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F.C. Planners Open

The Falls Church Planning Commission opened the New Year by turning its first official item of business into a pointed rejection of a City Hall advisory aimed at blunting a major commercial development project planned in the 800 block of W. Broad St.

Noting the project, a four story office building proposed by the Young Group, was in keeping with the spirit of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, including its consolidation of four small parcels in the block, five members of the Planning Commission voted in favor of the request.

The City’s planning department opposed the request, and Planning Director Elizabeth Friel argued for that position at Monday’s meeting. The issue had to do with the width of a buffer separating the proposed project from the playground of the St. James School.

Friel argued that, according to the City code, the school constituted a “residential use,” and that the buffer requirements are clear when residential and commercial property come head to head.

However, led by Commissioner Peter Holran, the majority on the planning group said the actual use of the land by the school constituted “institutional” and not “residential” use. To them, they said, the matter was a “mere technicality.”

Yet, it represented a technicality that would determine whether the project would be built or not, according to developer Bob Young. He told the commission that if faced with having to accommodate a 20-foot buffer, two full rows of parking on a surface and one-level elevated lot would have to be removed. Requiring the full 20 foot buffer would force the elimination of 38 parking spaces, he said, bringing the total significantly below the required minimum for a four-story building. The required parking for the site as proposed would be 142 spaces. The plan currently has 146, with the variance OK’d.

A smaller building, Young said, would simply not be feasible from an economic standpoint on such a small site.

He also noted that the proposed height of the structure he wants to bring within 10 feet of the playground is only 10 feet. The four-story building will be 70 feet away from the buffer, he added. He said he was “a reasonable request for a variance” in the face of a “technicality.”

To ameliorate the effect of less permeable land resulting from a diminished buffer, he said, an absorbent “green roof” will voluntarily be installed on the top of the building.

Commissioner Suzanne Fauber said the request “doesn’t change the character of anything. St. James is not residential. This project is in the spirit of what we’re trying to do on Broad Street. Mr. Young has consolidated four properties. He’s done what we wanted done.”

Commissioners Holran, Bob Burnett, Ruth Rodgers and Rob Puentes agreed, voting in favor of the request with Fauber. Commissioners Maureen Budetti and Christine Sanders voted against.

Now the matter will be referred to the City’s Board of Zoning Appeals for a final decision next week.

 “Things are very tight in this city,” Puentes noted. “These kinds of matters will be coming up more frequently as we seek the realization of the Comprehensive Plan’s goals for this area. There is a more general applicability to the decision we’re making here.”

Young said that a dance studio is considering occupying an entire floor of his new building. Also, he said, the existing surface parking lot in the 700 block of West Broad that he owns is currently under heavy use by construction workers at the 402 and 450 W. Broad sites. When that use is completed, he said, his plan will be to move to construction of a hotel on that site.