Will It Get Built?

Big F.C. Downtown Plan Faces Long Road Before OKs

A major downtown development proposal in the center of the City of Falls Church involves land already secured, plans already drawn up in collaboration with City planning officials, vetting and a favorable report by a citizen-based committee, and promises to bring in at least $2 million a year, net, in tax dollars to the City coffers.

Yet the first spade in the ground may not come for at least a year, if at all. Cautious City officials indicated this week they’re going to bend over backwards to give the public every possibility to get its hands on the proposal before any final actions are taken to formally approve it.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Merrifield, considerably more ambitious plans are nearing approvals with some construction already taking place and hopes of a full steam ahead for its “town center” construction beginning by the end of the year. That massive project will compete for retailers, commercial interests and new residents with what Falls Church is hoping to do.

But Merrifield’s is not what has been termed “the Falls Church way.” Monday night, key officials of Atlantic Realty came before a joint work session of Falls Church’s Planning Commission and City Council, with a large general public contingent jammed into the Teen Center at the Community Center behind City Hall.

They were there to accept the recommendations of a Council-appointed Major Design Team, established when Atlantic Realty first unveiled its plans last December.

In a surprise development, Atlantic Realty officials used the occasion to announce they’d already built key components of the Design Team’s recommendations into revisions of its project, including a new street and a new alleyway in the tight development area.

While that caught one Design Team member off guard who had already had a prepared statement of criticism in hand, the team’s chair, Warren Cohen of the City’s Economic Development Authority affirmed the “substantial progress” toward a consensus reached in the group’s deliberations, citing “considerable improvements” in the plan. While no agreement was reached on the mass and density of the project, he said, “I believe these matters can be resolved.”

“The majority on the Master Design Team support the project,” he reported.

Still, as City Manager Wyatt Shields commented to the News-Press after the meeting, “The issues of mass and scale are going to have to be addressed, and Atlantic can’t get onto the next stage of their planning until these are resolved.”

He said such resolutions would have to occur before the matter can come for any preliminary consideration by the Council in the coming months, but added that he feels it is a “solvable problem.” The issues about the “footprint” of the project have been resolved, he said, leaving the height and mass issues, even though they are central to the economic viability of the whole plan.

Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, in a telephone interview with the News-Press yesterday, was careful to ensure everyone that no hasty decisions are about to be made.

While City Hall staffers mulled a formal “time-line” for progress on the project’s necessary approvals, Gardner said, “We will be very meticulous about this.”

She said that tentative plans will bring the project to a formal business meeting of the City Council some time before mid-June for a preliminary review and “first reading.” But she then stressed that no action would occur over the summer when citizens might complain that too many are out of town, and unable to participate in public hearings or to otherwise speak out.

Therefore, she suggested, a second and final approval may not come until mid-September. Following that, were it to be OK’d without further delays, the project would need to go through formal site plan approval and permit processes that may, she said, delay the onset of construction until next spring.

“We want to make sure that there will be a lot of opportunities for citizens to look at this,” she said. Concerns that came up at Monday’s meeting included the density, design and look of the project from the standpoint of someone standing on the street.

“We need to make sure this project has a design, density and height that are in accord with the personality of the City,” Gardner said.

Still, she said she is upbeat about its prospects, especially the $2 million annually in net tax revenue to the City it promises, along with $2 million for the purchase of the City-owned near-vacant lot next to the Post Office on West Broad. That figure resulted from running the plan through the City’s official economic forecast model, as presented by City Economic Development Chief Rick Goff at Monday’s meeting.

Some have suggested the model, itself, is far too conservative, and that revenues could actually be much higher. No one has yet compared the model to some other projects, such as The Broadway, already or near completion.

Council member David Snyder was even more upbeat about the project, telling the News-Press, “This project is essential for the future of the City. Our future rides on its successful conclusion.”

He cited the project’s inclusion of Class A office space, a full-scale Harris Teeter grocery store, a “serious” hotel and a modern entertainment facility as keys to the project’s “exemplary” commercial components.

The project, as now planned, will be built in two phases in a compact area facing on West Broad between the current Burke and Herbert Bank at Maple Street (which is not part of the plan) and the parking lot of the Post Office, which is City-owned.

An office building will go on that portion. At the intersection of S. Maple and Annandale Road, a round-about will be built in the intersection, and on the northwest corner a major 180-room hotel will be built. To its west will be a new Bowl America bowling alley to replace the existing location across the street. That will come down once the new structure is built, and a Harris Teeter plus 10,000 square feet of retail under a 500-unit rental project will replace it. Also, on S. Maple just north of the hotel, a 67-unit age-restricted condo housing project will go with ground floor retail.

No dates were given for the next public step in the process.