Local Commentary

Editorial: N. Washington Density Zone

The News-Press erred on its front page last week when it noted that the asking price for real estate in the commercial zones of downtown Falls Church have gone as high as $5 million an acre. Actually, there’s at least one parcel on Park Avenue, a third of an acre, where the owners want $3.5 million. That puts the value, per acre, at double what we reported, more than $10 million. No wonder things have stalled out. Just picture what kind of development would have to go onto that site to bring a sufficient annual return to interest an investor.

The City is locked into an empasse in its downtown redevelopment efforts, something we warned would happen years ago. Unless the City is willing to invoke the powers of eminent domain, which it is not, then the stubborn insistence of small commercial property owners in that section of town will not give way to a comprehensive development plan at anything near “doable” prices. The City’s only remaining choice in that area is to permit development so dense that even the most outrageous asking prices won’t hold things back. However, that would leave potential developers wondering if there was a market for such a cluster of skyscrapers downtown in little old Falls Church.

For a residential real estate tax-dependent city quietly growing desperate for alternative forms of revenue, finding a way through this traffic jam is indispensable to its future survival. One alternative would be to take a cue from what George Mason University’s Dr. Stephen Fuller said recently in comments to the News-Press. The fastest and most robust rebound of the market for future large-scale mixed use development projects will come around the East Falls Church Metro station, within a walkable radius of the station. It will not come at a shuttle bus distance away.

Downtown Falls Church is a shuttle bus distance away. But the northeastern section of the city, along North Washington Street, is not.

Falls Church should take its cue from the Akridge Company, which abandoned its designs on developing the City Center area of town in favor of purchasing a commercial campus on N. Washington for a creative mixed use project it’s planning to bring forward.

The City is going to have to opt for greater density somewhere to maintain its viability as an independent jurisdiction. Its real estate impinging on the walkable limits of the East Falls Church Metro station is naturally where it should happen. It should create a special development district along N. Washington with dramatically-relaxed height and density limits. It should send Akridge back to the drawing boards looking for something far denser and tell Hekemian to try something even denser on the Pearson Funeral Home site.

The East Jefferson Street posse won’t be happy, but, who knows, maybe they’ll be able to sell their land for $10 million an acre. For the City, the reality is that there may be no other option.