well focussed big tent of planners, architects, economic development types, etc.

    Check out: 2008 City’s Vehicle and Pedestrian Master Plan for City Center blocks below and above Broad. Council passed it as admendment to 2005 Master Plan upon recommendation from Planning staff and Planning Commission, I would guess. It begins the infratstructure design that new development needs for to rely on when bringing for public approval their expensive redevelopment plans in hopes they won’t get significantly reworked during the “case by case” process.

  11. Lou Mauro on April 24th, 2010 11:41 pm

    Carol Jackson says “Too bad we don’t have more Main Street-like buildings with real live/work store fronts with mom and pop apartments overhead….” Too bad indeed! For once I agree 100% with Carol. That is precisely the appropriate development (or redevelopment) vision for The City of Falls Church, whether it’s undertaken pursuant to Streetworks concepts, Mike Novotny’s Sector planning, Carol’s Creative New Urbanism, some other planning methodology, or a combination thereof. Unlike our current “wannabe” Ballston/Clarendon/Shirlington posture, it is not only appropriate for FC, it can be achieved here.

    There are two critical prerequisites:
    1. Parking, parking, parking and more parking.
    2. The civic and political will to resist developers who will continue to insist that any development must be at least 70 to 80% high-density residential because that it is only way they can make enough profit.

  12. Chris Hatfield on April 25th, 2010 1:46 pm

    Can anyone provide the history on why Falls Church was bypassed when Metro was being considered? Did Falls Church decline a metro stop, or were we never approached? History, please!!

  13. TFC on April 25th, 2010 2:38 pm

    That would be interesting to revisit. It was a long time ago….I’m thinking there was something about running it in the Rt 66 bed so, it needed to follow that path. Rt 66, now that was a big, big, big issue when deciding on the exact location for it to be built. It was also a long time ago but it created a lot of controversy back then. A friend lived in a house on Roosevelt street. The house was to be bought by Arl to put in 66 so the friend had to move. There were so many changes that in the end…the house still stands today.

  14. Richard Sommerfeld on April 25th, 2010 7:12 pm

    Sheila, we don’t need any more buildings like the flower building. It’s a visual carbuncle, but nothing that a few cans of paint could not fix in a jiffy. The problem when you get into the zone of eclectic is that everyone has an opinion rather than a theme. We do need a well thought through development plan. Clarendon is not all that bad and neither is the Reston town center or Frederick, Maryland. It’s not just the astetics, but also the way the zoning is planned to attract office space and retail. The trolly line would be a plus for Falls Church. Arlington forced the Metro into a development corridor. Falls Church did not. In Falls Church, we have traditionally opted for small business which are not in a position to take up all of the vacant retail space. Our office and retail vacancy rate is currently ~13%. I agree with Mike Novotny.

  15. Michael Slonim on May 3rd, 2010 11:22 pm

    Excellent piece…just read it today. Did I miss part 2? You hit the nail on the head with your point that we can’t work on one project at a time. When I look at successful projects such as downtown Bethesda, I see good comprehensive planning. However, one issue Bethesda’s Federal Realty didn’t have to face is the large number of land owners here vs. consolidated parcels in Bethesda. As for areas of concentration, while I’m all in favor of a vibrant City Center, I think the City should concentrate on the “triangle” area between the bike bridge, cement factory and D.B. Volvo. This area is only blocks away from the metro (and future Dulles line) and is woefully underutilized.

    a good example of the result is the Broad Street streetlamp program a few years back – while the bricks and lighting are excellent, it was not done in coordination with development projectsYou are on the right path…I’m glad to know you are on the EDC.

    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.

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