The Battle Over East Falls Church Heats Up

by ARLnow.com June 17, 2010 at 11:25 am 3,881 29 Comments

The battle over the future of East Falls Church was well underway before the Arlington County Board spent more than two hours on the topic Tuesday night, but the raw emotion behind the neighbor vs. neighbor conflict became especially clear as about 20 speakers took the podium to voice their opinions.

The East Falls Church (EFC) development plan calls for the creation of a “transit town” of neighborhood-oriented retail and restaurants, six to nine-story mixed-use buildings, and pedestrian-oriented walkable and bike-able streetscapes. Development is inevitable, EFC task force chairman Mike Nardolilli says, since the station will soon become the transfer point to Tysons Corner and the Silver Line. Members of the task force spent three years working on the plan and says it mostly incorporates ideas that most residents welcome, based on a neighborhood survey.

But according to one man, supporters of the plan are “passive sheep,” the task force wants “to limit our freedom,” and the proposed narrowing of Sycamore Street is “idiotic.” That invective, and any other criticism of the plan, was greeted by loud applause from like-minded folks in the audience, who were clearly in the majority.

Critics said they weren’t adequately informed about the planning, complained that development would destroy the character of their largely low-density residential neighborhood, and worried that it would bring maladies like traffic, crime and pollution.

Development is “unneeded and unnecessary,” and the planning that has gone into it is a “sham process” one person said. “We do not want to turn our residential neighborhood into another Ballston,” said another. Several people called for an environmental impact study.

On the other side, one man was so overcome by frustration with the plan’s critics that he was, at one point, literally rendered speechless at the podium. He blasted fellow residents who believe that “everything should stop” when they move to a neighborhood.

He said that when he first moved to Arlington 58 years ago, before Metro and before I-66, East Falls Church had the kind of retail core that the development plan is trying to facilitate. Compared to the building of I-66, he said, “this is a minor change.”

“Over the years I’ve seen Arlington go through many changes and every change is controversial,” the man said. “There is always somebody who’s going to object… This is a good plan, not perfect, but it’s still a good plan.”

Other “smart growth” advocates lauded the plan, while another contingent at the meeting said the plan didn’t go far enough.

Michelle Winters, acting chair of the Arlington Housing Commission, said the plan does not have the density needed to support affordable housing and other the desired retail amenities appropriate for what will soon become the Metro transfer point to Tysons Corner on the Silver Line. She and other development advocates would like to see something more akin to the higher-density Virginia Tech East Falls Church Metro Plan, which was released in 2004.

Despite all the controversy and the raised emotions, the plan — even if approved by the board — is only a “framework,” which would guide development. The board would still have to approve individual developments through its usual process.

“This in no way is going to preclude the very rigorous debate the community will have,” board member Barbara Favola said. “The board will ultimately be able to decide on specific projects that fit within this framework. That’s a very key point.”

And in fact, the real battle may be yet to come. VDOT owns two-thirds of the five acre commuter parking lot that’s at the heart of the development plan. The proposal calls for most of the lot’s several hundred spaces to be eliminated to make way for 450,000 to 600,000 square feet of mixed-use development.

However, VDOT, which is expected to reveal its thoughts on the plan in August, views the lot as “a regional asset for mobility, not just for Arlington but for residents that live along the I-66 corridor,” according to county officials. About 80 percent of the parking is used by people from outside Arlington.

Another stumbling block is a 70-foot VDOT right-of-way that would be built upon if all goes according to plan. But that seems extremely unlikely, given that VDOT will want to use the space for the widening of I-66, a key state transportation initiative.

“Well, y’all clearly need to think that one through,” board chairman Jay Fisette told county planning staff.

Board members Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada tried to diffuse some of the anti-development emotion by emphasizing that the board is not trying to turn East Falls Church into another high-density corridor.

“It’s a main street we’re trying to create, not a downtown,” Hynes said.

Ultimately, the board voted 5-0 to advertise a public hearing before the county planning commission on June 28 and a hearing before the board on July 10.

See other takes on the meeting from the Falls Church News-Press and the Sun Gazette.

