The City of Falls Church’s historic opportunity to turn nine acres of blight in its central commercial district into a glistening, vibrant new main street with a hotel, a supermarket, retail, office and residential components, remains on track for a final approval by the City Council on Feb. 28. Assuming the Planning Commission provides its recommendation next Monday, as requested by the Council, the Council will hold a final public hearing on Feb. 24, and hold a special meeting on the 28th to cast its vote. It gave a unanimous preliminary approval to the plan last month, moving forward an epochal partnership between Atlantic Realty and the City government as the culmination of an almost decades-long effort to achieve a new city center.
There are those who still question whether a majority of citizens in Falls Church favor the project and its benefits, which include $3 million in net annual tax revenue to the City’s coffers, something critically important in the currently flatlined residential real estate market. They need to be reminded of a November 2002 so-called “charter change” referendum and its results. A small but strident group of anti-mixed use development activists qualified a referendum for the ballot that fall, aimed at stifling the efforts of the City Council to complete deals with a range of developer interests. It called for strictly commercial development in the City’s downtown, with any residential use proposals made subject to a public referendum.
After a vigorous campaign, the measure fell to an ignominious landslide defeat, with a lopsided 63 percent of voters rejecting it. The net result was the opposite of what the obstructionists who authored the referendum wanted. Because the vote was so overwhelmingly in favor of staying the Council’s course of encouraging large-scale mixed use projects, developers were encouraged and redoubled their interest in building in the City. Subsequent re-elections of pro-development Council members have also had the effect of citywide votes of confidence in continuing to move forward.
Make no mistake, what sits on the nine acres in play now for the City Center is nothing but patched and pocked asphalt, broken glass, crumpled beer cans, clumpy fields and a less-than-aesthetically pleasing bowling alley. Far from undermining “village charm” in Falls Church, the plan will transform the ragged, dangerous neighborhood into a vital, well-lit, safe, pedestrian-friendly and welcoming space.
It is ironic that some among those opposed to the project on grounds it will undermine “village charm” and degrade the existing “outstanding architecture” here (where is that exactly?), are responsible for the architecturally-ridiculous George Mason Square building, the prison-like brick structure at the intersection of Rt. 7 and 29. In the 1980s, the City Council caved to their wishes, and that was the result.