Almost in perfect tandem with the preliminary approval of the new City Center project in downtown Falls Church, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) met at George Mason High School last week and approved all the projects submitted by Falls Church for Phase One of the region’s massive transportation plan.
The timing was particularly fortuitous because elements of the City’s request that the NVTA approved bear directly on the construction of the new City Center, in particular on its planned downtown parking garage component.
The Atlantic Realty-Falls Church partnership for the City Center plan includes a six-level parking garage on the current site of a two-level parking space serving tenants and customers of the George Mason Square.
The deal involves a 50-50 split in paying for the construction of the new garage between the City and Atlantic Realty. With NVTA approval last week, the City’s portion will be significantly, if not fully, subsidized by the state-approved NVTA taxing authority.
However, whether those tax dollars actually materialize or not is still not resolved. First, a challenge to the constitutionality of the new taxing authority is now before the Virginia Supreme Court, and an outcome is not expected until late February. Secondly, revenues from the universally-reviled abusive driver fines will most certainly disappear with the repeal of that component of the law in the current Virginia legislative session.
Thirdly, some local jurisdictions in Northern Virginia will face tough resistance to the idea of raising new transportation revenues by permitting an increase in the commercial property tax. It is already being argued that the burden will fall disproportionately on already-strapped small businesses.
Comments at a recent Falls Church Chamber of Commerce board of directors meeting reflected this. It was noted that in Falls Church, the vast majority of all the retail businesses are small and locally owned. As landlords pass through an increased commercial property tax to their tenants, these tenants will not have the deep pockets to absorb the impact the way Fortune 500 and other large corporate interests in larger surrounding jurisdictions can.
“We risk the wrath of the business community if we raise their tax,” conceded Falls Church Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry at a legislative forum hosted by State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple and Del. Jim Scott in the Falls Church Community Center last Saturday.
The proposed new tax is especially problematic for existing small businesses in Falls Church because the new parking garage planned for the first phase of the City Center is not currently slated to accommodate any additional customer parking for those existing businesses, except in the evenings and on weekends.
The current plan, which calls for one deck below ground and five above, is designed to provide parking for George Mason Square and an adjacent office building, both owned by Atlantic Realty, and the proposed new 180-room hotel with its restaurant and new ground floor retailers.
That plan does not include any new parking for existing businesses in the downtown area, even though they will be ask to help pay for the garage by absorbing an increase in the commercial real estate rate.
At Tuesday’s Falls Church Chamber of Commerce luncheon, when asked about whether adding one or two additional decks on the garage could be considered, both Rick Goff, representing the City of Falls Church, and Adam Shulman, representing Atlantic Realty, said they “will take a serious look at it,” and “it makes sense.”
Goff noted that the overall City Center project permits enough other parking for the new retail and residential uses that will be added, including 100 parking spaces on the street. But apparently no added-in parking component to serve existing businesses was included.
Last Thursday, Falls Church’s representative on the NVTA, Councilman David Snyder, received strong support for funding the Falls Church parking garage and Route 7 improvements from Fairfax County chair Gerry Connolly and Arlington County board member Chris Zimmerman.
When some argued that the Falls Church projects were not “regional” in nature, Snyder intoned that with 40,000 vehicles traveling Route 7 in Falls Church daily, the vast majority neither starting or ending in the City, a move by the City to shut down Route 7 during a rush hour would demonstrate very quickly the “regional” nature of the City’s requested projects.
At their legislative town hall last Saturday, Whipple and Scott confirmed that the abusive driver component was projected to provide $65 million in new revenues. Also, no jurisdiction in the region is considering raising the commercial real estate tax anywhere near the allowed ceiling of 25%, even though the revenue estimates from the full increase were calculated into the overall NVTA transportation plan.
“There is no question that the legislature is going to have to come back to revisit the whole NVTA thing in two to three years,” Whipple said.