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F.C. Council Goes Behind Closed Doors in Push to OK City Center

Deadline Looms, But New Offers Keep Hope Alive

A hastily-called meeting, calling together the Falls Church City Council, Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority behind closed doors at City Hall tonight, will mull some new elements added to Atlantic Realty’s City Center plan as the clock ticks toward a deadline which, if missed, would call the whole thing off.

“My hardest task has been to convince the City Council that the deadline we face is real,” Atlantic Realty’s Adam Shulman told the News-Press this week. The entire City Center project, which will bring a conservatively-estimated $2.8 million annually into City tax coffers, hinges on a delicately-crafted deal on a short fuse involving Bowl America, a large chain of bowling alleys headquartered in New Jersey.

But according to News-Press sources, some new proposals by Atlantic Realty, involving additional property under its control across S. Maple Ave. from the current planned City Center site and an expansion of public meeting space at the prospective hotel, could secure the support needed on the City Council.

Six “yes” votes are needed on the Council, because the overall project involves the sale of city-owned land. It is unlikely that, even under the best of circumstances, all the ducks will be in a row for a Council vote before mid-January, but Atlantic Realty will be looking for some informal assurances before then.

The project, if approved, will be the biggest in the 60-year history of the City of Falls Church, bringing an office building, a full-service hotel, an age-restricted condo building, on-street retail, a major grocery store, a new bowling alley and over 400 residential rental units onto 5.2 acres. There is also the prospect of a 172-unit affordable housing structure linked to it.

It would mark the first realization of a strong push by the City for a City Center project that’s been underway for close to a decade, and would greatly relieve the fiscal pressures on the City coming from a cooling of the residential real estate market, which has been the primary source of tax revenue for the city for its entire existence.

Vocal resistance to the density of the project came to bear on the Council at a hearing earlier this month, but with a revenue shortfall already impacting the city during the current budget year and an even stiffer one next year, the Council is under even greater pressure to deliver on a major new source of revenue.

In addition, “smart growth” environmentally-sensitive advocates have weighed in supporting the project on grounds that putting diverse development features in a smaller area cuts down on the use of vehicles and creates a stronger sense of community by putting more people walking on the streets.

The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce has also been a staunch supporter. In a letter from its board of directors chair Gary LaPorta published in this edition of the News-Press, states, “Change can be scary but now is not the time to hesitate. This project is crucial to our city’s future.”

He adds, “The value and importance of the City Center project cannot be underestimated,” and that by failing to act, “we may never be provided that opportunity again.”

On the other hand, the Falls Church League of Women Voters, in a letter received at the News-Press by e-mail this week, expressed a less enthusiastic view of the project.

“The Atlantic Realty City Center proposal still does not achieve the city’s vital objectives,” a Dec. 17 letter from League chapter president Joan Lewis to the City Council and Planning Commission reads. It calls for “reduced density and more open space, particularly for pedestrian access and outdoor seating, reduced residential space and more ground floor retail.”

The Lewis letter concludes, “Once again, the City appears to be approaching a take-it-or-leave-it confrontation with a developer, where the Council would be forced to reject a much-needed development proposal or give up on long-standing community goals. This should not happen.”

However, in still another letter, one City Councilman, at least, expressed confidence that a deal will be consummated. “I do feel fairly confident,” David Chavern writes, that things will wind up “with a good deal for the city and the developers.”

“Is it a done deal? No. Will any development be everything that everyone could ever hope or dream for? Certainly not. But I do believe that we have the possibility of creating something that helps this city to become an even better place,” he wrote.