  • EFC Supporter

    Crossposted in SunGazette comments – with thanks to ARLNOW for giving this issue such a thorough writeup.
    The EFC redevelopment plan is a modest proposal to shape growth in the immediate vicinity of the Metro and I support it. The scare tactics about the plan don’t live up to even rudimentary scrutiny – and the plan certainly would not affect the character of our neighborhood around the Metro station (I live within 1/2 mile of EFC).
    As for traffic – have you tried getting to I-66 on Wash Blvd in the morning? It can take an hour to go 1/4 mile from Sycamore to I-66. The current traffic has nothing to do with the Metro lot – it has everything to do with people trying to get onto I-66 – mostly westbound – that is the traffic knot that needs to be untied. Developing EFC won’t increase the traffic problems on Wash Blvd and could significantly alleviate them.
    Density is already coming to EFC. Falls Church has already rezoned Lee Highway (see the new density around the Bear Rock cafe area). The redevelopment will bring new retail and new energy to the area. I don’t fear the change and I appreciate the efforts of the task force to get community input over the past three years. If you are surprised by this it’s because you haven’t been paying attention – I have been to civic association meetings over the past several years where full presentations about the task force were given and community input solicited. This effort was done in full view of the community and the calls to slow down or start over are just euphemisms for “do nothing.”
    Lastly, if you want to see how increased development might affect our neighborhoods take a short drive down to Clarendon, park your car, and walk a block or two into the neighborhoods. You will find single family home neighborhoods very much like EFC. Maybe even stop and ask the residents how they like being “Clarendoned” – and I think you will find that they very much enjoy both the peace of their neighborhood and the vitality of being able to walk to restaurants, shops, etc.
    The EFC plan is modest in scope, was earnest in gathering community input, and is a welcome addition to our community. Of course, it may all be rendered moot if VDOT shoots down the plan. It wouldn’t surprise me if Gov McDonnell’s VDOT decides instead to build a multi-story parking garage on the VDOT parcel. Then we really would have traffic concerns to worry about.

    • Skeptical

      “Drive down to Clarendon, park your car…” Yeah. Right.

      • EFC Supporter

        Hate to break the news to you but it ain’t that hard. Try it some time. Or read Green Eggs and Ham – same concept.

        • Skeptical

          My dear fellow (?), I HAVE tried it. I’ve lived here half a century and I used to park in the Clarendon ‘hood and walk up to Metro during the time I was doing a research project at the Library of Congress — back when the Metro only went to Ballston. I remember that time; do you? I have a very clear series of snapshots in my head about how easy it has and has not been to park anywhere in Arlington over a succession of years, decades in fact.

          That development is unavoidable, and that we have to brace ourselves and advocate for the least damaging forms it can take, I won’t contest. But please, don’t insult people’s intelligence by saying “you’re going to be overrun by commercial influx and you’re going to just LOVE it.”

          • EFC Supporter

            As a matter of fact I do remember Clarendon before it developed. I remember the line of single story shops that lined the corridor and I remember the first tall building that was built in Clarendon (just up the street from St Charles and which caught on fire during construction). The EFC plan would hardly cause us to be “overrun by commercial influx” – your words not mine. Its a modest mixed use development on land that it mostly a parking lot right now – and it does not encroach on the zoning of bordering residential neighborhoods. I don’t feel “overrun” having a modest commercial strip in the Westover shopping center – in fact I love that its there and it is the beating heart of the surrounding neighborhoods – and I won’t feel overrun in having another modest commercial center at EFC Metro.

          • Skeptical

            If the EFC plan guarantees something different from Clarendon, say so, maybe post us a link to where we can see what the difference will be. I’m all ears. But you’re telling me I should go and ask Clarendon residents how much they LOVE wheat’s been done to the place. Last I remember anyone addressing that precise question, the issue in those parts was local residents fumed off at the number of entitled 20-somethings bar hopping in the area, with the expectable behavior. As for the wonderful “shops and restaurants” that people can walk to — I walk up and down Wilson and Clarendon and I see nothing useful to me. A pretentious little dress boutique. A “container store” where you can have your wallet reamed just buying gift wrap or wastebaskets. A fancy paper shop (a PAPER shop? ooh yeah, every neighborhood needs one of those). 49 Irish bars. A slick chain restaurant. An Eastern Mountain Sports, since as you know here in Arlington we have so many crags to scale, it’s important for us to be able to run out and pick up a few extra carabiners.

            The shopping strip in the middle of Westover is wonderful — in addition to a few restaurants it has a real live variety store, a modest full service grocery that sells a few inexpensive luxuries, a drugstore/pharmacy, until recently a launderette (it was closed last I passed, alas) and a post office. Nothing less like Clarendon could be imagined and I hope it stays that way.

