Tackling a long-standing, complicated community planning issue—especially one that seasoned professionals have attempted, and failed, to resolve—is not a task for the easily intimidated. As one of 16 individuals selected to participate in the Virginia Society AIA’s Emerging Leaders in Architecture (ELA) program, DBI’s Rachel Williams has embraced just this sort of challenge. The program, an Honors Academy of the Virginia Society AIA, brings together architecture professionals and college students from the Commonwealth who are interested in developing their leadership skills within the profession. One year in its entirety, the program has two components: seminars, in which participants analyze the skills and abilities essential for leadership, such as financial management, effective communication, and negotiation strategy, and a class project that draws upon these leadership fundamentals in an effort to find solutions for an existing planning challenge.
This year’s ELA project focuses on establishing a cohesive community identity within the two main blocks of downtown Falls Church, an area characterized by traffic congestion, little parking, lackluster architecture, and scant historical preservation—in short, inevitable consequences of ineffective urban planning. While walking the site in January, the group also noted a lack of geographical landmarks, wayfinding, and identifiable gathering areas. During the past 50 years, industry professionals and planning students have proposed at least 20 solutions to improve downtown Falls Church, yet none of these ideas has proven successful. Most difficult to overcome in these attempts at placemaking is the City’s situation as a crossroads of Virginia State Route 7 and U.S. Route 29, two heavily traveled regional highways. The ELA, in addition to grappling with this highway issue, must identify other impediments to the development of a welcoming downtown in Falls Church; then, participants will determine the most effective way of presenting these findings—and their solutions—to City officials and the Architectural Exchange East, a prominent design industry conference held every November in Richmond.
Rachel is optimistic about the likelihood of finding a resolution that the community will embrace. Downtown Falls Church already offers an abundance of community programs, an art-focused First Fridays celebration every month, and a nationally recognized, award-winning Farmer’s Market. Local government officials, having researched the area’s demographics and shared them with the ELA group, are also eager to create a cohesive downtown identity and recognize, in particular, the need to strengthen the City’s historical preservation ordinances. As one of America’s wealthiest cities, Falls Church enjoys the financial wherewithal to invest in efforts to unify its downtown character.
DBI, recognizing the value of mentorship and community service, congratulates Rachel on her admission to the ELA program. The second DBI employee to participate in ELA (Director Raj Banga, who encouraged Rachel to apply, took part in 2011), Rachel was selected to be AIA Northern Virginia’s ELA 2014 representative. Rachel notes that her DBI experience has proven valuable to her participation in the group so far; she knows “how to go about analysis, where to start, which questions to ask….and can lead discussion.” Similarly, her experience in the ELA program—which strives to ensure that architects, in addition to strong leadership abilities, have the skills necessary for professional success—will be of advantage to her work at DBI and throughout her career.