After 3 Years, Hekemian Finally Wins OK for

105 Rentals Add Affordability on N. Washington

It took three years and a couple of rude setbacks, but the dogged Hekemian Company finally won the favor of the Falls Church City Council, as well as a wide range of local advisory groups and the City’s professional staff, to build 105 rental residential units, combined with retail and office uses, on the long-idled Pearson Funeral Home site on N. Washington St. at the corner of E. Jefferson.

In a meeting that lasted five hours Monday night and into Tuesday morning, the Council heard objections from close to 20 single family homeowners in the adjacent blocks, systematically answered the concerns, and then voted 5-1 to give final approval to two measures that will allow the project to commence.

Only Councilman David Snyder voted “no” (Councilman David Chavern was absent). The project received the high praise from Mayor Robin Gardner and other Council members who voted “yes,” especially for its contribution to a sorely-needed and depleted stock of relative affordable housing units in the City. But Snyder was angry, calling the plan “seriously flawed,” and his “no” vote “the easiest vote I have ever cast on the Council.”

Snyder announced yesterday that he’d served a “Freedom of Information Act” request on City staff regarding the Hekemian project, complaining he “never saw City staff acting more as advocates for a developer and against their own citizens and taxpayers than during the discussion of the Hekemian project Monday night.”

But the Council was armed with opinions of 10 City advisory boards and commissions, including the support of its Planning Commission, its Economic Development Authority and the Falls Church Housing Corporation and independent Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents who spoke during a lengthy petition period Monday night all gave as their residential addresses the streets immediately around the project, although one neighbor spoke in favor of it.

 “I said during my campaign (last year) that I would act on the basis of what is best for the City, not for any one neighborhood,” said Councilman Hal Lippman in his concluding remarks. “The project will promote diversity and prevent us from becoming an economically-gated community.”

Mayor Gardner, in her concluding remarks said that, while the size of the building has “shrunk” during the long negotiating process over three years, development “should be expected” on the City’s major commercial corridors, and this project “adds to my commitments to the City by providing rental units that will enable the kids of City residents to afford to come back from college and live here, as well as City employees.”

By virtue of its proximity to the East Falls Church Metro, she said, “It is the best location for a project of this type. It is on a major corridor and near the Metro.” It will not create a “canyon” effect, she added, because it is only four floors and will add “a real benefit to the City.”

Given the small size of Falls Church, she said, the “neighborhood” around the project should be considered “the entire City,” and not just a couple of blocks.

 “We need rentals in the City,” added Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry. “We don’t have that product here. It will bring us new life.”

Councilman Dan Sze noted that he lives within a couple blocks of three big projects now under construction and that traffic increased “only slightly.” He noted the benefit of the environmental components of the new project.

Councilman Dan Maller said, “We don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

In an uncommon move, City Attorney Roy Thorpe counseled the Council prior to its final comments that it should “build the record” for its vote by verbally affirming that the matter “was fairly debated,” that the project “serves the public good,” that it “conforms with the City’s master plan,” and that it “promotes the health, safety and welfare of the City.”

It was documented that the gross tax revenues from the residences in the project will exceed, considerably, the gross revenues from residential homes near it. The assertion the existing building on the site had historical value was rendered moot by a reminder that the owner has a demolition permit and no interest in preserving it. The concern for the appropriateness of the site was addressed by Mayor Gardner’s comments cited above. As for the lack of core samples, it was noted that those are never done prior to such approvals, but later as part of the site plan process.

Traffic, safety and construction inconvenience concerns will be carefully monitored during the process, the City staff confirmed.

The project has 105 rental units, 22,735 square feet of retail and 14,015 of office. It provides seven officially-affordable two-bedroom units for 20 years. The developer proferred a $687,372 gift to the City schools, as well as the streetscaping and lighting and undergrounding of utility lines in the block valued at $650,000. The building will have a “green roof” and a “VIP” program offering move-in fee waivers to City and school employees worth about $1,500 per person.