Tysons, VA

The arduous journey toward a re-imagined West Falls Church Transit Station Area is drawing to a close with the last two approvals slated for this summer.

“I want to thank the entire team for two-and-a-half years of dedicated work on behalf of the Dranesville district,” Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said during a community meeting on Tuesday (May 11). “This has been a long, difficult process, and as a consequence, the product is much better. The time was well spent. The product is good — and getting better — and we still have some time.”

The development plan will go before the Fairfax County Planning Commission on June 16 and the Board of Supervisors on July 13. The plan was narrowly approved by a task force that voted 5-3-1 earlier this month.

When the proposed plan was presented to the community for the first time on Tuesday, however, some residents expressed concerns about traffic along Haycock Road, pedestrian safety, and distance from Virginia Tech’s property.

“I’m not anti-development, but I’m really concerned,” one attendee said. “I’ve been trying to get our streets to be safer as they’re crowded with cars.”

Predicting that the new I-66 exit ramp will pour traffic into the new community, she asked staff to find a way to make it inconvenient to “pop out onto Haycock Road” for those looking to get to Tysons, DC or Arlington “as fast as possible.”

“I know every area is screaming for sidewalks, but one thing you could do is paint the speed limit or look at other creative, inexpensive ways that communities have found to reduce the speed and the number of cut-thru cars, and make better buffers and calming measures for people who live here, pay taxes and are part of the community,” she said.

The draft plan includes language directing the county to develop a West Falls Church Active Transportation Plan with recommendations for transportation improvements that will increase connectivity, fill in missing or inadequate facilities, and promote walking and bicycling.

“County staff are working on this,” county transportation planner Tim Kutz said. “A follow-up motion will be approved after the plan amendment goes forward and we’ll be reaching out in the fall to continue engaging with you. Getting your perspective is going to be critical in developing recommendations to increase active transportation in the area.”

The plan includes mitigation measures for what people perceive as “bad traffic,” with signal timing, new signals and reconfigured intersections, county planner Bryan Botello said.

Residents worried there was little to ensure the local government implements those changes, but staff said these changes will happen when developers come into the picture.

“The improvements approved are recommendations that would happen when the development team is actually going to the rezoning and development review stage,” senior transportation planner Bob Pikora said. “The comprehensive plan informs what we will be doing in the zoning and review phases, but the developments will be up to the development team.”

More landscaped buffers and green spaces have been added to the plan, according to staff.

New plans have not materialized for the Virginia Tech property after the university nixed a project to expand its Northern Virginia Center with a design school and other facilities. But some task force members were keen to get a buffer between the campus and nearby housing.

“We’ve added an additional landscaped buffer between Virginia Tech and the Villages condominium, and added additional language that strengthens the buffer, and creates a linear park,” Botello said.

Housing will be separated from Virginia Tech by landscaped buffers, a pedestrian walkway, a road and streetscaping, according to the plan.

The new plan envisions a sequence of parks through the area instead of the courtyard featured in the current comprehensive plan.

“There are really a lack of options for accessible parks south of I-66, so it was certainly a priority for us when we were drafting the plan,” Botello said, noting that the park areas shown below could take the form of pocket parks, urban greens, or a civic plaza.

A recreational park is envisioned at the northeast corner of the study area, at the corner of Haycock Road and Metro Access Road.

Images via Fairfax County

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The City of Falls Church is keeping some of the relaxed restrictions on noise levels for businesses put into effect during the pandemic, but it isn’t going as far as some on the city council have wanted.

The Falls Church City Council voted 6-1 on Monday (May 10) to accept city staff’s recommendation to adopt a new noise ordinance that codifies the extension of what is considered “daytime hours” for noise levels up to 10 p.m.

The change was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to help local businesses. However, a suggestion to extend the definition of daytime hours to 10:30 p.m. was not approved.

A proposal to increase the maximum decibel levels was also struck down after staff gathered city council members in a field to hear what different decibels sounded like. The current level for commercial districts of 65 decibels will stay intact.

