Will F.C. Council Delay on City Center Kill the Deal?

Risky Decision to Put Off Vote May Unravel Proposal

The destiny of Atlantic Realty’s ambitious City Center plan for downtown Falls Church was placed in serious jeopardy Monday when the Falls Church City Council decided to delay acting until the middle of next month.

The terms of a delicate deal negotiated by Atlantic Realty with the absentee owners of Bowl America that is indispensable to the proposal, are reportedly due to expire on Dec. 31.

While Atlantic Realty partner Adam Shulman told the News-Press late yesterday that the process is “still in play,” no one now knows how long that will remain the case.

The project on 5.2 acres of downtown Falls Church would, according to conservative estimates, net $2.8 million in annual tax revenues to the City coffers once completed, funds badly needed to offset the decline in residential real estate values.

In the days after an upbeat work session on Dec. 3 that included the announcement of a new, 172-unit affordable housing component to the proposed deal, the City Council suddenly pushed for more concessions from Atlantic Realty and an ensuing impasse caused it to pull the “first reading” of required approvals from this Monday’s business meeting agenda.

Last Friday morning, the News-Press received anxious phone calls from affordable housing advocates reporting that Council members were demanding millions more in proffers from the developers, and that the developers threw their hands up and called everything off. Eventually, that turned out not to be the case, and Mayor Robin Gardner told the News-Press that morning that “negotiations are still on-going.”

The plan then became to go into a closed session at the end of this Monday’s meeting to see if a consensus could be hammered out and a special session called for this coming Monday that would still allow time for a final approval by year’s end.

But the news came early Tuesday that there would be no special session this coming Monday, and that the Council would consider a “first reading” for the City Center at its next regular meeting on Jan. 15. When that news hit the monthly meeting of the board of directors of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce that morning, the board determined to go on an urgent “full court press” with the City Council to argue for its acceptance of the Atlantic Realty proposal.

The problem for the City Council is that the project includes the sale of some City-owned land to the developer, and by state law that requires a so-called “super-majority” 75% of the Council, or six out of seven votes.

On-going negotiations between the City and Atlantic Realty involve the City’s efforts to extract from its hotel component larger banquet, convention and meeting room facilities. City Council members were reportedly contacting local City non-profits and other groups this week to ask what size of banquet halls they need for their major events.

Apparently, this would be decisive for winning the support of at least one member of the Council needed to achieve the six vote “super-majority.”

But a large contingent of neighbors to the City Center site, joined by some others including Barry Buschow, the president of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS), urged the City Council prior to the closed session Monday to delay approval of the project.

No one who spoke said they were against the idea of a City Center, and none said the Council should reject the Atlantic Realty proposal out of hand. They all called for delaying approval while more study and more concessions are extracted.

Buschow said characterizations of a letter from VPIS to the Council that may have suggested his organization opposed the City Center were not true, and that VPIS has long supported the idea of a town center. He then reiterated the long list of VPIS objections to the current proposal.

So did Keith Thurston, the former head of VPIS who made headlines in the News-Press last week for suggesting that if Falls Church doesn’t get what it wants in the development process, it should consider ceding itself to Fairfax or Arlington county, instead. He echoed Buschow’s comments, saying he sees the importance of a city center, but assailing the current proposal as too large, out of scale, and too dense.

But Mayor Gardner echoed the comment of one of only two citizens who spoke Monday in favor of the Atlantic Realty project, cautioning that the “perfect should not become the enemy of the very good.”