As I was walking my dog the other morning I was struck by the fact that the City of Falls Church, Virginia, the quaintly bucolic suburban “village” to which our family moved in mid-2001, was no longer suburban. It isn’t a city in the proper sense, like Washington, DC or even Alexandria, Virginia, but it is reflective of the trend towards quasi-urban places in the close-in rings – the original turn-of-the-century and pre-Levittown suburbs – enveloping our city cores.
The City of Falls Church was formed around the middle of the last century by a group of secessionists residing in what was then a sliver of Fairfax County along the Arlington County border. The candy coated version of the city’s history holds that these secessionists were seeking to create a better school system for their children; the more cynical view is that they were creating a segregated, white school system. Whichever version of the truth you prefer, the Falls Church City Public Schools subsequently became the first public school system in the Commonwealth of Virginia to adopt the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) curriculum. In 2001, the city’s George Mason High School ranked #5 among the country’s most-challenging high schools, eventually reaching #2.
Like many other metro areas, the geographic pattern of regional growth in the Washington metro area has been driven in by the successes of its suburban public school systems, with the Fairfax County and Montgomery County, Maryland, school districts being the most notable. A metro Atlanta county executive explained this phenomenon thusly: “People don’t want to live where they can’t educate their kids,” rationalizing why his county, with a well-respected public school system, was growing and thriving while the neighboring county, with a somewhat derided public school system, was not.
So homebuyers have flocked to the City of Falls Church and its nationally ranked high school, putting sufficient pressure on home prices (primarily single-family detached homes on modest-sized yet verdant lots) to raise the median price precipitously. The high school certainly was a primary motivation for our move from Del Ray.
Yet when we left our Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria we also wanted to replicate – to the greatest extent possible – our community’s walkability and mixed-use character. Yet these fundamental attributes were not as pronounced in the City of Falls Church, in part because it is bisected by two major arterials: Va. Route 7 (cleverly named “Broad Street,” being four lanes wide), an east-west connector; and Washington Street, also known as Lee Highway or Rte 29, a north-south connector (also four-lanes wide but the name “Broad Street” had apparently already been taken).
When we arrived in the city the stretch of Route 7 that extends west from this major intersection was characterized primarily by low-scale (i.e. one and two-story) retail and commercial buildings. The predominant commercial building typology along one stretch of Route 7 was one-and-a-half story single-family residential structures fronted by surface parking adapted for commercial uses (palm reading, anyone?), reflecting neither good urban nor suburban values.
And yet since 2001 things began to change for the better. Local elected leaders had an epiphany that a city of two-square miles is not sustainable. Relying almost exclusively on property tax revenues from single-family detached homes simply does not generate enough money to cover the expenses they generate. The success of similar suburban-to-urban transformations in nearby Arlington County along the Metro line – like Clarendon and Ballston – was both instructive and politically comforting. City leaders and staff began to embrace the concept of denser mixed-use development, although not without taking some political heat from those insisting that their suburban village be protected and preserved.
Today, Route 7 benefits from four, very urban mixed-use buildings – ranging in height from four to eight stories – adding dramatically to the diversity of the city’s housing stock, helping to diversify the city’s tax base, and putting boots (or at least pumps and loafers) on the street. These new buildings also provide a much better focus for the city’s “Main Street” than the single-story structures they replaced, with the new building heights and strong street walls better modulating the width and traffic flow on Route 7. A fifth new building is currently under construction and a hotel has also been approved.
In addition, two new, mid-rise, mixed-use projects now anchor either end of Lee Highway, and an ambitious City Center project may finally become a reality, potentially trumping the visual cacophony of the nearby Route 7/Lee Highway intersection (an excellent example of bad urban forms meet typical low-rise, suburban development). Moreover, the attendant broadening of the tax base will eventually insulate the city’s fortunes from the ebbs-and-flows of either the commercial or the residential real estate markets.
As a result, in terms of physical form and character the City of Falls Church is now much closer to “urban” than “suburban.” As ground floor retail spaces fill in and mid-rise residential units become fully occupied, that evolution from suburban to urban will become more pronounced. Residents in the single-family detached homes and newly minted McMansions lining the neighborhood streets on both sides of Route 7 also will benefit from having many more things to see and do within walking distance of their homes.
The small-town origins of the city can still play out in somewhat nostalgic events like the Annual Memorial Day Parade (and who doesn’t love to see Shriners in their fezzes and tiny race cars). Neighbors will continue their weekly chats at the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market at City Hall. However, the train has clearly left the station on the question of whether the City of Falls Church is still a classic suburb: The only question remaining may be “What the heck do we call this thing?”
Do any of you have a good idea?
Peter Smirniotopoulos, Vice President – Development of UniDev, LLC, is based in the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, and works throughout the U.S. He is on the faculty of the Masters in Science in Real Estate program at Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed herein are solely his own.