Some councilmembers worried this could set up problems for some businesses down the road. In particular, Councilmember Ross Litkenhous said he was concerned about entertainment venues struggling to come back, like the State Theater.

“I’m not convinced that, for a weekend night, for a venue that wants to play music, that 65 decibels is the appropriate level,” Litkenhous said. “Is it 75? I don’t know, but keeping it at 65 decibels is setting those businesses up for controversy.”

Litkenhous was the sole vote against the approval of staff’s recommendation for the ordinance.

Photo via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

Virginia to Lift All Capacity Restrictions on June 15 — If COVID-19 cases continue to decline, Gov. Ralph Northam will lift all remaining capacity limits on businesses on June 15, as suggested last week. He has not decided whether to extend the state of emergency set to expire on June 30, a move that would be necessary to keep mask requirements in place. [WTOP]

Metro Will Expand Bus Service in June — Starting June 6, Metrobus will provide late-night service until 2 a.m. on 36 of its busiest routes, and some other routes will have service increased, in some cases to pre-pandemic levels. The changes will bring the overall bus system to 85% of its pre-pandemic service levels after Metrobus averaged about 180,000 passenger trips per day on weekdays in April. [WMATA]

Citizen Catches Rabid Cat in Falls Church — Falls Church City is urging residents to contact the police or Fairfax County Health Department if they’ve been bitten or scratched by a cat in the past two weeks after a stray gray-and-white domestic long-haired cat tested positive for rabies. The cat was first spotted “in the 100 block of Gresham Place on May 2 and again in the 100 block of W. Jefferson Street on May 3 where it injured a citizen who was able to capture it.” [City of Falls Church]

Reminder: Wolf Trap Tickets Go on Sale Today — Tickets for Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts’ initial batch of summer performances will be on sale starting at 10 a.m. Highlighted by a 50th anniversary gala concert, these will be the first live, in-person events at the venue since December 2019. [Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts]

New Mural Coming to The Boro — Work has begun on a mural by Baltimore artists Jessie and Katy that will grace the Leesburg Pike side of The Loft, an office building in the Tysons mixed-use development. Expected to be completed later this spring, the mural will be among the largest in the D.C. area at 400 feet long and 80 feet high. [The Boro/press release]

Falls Church Dentist Moves to Larger Location — “Congratulations to Dr. Ramineh Kangarloo and the team at Gentle Touch Dentistry For All Ages for expanding to a larger location in the Providence District! Thank you for serving the community and finding ways to give back.” [Supervisor Dalia Palchik/Twitter]

Photo by Joanne Liebig

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(Updated 4/7/21) After two years, the West Falls Church TSA Task Force pushed through a tense nearly-three hour meeting to finally approve an updated plan that will guide the overhaul of one of the Metro system’s most underused stations.

In recent meetings, some lingering divides on the task force sometimes escalated into heated moments between those with concerns about pedestrian safety and those pushing for approval of the plan to usher in new growth to the area.

“I think this plan exemplifies the transit-oriented development goals [and] represents an intensity of uses that we would expect for a vibrant, active Metro station,” Bryan Botello, a Fairfax County planner who helped oversee the task force, said.

Botello argued that the plan addresses two of the main concerns raised by task force members, namely ones related to pedestrian connectivity and safety and the efficiency of the area’s road network.

“I think this plan really balances the priorities of all road users,” he said. “…It should satisfy everyone and improves connectivity to the Metro for pedestrians and provides more efficient traffic operations.”

Covering roughly 156 acres near the West Falls Church Metro station, the new plan is a complicated patchwork of transportation and development suggestions.

The task force did hit a stumbling block when one of the major impetuses for its creation — the development of the Virginia Tech campus — was abruptly canceled earlier this year.

While county staff endorsed the plan, two of its most vocal critics, Christopher Szara and Paul Rothstein, who represent the nearby residential development The Villages, said the plan doesn’t go far enough in protecting and improving pedestrian transportation options in the area.

