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Letter: Defining Moment

To the Editor:

A significant change is planned for the center of Great Falls. Our citizens association is reviewing a proposal for a special zoning exception permitting the replacement of the existing Exxon Service station with a drive-through branch bank for TD Bank Corporation, as illustrated in the attached sketch.

In our opinion there is not a more visually important site in Great Falls than the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Walker Road; this crossroads is our commercial hub and central landmark. We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make an immeasurable improvement to this strategic site that will help further define our community, one worthy of the best of architectural creativity. We believe this current proposal falls far, far short of this mark.

Commercial sites can serve their community architecturally by being good neighbors, blending harmoniously and comfortably into their surroundings. The sites are rare that deserve iconic buildings, and Great Falls has three—our library, post office and fire station—as well as three very important historic structures—Colvin Run Mill, the Grange and the Old Schoolhouse. This site, even more visually significant because of its central location, deserves a superior architectural effort.

Should it copy any of these works of architecture? Of course not. Should it “shout” for attention? No. The design of this building should begin like all good architecture begins, with the question—“how can it, architecturally, be a welcome neighbor to the community?” It starts by fitting comfortably on the site with a good balance of attractive landscaping and hardscape. It will respect the scale, rhythm and materials of its neighbors. It may recall the history of Great Falls without replicating it. It may be a design that is timeless—not a cliché that will be out of style in a year or two. Must the design bow to a preconceived style—Georgian? Federalist? Victorian? Contemporary? No. The goal for this site is to create architecture that is superior without being boastful and attractive without bowing to fashion.

Are we setting the bar too high? Will this be too expensive? Will this take more time? No, no and yes. Superior architecture is created everyday in this country by persons and corporations for communities that care. We believe our Great Falls is one of those communities. We believe, too, that this project can help set a high standard for others in the future—perhaps an overdue replacement of the 40 year old 7/11 complex across Georgetown Pike and at the two vacant commercial sites nearby on Walker Road.

Lastly, at a time when nature and commerce have chosen to eliminate a large portion of the tree canopy in the center of Great Falls, we have before us a plan for this site that will require the removal of its existing tree canopy, while requesting a waiver for zoned screening requirements. That, not to mention the poor design submitted for the drive-though bank itself, should be more than enough reason for the community to demand much better in the design and development of this keystone property.

As architects who have each lived and worked in, and cherished, Great Falls for over 40 years, we sincerely hope that our neighbors, our County and TD Bank will agree and rise to this challenge. Further information is available through the Great Falls Citizen’s Association web site, www.gfca.org.

Robert Wilson Mobley, AIA

John G. Colby, AIA

Great Falls

The comments above represent strictly the personal views of Mssrs. Mobley and Colby. Robert Mobley currently serves on the Fairfax County Architectural Review Board and John Colby is a former president of both the Great Falls Citizens, and Business and Professional Associations.