          • EFC Supporter

            Skeptical, I’m sorry to hear that the Clarendon shops don’t measure up to your tastes and standards of value – but judging by the vitality of that area not everyone agrees with your assessment.
            Since you requested it, for a couple of additional perspectives (including maps) you can check out:
            I have to admit my bafflement over the stated reasons for opposing the redevelopment of a parking lot. Do I think that the parking issue and the traffic issue need to be carefully worked out in ways that protect the surrounding residential neighborhoods? Absolutely. Do I think that concern over these issues means that the plan out to be rejected and that we ought to just carry on without any thought to how the area develops? Absolutely NOT. And in the absence of a plan will the traffic problems that ALREADY EXIST go away? No. Putting your head in the sand and hoping our existing problems go away – or pining for days-gone-by does nothing to help us shape what our neighborhood and our community look like in the next 3, 5, 10 and 20 years.

          • Skeptical

            Do be so good as to not put words in people’s mouths. I, for one, didn’t say I opposed “redeveloping a parking lot.” I do believe it’s important to consider what is actually sustainable redevelopment. A commercial palette that caters to the desire of just-launched singles and young marrieds to live on credit isn’t what I would call a model for future “vitality.” Just because people, and sales, are hopping and jumping doesn’t mean that will be true in ten years.

            Arlington has a depressing history of promoting the bright and shiny at the expense of boring, bread and butter commerce. Was Parkington, the ancestor of Ballston, a happenin’ place? No, but successive generations of homeowners, the anchors of the community, bought their tools and garden goods and books and housewares there. Ballston Common replaced it with a slum of glitz — Sunglass Huts and come-and-go goodie stores.

            Before a backhoe hits the asphalt, granted I do not now live near EFC, I’d want to know that the plans will invite durable commercial entities — not merely adult playpens and toy stores like I see in Clarendon. I don’t think too many people in that hood feel they can get the daily necessities of life a stroll away, unless overpriced Whole Foods groceries and origami paper are considered necessities.

            Anyway, I’ll amble over to your link and see.

          • EFC Supporter

            Skeptical, your comment only serves to reinforce my point that time does not stand still and that we need to actively shape the future rather than be passively shaped by it. A short historical tour courtesy of Wikipedia.

            On November 4, 1951, the Parkington Shopping Center opened at the intersection formerly known as Balls Crossroads, on the site of the present Ballston Common Mall. Parkington was anchored by the headquarters location of the Hecht Company and was reputed to have the largest parking garage in the U.S. when it opened. For some time afterward, Ballston became commonly known as Parkington.
            At its opening, the five story, 300,000-square-foot (28,000 m2) department store was the largest on the East coast. Over the years, the $15 million Parkington Shopping Center expanded to 30 stores including Giant Food, McCrory’s, Hub Furniture, Crawford Clothes, Franc Jewelers, W.T. Grant, Wilbur-Rogers Women’s Apparel, A.S. Beck Shoes, Brentano’s Books, and Casual Corner. In May 1974, J.C. Penney opened a 36,327-square-foot (3,374.9 m2) soft line merchandise and catalog store.

            Ballston entered a period of decline in the 1960s and 1970s, but grew and changed considerably after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority opened the Ballston Metrorail station (originally to be called the “Glebe Road” station) on December 1st, 1979. By 1982, the 30-year-old Parkington Shopping Center was in need of a facelift. Beginning that year, Arlington County and the May Centers embarked on a $100 million renovation project and expansion of the shopping center (what would become Ballston Common Mall).

            But let me ask you – what do you think the County SHOULD do? I get that you are skeptical, but what are your proposed solutions? Not only for the public property such as the parking lot, but for the private property zoning? For the arrival of the Silver Line and the untangling of the traffic in the area? The Task Force spent three years wrestling with those questions and put together a proposed solution – so what is your skeptical solution?

          • Skeptical

            EFC, you seem determined to frame me as saying that the county should do nothing, or make time stand still.

            I’m trying to read the damn plan at the Scribd link you put up — which is a tough slog for someone with several different visual problems. Until I get further with that, what I’m wishing for, and hope to find, is some sort of pro-active policy of wooing commercial outlets that will serve people who are putting down roots or have got them here already.