A motion by Rothstein to delay approval of the plan until further study by the Virginia Department of Transportation was struck down by the rest of the task force.

“We have had concerns…regarding traffic and the impact of the project outside of the scope of our discussion here, and the added impact of the WMATA project,” Szara said. “Traffic is a concern and I’m not convinced its been adequately addressed. I know over the last year we’ve been lulled into submission with regards to traffic, but having been a commuter for many many years I know how bad it can be, and having my son go to Haycock and him walking to school, I know how treacherous that can be.”

Szara, Rothstein, and task force chair David Wuehrmann voted no on the plan but were beaten by five votes in favor and one abstension.

McLean Citizens Association representative Darren Ewing had been a leading voice pushing for approval of the plan that evening.

“First and foremost, the [plan amendment] we’re entertaining here is consistent with the MCA’s long standing that density is appropriate at Metro sites,” Ewing said. “We have a failing Metro station with pre-COVID Metro ridership levels at 25,000 trips per day, one of the lowest number of trips in the entire Metro system. It’s not an inviting station, it’s a suburban parking lot, and it doesn’t encourage walking or biking. Even the park-and-ride is operating at 60% capacity pre-COVID.”

An email from MCA President Rob Jackson noted that, while the MCA is on record as supporting higher density at Metrorail stations, it has not adopted a position on the West Falls Church Comprehensive Plan Amendment.

“Our Planning & Zoning Committee will be preparing a resolution setting forth a recommended position that is expected to be presented to the MCA board at its June meeting,” Jackson said.

Following the task force’s approval, the plan will be discussed in a community meeting on Tuesday (May 11) before going to the Planning Commission on June 16 and Board of Supervisors on July 13.

Image via Fairfax County

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Morning Notes

Wind Advisory in Effect — The National Weather Service has issued a Wind Advisory for the D.C. area, including Fairfax County, starting at noon today (Friday). In effect until 2 a.m. Saturday, the alert says to expect northwest winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 55 miles per hour. Gusts could blow around unsecured objects and bring down tree limbs, potentially leading to power outages. [NWS]

McLean Community Center Gets New Executive Director — The MCC Governing Board has chosen Daniel Phoenix Singh as the center’s next executive director was to succeed George Sachs, who is retiring on May 7. Singh’s selection to the position, which has an annual salary of $150,000, was effective April 12 but not publicly announced until the board’s meeting on Wednesday (April 28). [MCC]

Help Tysons Plan for COVID-19 Recovery — The Tysons Partnership is conducting a community survey until May 14 to gauge people’s interest in transit, dining, shopping, office work, and other activities affected by the pandemic. A follow-up to a similar survey from last summer, the results are expected to be released at the end of the month and “will be significant to recovery efforts,” President and CEO Sol Glasner told Tysons Reporter. [Tysons Partnership]

Police Body Cameras Coming to Falls Church — The City of Falls Church City will use grant funds and an anticipated $650,000 surplus in the current fiscal year to establish a body camera program for its police department. City Manager Wyatt Shields told the News-Press that the cameras should arrive in the next couple months. A Use of Force Committee recommended that the city evaluate the feasibility of body cameras in February. [Falls Church News-Press]

Tysons Social Tavern Reopens With Outdoor Patio — After a year-long closure, Tysons Social Tavern is back with operating hours from 4-10 p.m., seven days a week, and a new outdoor patio. The bar took over the O’Malley’s Pub spot at the DoubleTree Hilton in Tysons two years ago. [Tysons Social Tavern]

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The Falls Church City School Board voted Tuesday night (April 27) to rename two of its schools, effective July.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School will now be called Oak Street Elementary School — a name it bore before it took the third U.S. president’s — and George Mason High School will be Meridian High School.

The vote concluded a lengthy process that involved public comments, surveys, and work by two renaming committees to generate new monikers for the schools in place of the names of white Founding Fathers who enslaved Africans. The approval came despite recent opposition from a group of high-profile citizens, including a former mayor and two former vice mayors.

