F.C. Mayor Urges Full Steam Ahead on Atlantic Realty’s City Center Plan

First Public Look At Major Effort Held on Tuesday

Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner urged a “full steam ahead” for advancing the approval process Tuesday after Atlantic Realty developers provided the public its first direct look at plans to launch its component of the City of Falls Church’s massive downtown redevelopment effort at a jammed work session Tuesday night in the F.C. Community Center.

Members of the City Council, Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority were joined by a large contingent from City Hall, including a showing from unhappy neighbors to the site, to hear the first public presentation of the proposal that includes an 85-foot office building, a hotel, a large grocery store, a relocated bowling alley, 67 senior condos and over 500 rental units.

The News-Press first reported on the parameters of the plan in December, following an exclusive briefing. But Tuesday’s was its first formal exposure to the public.

Already mobilized by the December coverage, a contingent of neighbors to the project, residents of the Winter Hill II Community Association, mostly residing along Gundry Drive, sat stone-faced through the presentation, some visibly taking hope from criticisms aired by Council members or Planning Commissioners.

But it was Mayor Gardner, after the formal presentation and questions were over, who marshaled her colleagues in favor of moving ahead with dispatch on the special exception and other approvals the Council is being asked to provide.

Some Council members expressed misgivings about a target date of April 9 for the Council to consider a “first reading” preliminary approval. The official analysis from the City’s Planning Department is slated to be ready only a week before that, and special bodies of qualified City residents that have been set up to review key components of the plan will have had little time to deliberate.

“But we’ve been at this effort to develop a new City Center for many, many years now,” Mayor Gardner said. “If we completely open this back up for public input, it will be another two years before we get anywhere.”

She proposed sticking to the April 9 date with the proviso that as it approaches, the option remains to set it back. She won the consensus of her colleagues.

F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields opened the meeting saying “this is an exciting night for us as we begin the public process of the first corner of our City Center redevelopment process.”

But there was little doubt that the architectural renderings showing the mass of the project found some slightly aghast. As much as City officialdom has said this is what it wants, and as it conforms with the same vision in the City’s Comprehensive Plan, actually seeing a downtown area transformed into an urban-style look seemed a bit of a shock for some.

Still, remarks by Council members, tasked in the final analysis with giving the thumbs-up or down, showed a range from one who suggested the hotel might go even higher than planned, to others troubled by the traffic impact and massing.

In that context, the notion that a new bowling alley facility would be included in the quadrant was troubling to those who did not fully appreciate the delicate negotiations that Atlantic Realty engaged in for years with Bowl America, the large East Coast chain that owns much of the property on the site around the intersection of South Maple and Annandale Road that will be the center of the development.

As one of the most successful of its 19 franchises, the Falls Church Bowl America would have to remain for any land deal to go through, Atlantic officials sought to explain. So, the agreed-to stipulation became that the Atlantic project would go up in two phases, the first including a new bowling facility.

Only once that was completed would start on Phase II, covering the current site of the bowling alley, commence. That means that the bowling alley would move from its current site to its new site without missing more than a few days’ operation.

Still, that didn’t compute for many on the Council and Planning Commission. Atlantic’s Adam Shulman tried patiently to remind them that the size and conditions of the project, including the tall buildings and the one-level bowling alley, and the visual contrast between the two, were driven by economic realities.

He tried to make it clear that downsizing the hotel, the condos, the office building or the rental units would simply make the entire project financially untenable.

He said the office building would attract occupants by virtue of the entire package that will be going in there. Otherwise, he said, a free-standing office building in Falls Church would probably not work.

Another concern from Council members focused on the lack of an open, public space on this project, something that has been coined a “great place.”

Shulman and Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields told them that the planned location for that town square concept was just across Broad Street, on the north side between the current route of N. Maple Ave. and where it will go when straightened out.

That area would cover the parking lot and part of the property on which the CVS store now sits.

Among others, Council member David Chavern said he was not confident the north side of Broad would ever get developed, given that there are 16 different property owners there. He was concerned the City would be left with no “town square” at all if it was not built into the Atlantic Realty plan.

But Shulman stressed to the News-Press, in telephone comments yesterday, that Atlantic’s south side phase would “create a snowball effect” triggering greater developer interest in the region and ensuring the north side gets built.

“Many builders think that Falls Church is not ready for development yet. Our project will change that perception,” he said.

Schulman said he was pleased with Tuesday’s first public presentation of the plan. “It went very well,” he commented. “There were no surprises at all. We are clearly headed in the right direction.”