            I am not an urban planner or a traffic management specialist; what I understand from years of living here, and care about, is that we don’t do Arlington a service when we drive out, or fail to make space for, modest businesses that serve daily needs. I know all the arguments about space going for a gajillion bucks a square foot around here, but if Sears pulls out of Clarendon and goes to Falls Church, and I follow it there for my Sears-y purchases because I can’t find anyplace convenient to fill that gap, well, my dollars are going out of the county and my exhaust is spritzing into the air just the same, isn’t it? So what measures are being taken to keep the “street level retail” here from being another series of newsstands, gewgaw stores and fast food joints?

  • Nick

    EFC residents: with all due respect, development is coming. You are about to live at a transfer point of two highly-traveled Metro lines. You can embrace smart growth policies (of which this plan is a great example) and mold what is inevitably coming, or be passive and allow developers create piecemeal projects all over your neighborhood. The former is overwhelmingly better for you and your community at large.

  • KateKirk

    I don’t oppose the commercial development but would like to see the reality of the parking issue addressed. I’m within 1/4 mile of EFC (somehow our street isn’t zoned yet) and daily see people parking on our street to walk to the metro. Many of them have suitcases, meaning they’re cheaping out on metro or DCA parking. Especially with the traffic increase that I assume will come with the Silver Line, that brings a lot of random people into my neighborhood where part of our sense of community is that we all recognize each other. Developments like Clarendon Common are super in that they combine retail, residential, commercial and also accommodate the car/transit/walk/bike situation that we are fortunate to enjoy in Arlington. I’d expect a developer at the EFC site to be as intelligent in the way they balance all of those.

    • Thes

      There’s no mystery here. Why don’t you just apply for zoned parking? It’s up to the residents on each block to ask for it if they are suffering from commuter parking. That’s what the program is for.

  • Marty

    Parking in Clarendon – NOT! Road diet for Sycamore? Bad idea – look at the back-ups on Walter Reed now and more pollution caused from idled cars.

  • Efrem Hornbostle

    The entire “urban village” high density redevelopment model is nothing more than a leftist fraud meant to jam more and more people into collective type stove pipe housing hoping that they all vote to keep Democrats in office. The addition of taxpayer funded “affordable housing units” surrounded by $600,000 upscale townhouses is another fraud meant to ease the guilt of elitist liberals that use the cloak of diversity as an excuse to jam minorities into communities they really can’t afford. The entire EFC project is a hoax, another monument to dumb growth advocates like Chris Zimmerman that want to destroy the fabric of rich and vibrant communities like EFC. Zimmerman et al have already destroyed Arlington, now they have their eyes on EFC.

    It appears the County Board wants to jam this down people’s throats before they have to run for their seats in magisterial districts.

    • Just Ignore Efram

      Go flame on another post Efrem. You have no idea what you are talking about and your drivel adds nothing to this discussion among neighbors.

      • Mike

        Keep at them Efram. You rock.

  • Debbie

    OK. I live 3 blocks from EFC metro going back towards Westover along 66. The issue that no one addressed Tuesday evening is the fact that with METRO and VDOT any development directly along the tracks will most likely be in an area with excessive noise due to the combined highway AND trains (especially with the new lane and the SILVER line). This situation does not exist at Ballston/VS/Clarendon/Pentagon City. VDOT did do noise surveys and they show this fact (look them up on the internet). Folks who live away from 66 just a few blocks do not have the excessive noise issue (even though there is an air pollution one). No ONE addressed the issue of apts/condos/homes being right adjacent to the METRO…they are talking within 70 feet. I live 100 feet away and can contest to the NOISE. Especially with evening work..THROUGHOUT the night. METRO and VDOT are nasty neighbors. Quality of life issues are important. I guess the low income housing would be on the track side of the development?

    • MB

      Did you move in before I-66 and Metro existed?

      • Debbie

        I do not know why folks ask this question of people who live in the shadow of the highway. We moved 11 years ago to the area because of the school triangle. At the time I did not realize what living next to the highway/Metro meant. The area has great attributes, including Westover, the schools, the wonderful park system. All I would not want harmed by development. The Civic Association in my area had an anal perspective on development that focused totally on the REED school…no other topic was worthy of their time. There was a small civil war between two neighboring civic associations that basically really turned a lot of people off, including me. Just turf battles that you see at work translated to your home life. So I tend to tune them out as self-serving, selfish people trying to force their opinions onto others. The issue with development at EFC is really the noise and air pollution, and TRAFFIC getting to the damn station. Whoever said the EFC is under-utilized must be retired and use the system only during non-rush hours. As I said, when we moved here is not relevant. When we move…6 years, 10 months…but who is counting?

