Planners Don’t Go Along, But Revenue Key
Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner visited the offices of the Falls Church News-Press Monday in an effort to clear up some residual misconceptions and confusion about the large-scale Atlantic Realty City Center project which comes before the City Council for final approval on Feb. 28.
The project gained a unanimous preliminary OK from the City Council last month. The $317 million project on 8.9 acres includes a hotel, supermarket, parking deck, rental and age-restricted condo residences, an office building, a relocated bowling alley, extensive street-level retail, and road and sidewalk improvements. It offers the prospect of a new, pedestrian-friendly main street, millions in voluntary proffers from the developer and no less than an estimated $3.3 million in net annual tax revenues.
While the Council remains steadfast in its support, even while negotiating further improvements with the developer, the nominal citizen opposition has been fueled by misconceptions, Gardner said. Tuesday, the Planning Commission recommended against the final approval of the project while not addressing its revenue promise or the City’s pressing revenue needs.
A public hearing before the City Council this Monday will be followed by the Council’s final vote next Thursday. All seven Council members will be present for the vote, which will require a super-majority to pass because it involves the transfer of City-owned property. Six “yes” votes out of seven will be needed for its passage.
Mayor Gardner told the News-Press Monday that two main concerns about the City Center plan may need further clarification. The first concerns the access of the public to provide input on the plan, and the second involves the use of public funds as a part of it.
On the public input matter, she said, there have been repeated opportunities at public hearings and other events for citizens to have a say, and many suggestions have been adopted into modifications of the project. “Since early 2007 when the current plan was first made public, citizen input has modified the width of sidewalks, the height of buildings, open space improvements and the application of pro-environmental LEED standards to the buildings,” she said.
“There remain some who don’t want any of this,” she conceded. “But there are also many who are really happy with it and the prospect it will finally happen.”
On the matter of the City’s investment of $6 million, she stressed it was not just for the parking deck, but the entire project. It is a modest investment in a project of this size, she noted, comparing the City’s $6 million into this $317 million project to Rockville’s use of $100 million in public funds for its $370 million City Center.
While some complain there is no “great place” in the City Center plan, specific town square features are planned for a second phase of City Center redevelopment on the north side of Broad Street. Still, in this plan, there is the creation of a vital and pedestrian friendly new main street with a large hotel, a Harris Teeter and lots of dynamic retail facing onto it, she pointed out.
Misconceptions about the hotel, planned as a Marriot Renaissance Inn, also exist, she said. “At first I, too, was put off by the idea of an extended-stay hotel at the location, but I went on a tour of three existing sites, and now appreciate that it is the best type of hotel to be here.” It will be very flexible with abundant conference space to support galas and other local events, and a “white table cloth” restaurant on the ground floor.
It will have a swimming pool and the City can negotiate to provide for some public access, she said. Amenities can be added. Falls Church art works can be displayed in the lobbies, the hallways and rooms. Except for the fact that there are small kitchenettes in the rooms, the hotel presents itself as an upscale product that the City can be proud of.
“It can even be called the Falls Church Marriott if we want to,” she said.
On the important issue of parking in the six level deck adjacent the hotel, she stressed that it will be open to all City residence for whatever reason they come to the area, whether to shop at the Harris Teeter, in a retail store, to bowl or eat at a restaurant.
“This will be open, free and available day and night to anyone who wants to park there,” she stressed. “The City will not own it, but that also means it does not have to maintain it.” All of these features are secured in writing, she said.
About concerns the project will undermine the “village” concept of Falls Church, she said, “We live in a suburban community. We can’t afford to fund a ‘village.’ The community has asked us to do this, as the 2002 referendum indicated, and what we have is lower than what the Comprehensive Plan allows.”
She said that, if approved next week, there will be ample opportunity for citizen input on the design of the buildings at a charette that has been planned prior to the onset of the site plan approval process next month.
“We’ve been looking at this kind of thing for eight years, and this is the first concrete plan to come forward that brings 40% commercial use, and $3.3 million annually in net tax revenue,” she said. “We’re getting almost nothing right now on that property.”