Consultant Tells F.C.:

A long-time consultant retained by the City of Falls Church to assist in devising strategies for its city center redevelopment raised eyebrows at City Hall last week when she remarked, “The time may come soon” for the City to “take over” space planned for a town center and “develop it.”

Heather Arnold made the suggestion at a joint work session of the City Council and Planning Commission. She referred to a space designated in planning for the 22 acre city center redevelopment area that is on the north side of W. Broad Street at Maple Ave.

It is a projected green space area containing all the accoutrements of a classic town square. The space is drawn roughly between the current Maple Ave. at it goes north from W. Broad and a planned “straightening out” of Maple where it now bends on the south side of W. Broad and going straight across Broad up to Park Avenue. The area, thus, would cover what is now the parking lot on the side of the CVS and more.

Arnold’s surprise remark, followed by, “It should not be left in the hands of private developers,” came in response to criticisms by members of the City Council that the announced plans for the redevelopment of the south side of W. Broad include no explicit town square-like components.

Arnold is with the consulting firm of Retail Compass, but was part of the Street Works project retained by the City in the late 1990s to devise the first new scheme for a city center redevelopment since earlier, unrealized efforts in the 1970s.         

When Atlantic Realty first unveiled its plans for the south side this spring, the Council was assured that the “great place” that would tie the entire project together would come in a later second stage on the north side of Broad.

But that has continued to trouble a number of Council members, who’ve argued that without that special component, the entire redevelopment could suffer, even in just the first phase. As they began to tinker with the idea of including the square on the south side, the City Planning Department reprised its plans for the whole project Monday, with a big focus on the area set aside on the north side.

Then Arnold suddenly chimed so say that, in effect, maybe the City should not wait for the rest of the north side to move ahead, but should accent the south side redevelopment by launching the town square soon.

Her comment included the potentially-explosive phrase, “take over,” suggesting that the City’s right to condemnation, or eminent domain, might be evoked to carve out the space before everyone otherwise might be inclined to sell.

While reluctant to talk about this option, City Hall officials have held out the option as a perhaps-necessary component of getting the city center built. It has always loomed behind conversations concerning the “straightening out” of Maple, which will be needed even to make the first-phase south side stage of the project work. There is a small house-like structure at the corner of the current bent Maple and W. Broad that would have to go.

And, while the City owns a significant chunk of the parking areas on the north side of Broad between Maple (now) and Maple-of-the-future, it doesn’t own it all.

The hint of invoking the notion of condemnation anywhere in the area will send shockwaves through property owners along the north side of West Broad who are holding out for the exorbitant dollar numbers they are hoping to cash in on.

Arnold will be the featured speaker at a public meeting of the City’s Economic Development Authority next Tuesday at the Training Center in City Hall at 6:30 p.m. She will undoubtedly be asked to expand on her remarks then.

But as to developing the town square in conjunction with the build out of the south side phase of the redevelopment, Mayor Robin Gardner agreed. “The central town square on the north side should accompany south-side development,” she said.

While the newly-straightened Maple Street would retain its current name, the old Maple on the west side of the town center would be called “Festival Street.”

Another potentially-controversial component of the north side plan is the location of a multi-modal transportation center at the current site of the historic Brown’s Hardware. The City has secured $1.1 million in federal funds for such a project, but has yet to determine where such a facility, which would allow for a fluid intersection of pedestrian, bicycle, bus and auto traffic.

Council members agreed that the city center area should include “a water feature,” like a large fountain, wide sidewalks and a “youth and children gathering environment.”

It should “integrate what we already have,” remarked Councilman Dan Maller, spelling out the library, Cherry Hill Park, farmers’ market, the State Theatre and the historic Falls Church.