“This has been a long and, at times challenging, process, but I do think we’re moving onto a newer and brighter time in Falls Church,” Board Chair Shannon Litton said.

Choosing the elementary school’s new name came easily. Each board member had the same top two picks — Oak Street and Tripps Run, in reference to a nearby creek.

Those who favored Oak Street argued, among other points, that naming the school after the creek is only one step removed naming it after a person, specifically the creek’s historical namesake, Silas Tripp, and that the name’s grammar and spelling could confuse students.

“If the run was not named after a person, I’d be in support of Tripps Run,” Vice Chair Laura Downs said. “I do have some concerns that, in the end, the body of water was named after a person, and we don’t want to find ourselves here years from now because of something someone found.”

For the high school, however, the board was split between Meridian and West Falls Church or West End before ultimately voting 5-2 for Meridian after many awkward pauses. A few members lamented the board-imposed rule of disqualifying the names of people dead fewer than 10 years, saying Ruth Bader Ginsburg would make a fine name.

Meridian’s proponents highlighted the fact that it had been proposed by a teacher, Meridian Street‘s history as a boundary for the original District of Columbia, and its global connotation, which they argued would be fitting for a school that offers the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

As a bonus, they added, “M” paraphernalia from the former Mason name will not be obsolete.

Opponents dismissed the bonus, criticized the name as generic, and worried that it would be unfamiliar to graduates, requiring frequent explanations of its ties to local history.

Elisabeth Snyder, the student representative to the board, said she could not find a clear frontrunner based on conversations with students and teachers. She shared that many had expressed support for Meridian because of “how it connects to IB and inclusiveness,” while acknowledging that the Falls Church association isn’t instantly apparent. Read More

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(Updated at 2:40 p.m.) The Falls Church City Council approved a real estate tax rate reduction on Monday (April 26) in what councilmembers called a testament to the hard work and planning of the city staff — especially amid a pandemic that devastated the national economy.

Overall, the three-and-a-half-cent tax rate decrease comes despite a 2.3% growth in the city’s operating budget, which totals $41.3 million.

“The adopted budget includes a real estate tax of $1.32 for every $100 of assessed value, which is a decrease of $0.035 from the previous year,” the city said in a press release. “The general government operating budget is approved at $41.3 million, which is 2.3 percent growth over the previous year.”

The Falls Church City Public Schools budget was fully funded at $43.9 million — a 2.5% growth over the previous year.

“The last time we even contemplated lowering the tax rate was 2005,” City Councilmember Letty Hardi said. “It’s a pretty remarkable achievement.”

The city says the tax rate decrease was made possible through a combination of eliminating a contingency fund, cutting $340,000 in capital projects, and using $460,000 in funding from the Founder’s Row development as a downpayment on the city’s high school construction debt.

The city said the reasoning behind the capital project cuts is that many are expected to be eligible for federal grant funding starting next year.

It’s not all good news on the bill front, though. The stormwater utility rate is increasing by 2% — an average $5 increase for the average homeowner:

The Council also set a new stormwater utility billing rate of $18.72 per 200 square feet of impervious surface, an increase of 2 percent from the current rate. The increase would result in an approximate $5 increase for the average homeowner. The stormwater utility rate increase is needed to address increased investment in repairs and maintenance of the system. The Stormwater Task Force, convened by City Council in 2019, identified six major flood mitigation projects, which are in final engineering now. A financing plan to pay for these major projects will be finalized in the coming year.

Other items of note in the budget include $100,000 for the Affordable Housing Fund and body-worn cameras for police officers.

“The City Council understands that this has been a difficult year for a lot of people, including our taxpayers,” Mayor David Tarter said. “I am happy that we were able to lower our tax rate and ease the burden on our residents while maintaining our schools and critical City services. We are grateful to our community for helping us get through challenging time.”

