Preliminary OK for New City Center Granted by Council

Unanimous Vote Moves F.C. Plan Closer to Reality

The ambitious Falls Church City Center project received a critical, unanimous thumbs-up from the City Council Monday. All six ordinances and resolutions were passed by 7-0 votes before a standing-room only audience in Council chambers at City Hall.

 WHERE IT WILL BE: the 8.7 acre City Center project will be built in two phases at this location around a new traffic circle at the intersection of S. Maple and W. Annandale.The $317 million project adding a million square feet of new development to 8.7 acres of Falls Church’s downtown commercial area, will now undergo 40 days of review by various City boards and commissions and a set of public hearings, before coming back to the Council for final approval. The Council hopes to vote on the final version by Feb. 25.

The project, which has gone through a series of modifications since the original parameters of a partnership between the City of Falls Church, its Economic Development Authority and the Atlantic Realty Company, was hammered out last fall.

While building heights came down on its residential and office buildings, hotel plans were expanded to accommodate a first-class 180-room structure, with meeting hall and banquet facilities, and a six-level parking deck was thrown in. The number of residential rental units was scaled down to 412, and more age-restricted condominiums, up to 134, were added. Retail was added to cover both sides of S. Maple bringing the retail total to 53,000 square feet, up from 17,000.

These modifications added to the plans a major Harris Teeter supermarket and a six-story Class A office building.

“We are confident that this assemblage of retail and commercial opportunities will attract major new businesses here,” said Atlantic Realty’s Adam Shulman Monday, conceding he was a “bit giddy” because the “phenomenal effort by all” to create the plan was set to come to fruition that night.

The net fiscal impact for the City will be approximately $3 million in annual tax revenue once completed, equal to almost nine cents on the real estate tax rate, and there are $16 million in proffers offered by Atlantic Realty to the City. In addition, the project offers the creation of new jobs, added consumer spending, rising real estate values and momentum for more development in the future.

Among Atlantic Realty’s proffers is $4.2 million for affordable housing, and the offer to serve as master developer for a project across the street spearheaded by the Falls Church Housing Corporation that would provide over 100 affordable housing units.

In a startling contrast to the Rockville, Maryland, City Center plan, the Falls Church $317 million project will cost the City only $6 million of its own money. According to Falls Church’s Economic Development chief Rick Goff, speaking at the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday, Rockville’s $370 million project required $100 million in public money.

On the subject of other major developments in the region, the legendary Robert E. Simon, who created and built Reston, Virginia, as a planned community decades ago, was on hand at Monday’s Council meeting as the guest of Atlantic Realty president David Ross.

Simon, whose initials “R.E.S.” were included in the name Reston, spoke to the Falls Church Council to, he said, “join the chorus of praise” for the City Center project, and cited last week’s News-Press editorial, “Falls Church’s Finest Hour.”

Also present as a guest of Ross was Keith W. Rudemiller, vice president for real estate of the Harris Teeter company, who came in from Charlotte, North Carolina, to hail his grocery’s planned inclusion in the City Center project.

No fewer than the senior clergy from four Falls Church churches were also on hand, all to show their support for the project, especially its affordable housing component. The Rev. Mochel Morris of the Christ Crossman United Methodist Church, the Rev. Clyde Nelson of the Galloway United Methodist Church, the Rev. Samuel DZ. Barnhart of the Second Baptist Church and the Rev. M. Davies Kirkland of the Dulin United Methodist Church were all these.

But the biggest show of force speaking to the City Council was marshaled by the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, led by its past president and current Legislative Committee chief Paul Barkley, a local architect.

Barkley kicked off the Chamber’s string of project supporters by reading a letter from the Chamber’s board of directors. Weighing in to support the Chamber position were Edna Frady, Chris Bergen of Tax Analysts, Tom Gittins of Falls Church Art and Frame, who said current small business “need an influx of new customers” that the project will bring, Chamber executive director Sally Cole, Carol Jackson, Mary Beth Connolly, Bob Young of the Young Group and Steve Rogers of the Falls Church Animal Hospital.

Promoting the arts potential of the City Center plan, especially the notion of the arts as an economic driver, were Marty Meserve of Falls Church Arts and Peter Jablow, CEO of the Levine School of Music, which has long expressed a desire to relocate its Northern Virginia facilities to Falls Church.

Representing the education community, the new chair of the Falls Church Education Foundation, former mayor Dan Gardner and Donna Englander, executive director of the FCEF touted the project. Gardner noted that if Falls Church abdicated its independence because of an unwillingness to stay fiscally sound, that “Fairfax County would be doing exactly the same thing and we’d have no say in the project.” Christopher Fay, executive director of Homestretch, a Falls Church non-profit in the City Center area tasked with placing homeless persons in sustainable living situations, hailed the new jobs the project would create.

Ed Henderson of the Tinner Hill Foundation and announced City Council candidate Lawrence Webb spoke in favor, as did Ed Salzberg, chair of the City’s Economic Development Authority.

Those with either some misgivings, or who were downright against the plan included venerable City founding father Lou Olom, assailing the “metropolitanism” of the project, Charles Plowmeier, who said small businesses wouldn’t survive in the plan. John Murphy questioned the revenue generation per acre of the project. Former Mayor Carol DeLong, conceded it is the biggest project in the City’s history, but that “it might be a bit hasty” to wrap it up by February.

Jeff Peterson, president of the Village Presevation and Improvement Society (VPIS) said the project “falls short of the Comprehensive Plan vision,” and former VPIS president Keith Thurston said there “are major disappointments” in the plan’s “lack of a great space.”

Neighbors to the site, some of whom spoke in favor Monday, also included Stephanie Powell, Nader Baroukh and Bernadette Fancuberta, all of whom all spoke of shortcomings. Baroukh and Fancuberta are adamanty opposed to the project.

Among the Council members, David Chavern noted the commercial area on which the City Center will go currently has a density no greater than a single family home area of the City and “has no charm.”

Dan Maller said of the City Center project, “this is a bold stand,” Dan Sze cited a City Center referendum supported by citizens years ago, Dave Snyder said it was “the only project so far to actually comply with the spirit of the special exception ordinance.”

Hal Lippman said “there is nothing reckless in this, it has been a long, arduous process.” Lindy Hockenberry said, “We have the privilege of bringing to fruition something that has been in the city’s thoughts for 35 years,” and Mayor Robin Gardner echoed the remarks of her colleagues.