        • MB

          At the time I did not realize what living next to the highway/Metro meant.

          We ask it because it’s relevant to evaluating your complaints. I’m not sure what part of highway noise you didn’t understand when you moved next to a highway, but I can’t say that complaints about noise evoke a lot of sympathy. It’s like the folks who move out in the country next to a farm, and then complain about the smell of cow )(@#. Uh, hello?

          In a similar vein, while I can understand why some *very* long time residents might (still) be upset about growing development around EFC, what’s coming has been pretty obvious since the 70s. Does the neighborhood think that the EFC station was built to give a few hundred people a convenient way to work? I understand strong feelings on how best to guide development, but this idea that it should be stopped or is inappropriate is just silly.

          I was at one of the EFC task force meetings at Tuckahoe earlier this year, and there was a fellow (same guy noted above, I’m betting), who said that he’d lived in Arlington for 50+ years, and if he’d taken the same attitude the anti-planning people are (and had been successful), none of them would be here.

          • Debbie

            When we moved…no third lane…no silver line…more trees than exist now. It is nice to know that such understanding folks are out there. My experience should be used by others in NOT moving into really expensive housing NEXT TO THE TRACKS! Jeez…

          • Skeptical

            I feel your pain, Debbie. I’ve lived here all my life and whenever I question anything that a gung-ho majority wants done in this county, or comment that a certain change has been for the worse, I can guarantee you that someone will say “Maybe you need to move somewhere else.” (Get out of our playground!?!)

            There may be some things we will have to suck up, but I remain baffled by the scorn I hear whenever anyone fails to act deliriously happy about every change.

  • Kevin

    I use EFC daily and use a long walk or a bus to get there. I strongly support the EFC redevelopment plan. The EFC plan is a product of hard work and compromise. It allows the EFC communities to exercise some control over the change that is already coming and to take advantage of the communities’ unique resources: which now includes access to two metro lines, a highway exit, and close proximity to several urban areas (Tysons, Seven Corners, Ballston, . . . ). I support public parks to play in and neighborhoods I can walk in. For example, the current Tuckahoe Park is somewhat isolated by major roads. Narrowing Sycamore would encourage alternate transit and bring (many) people out of their homes – helping to create a lasting sense of community. Parking lots encourage and subsidize the Fairfax and Loudoun commuters that also pushing to widen 66 through our town.

  • It’s embarrassing EFC has been neglected for so long — it’s the most under-utilized space in Arlington. Major thanks to the County Board for taking the first steps towards cultivating this resource.

  • need more info

    I would like to know where to find a copy of the proposal so that I can read it, be informed, and then voice opinion. This article does not include alink to the proposal itself and if any of the commenters have a link to current proposal, i would apprecite it. Thank you. (As a 27 year resident of the neighbor, I have NOT received in the mail any kind of detailed proposal; only invites to multi-hour meetings. A readily available document to respond to would be nice; otherwise, i agree with respondents that there is no transparency or public input to process.)

  • Rosslyn

    These arguments that “development is coming, so deal with it” are a red herring. Communities don’t have to turn everything into Queens. That is why zoning exists. Take a look at the New York suburbs (Westchester and Fairfield Counties), which have re-zoned large parcels to preserve open space and the single-family nature of their communities–withstanding takings challenges in the process. There’s nothing wrong with preserving a single-family community.

    • Thes

      And in fact, that’s what the Board just voted 5-0 to do in their “County Board Policy Determinations” on Saturday:

      “East Falls Church is a vital predominantly residential neighborhood with a Metro station located at its center. The East Falls Church Area is not now like other Arlington Metro Station areas, nor does the County Board intend to replicate the densities and massing of other Metro station areas. The presence of Interstate 66 and the Metro station, however, makes East Falls Church unlike any other low-density neighborhood in Arlington. Any proposed development should respect these distinctions while bringing to the area the kinds of shopping and recreational opportunities that exist close to many other Arlington neighborhoods. Heights and designs for new development should ***>accommodate the preservation of single-family homes,<*** while acknowledging that the proximity of the Metro station and the desire for amenities and community benefits may result in sharper transitions than would be customary near single-family neighborhoods located farther from a major transit facility." (emphasis added)

      The first numbered policy below this statement is "1. Preserve single family homes."


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