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(Updated at 3:40 p.m.) If your reaction to Falls Church’s Berman Park is “what’s that?,” you’re probably not alone.

Even City of Falls Church Planning Commission members said they were only vaguely familiar with the linear park when presented with project details last week, but a new plan aims to make the park a more memorable part of the city’s green infrastructure.

The park is in the center of the city and connects several commercial properties and residential areas, but it is broken up by several street crossings that the city says lack adequate pedestrian facilities and signage.

In a presentation to the Planning Commission, staff said the goal of the project is to make those crossings more pedestrian-friendly by increasing visibility for all users and decreasing vehicle speeds.

“I agree with staff’s recommendations, they seem to be the most bang for the buck for those types of improvements,” Planning Commission Chair Brent Krasner said. “Berman Park is kind of like — I’ve ridden my bike through there…but the first time I even found it existed, I was like ‘okay, I didn’t even know this was here.'”

At the meeting, city staff went through each of the four intersections connecting the project and shared plans how the streetscape could be modified. Every proposal included some level of curb extension to make the sidewalks more walkable, and nearly every project also included new street signs.

“The goal of the project is to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists using the trail,” staff said in the project description. “The proposed trail crossings will greatly enhance the trail for users traveling through the City and could set a precedent for further improvements trail-wide.”

Preliminary engineering for the project is scheduled to be completed next January, with construction starting a year later in January 2023 and finishing that July.

The project is being funded by a $600,000 award from the Highway Safety Improvement Program/Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Program (HSIP/BPSP) and an additional 30% local funding.

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When early voting began at the North County Government Center in Reston on Saturday (April 24), the crowd of electioneers assembled outside the building dwarfed the number of people casting their ballots inside the building.

The absence of lines contrasted sharply with the 2020 general election, when Fairfax County sometimes saw hour-long waits at early voting sites. This time, the biggest hold-up was the few extra seconds election volunteers needed to sort through 16 different ballots and match them with the right voters.

While not surprised by the relatively muted turnout for the first days of early voting for the June 8 Democratic primary, which started on April 23 at the Fairfax County Government Center before expanding to two satellite locations a day later, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn says it’s too soon to make any confident projections about what early voting will look like in the future.

“Going through a couple of election cycles, I think we need to do that before we can come to any long-term conclusions about how early voting is best done, how to staff it, what resources are necessary,” he said.

Even with a crowded gubernatorial contest on the ballot, the 2021 election cycle likely won’t match the high turnout for last year’s general election, which was buoyed by an especially heated presidential race, but there is already evidence that the Virginia’s new laws permanently expanding the accessibility of absentee voting are paying off.

According to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, 63,508 voters have requested mail ballots, and 709 people have voted in person, as of April 24. In comparison, there were just 35,390 early voters in the 2017 primaries, the last time that Virginia had a governor’s race, and that includes 8,815 people who requested mail ballots but never returned them.

Fairfax County has gotten 11,222 mail ballot requests and 68 in-person voters. In 2017, 3,109 people voted early in person, and 1,919 people voted by mail.

Fairfax County Office of Elections spokesperson Brian Worthy attributes this uptick to recent legislative changes made by the Virginia General Assembly, particularly the introduction of no-excuse absentee voting that took effect last year.

“Since the last gubernatorial election, voting by mail has become easier in Virginia,” Worthy said. “Not only can any registered voter do so without needing a reason as was required in the past, but also the law now makes it easy to vote by mail permanently. As a result, the Office of Elections expects to see an increase in voting by mail over time as has happened in other states that have implemented similar laws.”

Legislators took further action to make early voting more accessible during a special session in March, including requiring localities to offer ballot drop-off boxes, permitting absentee voting on Sundays, and suspending witness signature requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, though those laws don’t take effect until July 1.

Early voting is also “way up” in Falls Church City compared to the last gubernatorial primary, according to Director of Elections and General Registrar David Bjerke.

