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A City Center Need?

Call it “eminent domain” or call it “condemnation,” the terms stand for the same thing, and could become household words in Falls Church as plans for the new City Center redevelopment move ahead.

With commercially-zoned land prices soaring, it appears now the City can only realize its grand cornerstone economic development dreams by planting a municipal building in the middle of the effort, and thereby invoking special powers to force landowners to sell at “fair market value” prices.

Although no specifics about the City Center redevelopment effort are yet public, some on the Falls Church City Council have already tipped off that a relocated City Hall, or some other civic structure, will be a component. To many, that confirms plans to “condemn.”  

The City Council went behind closed doors for a secretive update on the City Center redevelopment project with members of the City’s Economic Development Authority Monday, and Mayor Robin Gardner emerged from the meeting not talking specifics, but beaming with optimism about the prospects for the realization of the plan. She said it is her hope to see the first shovel in the ground within two years.

But others, especially developers and real estate professionals in the City, are more cautionary. While the south side of West Broad Street in the area of the redevelopment has already been largely assembled by Atlantic Realty, matters are more problematic on the north side, where Centex and Federal Realty are the principal players.

That area is characterized by a hodge-podge of different owners of small parcels, some of whom have allegedly said they have no intention of selling, no matter what. For others, their asking price is exorbitantly high, amounting to almost $2 million an acre.

That situation has resulted in the “eminent domain” and “condemnation” words to be whispered about City Hall more frequently lately.

It would involve something like the relocation of City Hall as an embedded feature of the City Center redevelopment. In fact, F.C. Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry hinted at this in remarks to the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce last month. She suggested a public building would be in the City Center mix, which automatically set off alarms of “eminent domain.”

In addition to the high cost of the real estate in the area, the cooling off of the residential condominium market throughout the region could also impact the City Center plans, according to sources. The project, as it has been conceived to date, includes as many as 1,500 pricey condominiums in its mix of retail, public entertainment, office, open space and civic uses.

Coming out of Monday’s closed session with the EDA, Mayor Gardner said that all the developers in the City Center effort “still have a lot of convincing of the general public in Falls Church to do before their conceptual plans now become concrete and approved for construction.”

She said that Atlantic Realty is eager to unveil its plans for the south side of the first two and a half blocks of West Broad Street. Atlantic Realty already owns the George Mason Square building on the corner of W. Broad and S. Washington Street, and has been assembling other parcels. Other parcels are already owned by the City, including the old Podolnick property that now is the temporary home to the 2 Sisters Drive-Thru Coffee Shop and the parking lot of the U.S. Post Office, which leases its location. It is projected that the project will extend as far west as Anthony’s Restaurant.

“Atlantic Realty has plans in place and agreements signed and wants to start making announcements,” Mayor Gardner said. “They’re excited to start. It sounds like thing are going to happen.”

She added that “the entire City Council agrees that the City Center plan is front and center when it comes to the vibrancy we need in the City.”

Monday’s closed door session marked the first opportunity the newly-constituted City Council has had since coming in just a month earlier to be briefed and to discuss the City Center project. One new member of the Council, Daniel Sze, had been an active member of the Economic Development Authority devising the plans for the City Center prior to his election to the Council this spring.