Angry Developer Rails Against F.C.

Standing in the lobby of the Falls Church City Hall’s Council chambers following the rejection of his $35 million proposal for a mixed use project on N. Washington Street Monday night, an angry senior vice president of the highly-regarded Hekemian Company railed against what he called “a serious disconnect between the professional planning staff and the City Council in Falls Church.”

Chris Bell said he was in a state of shock after more than two years’ effort to devise a plan that would work on a 1.5-acre site of the former Pearson Funeral Home went down in flames by a 4-3 vote of the Council Monday. The vote was against forwarding the project plan to City boards and commissions and more public hearings for consideration before a final vote of approval or rejection down the road.

“We worked diligently with the professional staff here for over two years to give the City what it wanted on this site. We discussed and revised plans repeatedly concerning the footprint, the buffers, the streetscape and architecture. It’s hard to understand that after the staff was in agreement with us, and officially recommended approval of the project, what happened tonight,” he said.

“The City Council and the professional staff clearly do not communicate. The Council never met with the staff over this. It is unbelievable,” he added.

He told the News-Press in an interview yesterday that his company is now exploring “by right” uses on the site that do not require City approval. That would include things like a gas station or stand-alone drug store. According to City officials, all such uses would yield far less in annual tax revenues to the City than the original Hekemian proposal.

Hekemian originally came to the City in June 2004 with a plan for mixed use on the site including 124 rental apartments. When its initial proposal met with disfavor, according to Bell, Hekemian did not simply go away, but met repeatedly with the City’s professional staff behind the scenes to configure a project that would meet with approval.

Hekemian is a major rental development and management company with over 100 properties in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. Bell said his company’s experience with a situation like this “is very rare, especially when our plans are not at odds with the professional staff of a jurisdiction. We simply have no idea what to do differently,” he said.

The project included a wide array of proffers to the City worth a total equivalent in cash of $2.4 to $3 million, according to Falls Church Economic Development chief Rick Goff. Its gross tax yield to the City would be $537,000 annually, which would translate into about $137,000 net after anticipated costs from new children entering the school system were added in. The value of the “affordable dwelling units” component of the proffers would have been twice that of any other project already approved in the City as a percentage of the overall value of the project.

The project included the potential for increasing its commercial component by a significant amount, and the inclusion of a “VIP Program” that could have provided City and City school employees with significant waivers of application and other fees.

But more importantly, the project would have provided the City with 124 moderately priced rental units, a housing product in severe short supply in Falls Church. It was rejected despite the fact that across the boundary in Arlington County, only yards away, much larger mixed use, predominantly residential projects are either nearing completion or beginning construction. It is part of a development boom that will escalate as the nearby East Falls Church Metro station is transformed into a major transfer point for the new Silver Line to Tysons Corner, Dulles Airport and Loudoun County.

Traffic impacts of the Hekemian proposal would have been dwarfed by the overall boom in the area now underway.

But the Council was confronted by over a dozen citizens from the neighborhood immediately surrounding the site, who claimed their expensive homes, some with alleged historical value, and their neighborhood, would be adversely impacted by the project. They cited petitions with signatures of 143 other citizens residing in the area. These included former Council member John Gannon, Peter Behr, Pricilla Reimers, Francois Bernardo and others. Behr referred to the project as “the Great Wall of China.”

When it came to the Council vote, it split, ironically, on lines of the newly-seated versus more veteran members. All three Council members who were sworn in earlier this month and attending only their second official business meeting voted in favor of continuing the dialogue on the plan before making a final decision. The four veterans on the Council voted against that.

Bell complained that the Council did not engage in any questioning or dialogue, either with him or its own staff, before making its vote. “They only made statements and pronouncements,” he said, including ones, such as the fact there had been no efforts made at altering the project to conform to City concerns, which were simply untrue.

The owner of the property in question is long-time City resident Steve Woodell, who is working with Hekemian on a 99-year lease pending approval of a suitable project. He told the News-Press in a telephone interview that interest has been expressed in a “by right” development of the site, such as for a bank or service station.

“I am puzzled that there was no opportunity provided to compromise, to make it work. There’s always room for compromise,” he said.