Bjerke told Tysons Reporter on Friday (April 23) that the city had sent out 315 ballots so far, including 176 mail ballots and 139 email ballots to overseas voters, and three people showed up to vote in person that day. The 2017 primary saw just 240 early voters total, even though the Democratic and Republican parties both held elections that summer.

“It’s a huge increase,” Bjerke said. Read More

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(Updated at 3:10 p.m.) Memorial Day festivities are coming back to the City of Falls Church, but they won’t be quite as raucous as previous years.

Like the Town of Vienna, Falls Church City opted for virtual events last year in lieu of its usual crowd-drawing celebration to honor people who have died serving in the military and mark the unofficial arrival of summer.

While the COVID-19 pandemic remains a concern, cases have fallen since the nationwide winter surge, and vaccinations are becoming more widespread, prompting Virginia to ease public health restrictions and enable a limited return of large public events like ViVa Vienna and Falls Church’s annual Memorial Day Event.

According to Falls Church Director of Recreation and Parks Danny Schlitt, the Memorial Day Parade and Festival is the city’s signature event, drawing more than 15,000 people in past years.

“This year we will keep the numbers limited based on whatever the Governor’s guidance will be at the time of the event,” Schlitt said. “The ceremony will be a limited, pre-registration event, and the other festivities are virtual or viewable from the comfort of your front yard. The safety of our residents and visitors is our number one priority. We hope to be back to normal next year.

While the festival aspect of the event will still largely be absent, with no food vendors or amusement rides planned, the City of Falls Church shared in its newsletter yesterday (Thursday) that it will host a Memorial Day ceremony and parade this year, along with the Beyer 3K Memorial Day Fun Run, which will mark its 40th anniversary.

The city is also organizing an 11-day scavenger hunt — its fourth in the past year since the pandemic began.

Here is the full schedule for the 39th annual Falls Church Memorial Day Event:

Memorial Day Scavenger Hunt (May 22-June 1)

Like the Historic Scavenger Hunt in June, the Halloween-centered hunt in October, and the Valentine’s Day-inspired Heartfelt Hunt in February, the Memorial Day Scavenger Hunt will send participants dashing around the city to find various locations that match provided clues.

The specific logisitics of the event are still being worked out, but people who complete the hunt will receive a custom-made T-shirt.

“If the popularity of the past three are any indication, this next one will be our best yet (no pressure, Special Events Coordinator),” the City of Falls Church says.

Beyer Auto 3K Fun Run (May 24-31)

Sponsored by Don Beyer Volvo, the 40th year of the Beyer 3K Memorial Day Fun Run will deviate from past iterations by giving runners the full week leading up to Memorial Day to complete the 3,000-meter race on their own instead of competing in a group.

Participants must register online in advance. Fun Run T-shirts will be available for pick-up on May 31 from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. in front of the Falls Church Community Center (223 Little Falls St.).

Memorial Day Ceremony (May 31, 11 a.m.-noon)

After unfolding remotely last year, the Memorial Day Ceremony will be back in person this year at the Falls Church Veterans Memorial outside the community center. It will feature appearances by the Greater Falls Church Veterans Council, the Falls Church Concert Band, and other groups.

However, attendance will be limited to 130 people “because we still have a pandemic to deal with,” the City of Falls Church says. Spots can be reserved online starting on May 4. The ceremony will also be recorded by Falls Church Community Television.

Memorial Day Parade (May 31, 2:30-4 p.m.)

The 2021 Memorial Day Parade will be scaled back from past years with a lineup mainly composed of city government vehicles, such as school buses, police cruisers, emergency vehicles, and public works trucks.

Falls Church City says that the parade will “hopefully” be led by former Councilmember and Planning Commissioner Lindy Hockenberry, who served as the 2020 Memorial Day Parade grand marshal even with no actual parade.

Instead of going down Park Avenue in accordance with tradition, this year’s parade will travel throughout the city. An exact route has not yet been determined, but the city says it will likely be similiar to its Snow Emergency Routes.

Photo via City of Falls Church/YouTube

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