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F.C. Council

OK Will Make F.C. Secure, Backers Say

A special meeting of the Falls Church City Council will convene at City Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m., with only one item on the agenda: the final approval of the $317 million, nine-acre Atlantic Realty City Center project.

If the Council follows through on the unanimous preliminary approval it gave to the project last month, it will be the single biggest development achievement in the history of Falls Church, and the single biggest boon to the City’s flagging revenue base.

Underscoring the poignancy of the occasion, tonight’s vote coincides with one made by the Falls Church School Board Tuesday, under pressure to hold the line on its budget due to sharp declines in residential real estate values,  marking the biggest round of layoffs in its history.

While not in time to prevent the elimination of eight full-time administrative positions in the City’s schools (see story elsewhere this issue), if the City Center project is approved tonight, it will reflect a bold determination by the City government to address the long-term fiscal health of the City and its schools alike.

The project, designed for almost nine undeveloped acres in the center of Falls Church, will bring a large 192-room hotel with conference facilities, a major supermarket, a parking deck, 562 active adult, townhouse and rental housing units, a new bowling alley, wide sidewalks and open spaces, improvements to the adjacent Big Chimneys Park, and abundant restaurants and retail stores. It will yield, by conservative estimates, almost $3 million annually in tax revenues to the City when completed, and includes $16 million in cash or cash equivalents in the form of development proffers. The first phase of the project, including the hotel, will be completed by 2010 and the second phase by 2012, if tonight’s vote goes.

While opponents of the project have argued it will undermine the small-town “village” atmosphere of Falls Church, its proponents have hailed it as a lifeline to the City’s long-term, sustainable future as an independent jurisdiction. “Falls Church’s unique character stems not from some notion of a ‘village,’ but from how its independence as a small jurisdiction has empowered its citizens with a sense of ownership in their government and the City’s affairs,” a supporter noted in the public hearing Monday. “Preserving that independence is vital.”

The project “will achieve key community values,” City Manager Wyatt Shields said. The term, “South” was added to the “City Center” name to emphasize that it will be followed on with development of a component north of W. Broad Street that will include a town square.

There will be no public hearing tonight, except for a tiny spillover of citizens who were not able to speak prior to the 11 p.m. deadline at Monday’s Council meeting. In that meeting, devoted almost entirely to one last round of public comment on the City Center, 43 citizens provided their views and suggestions, some strongly in support of the plan and others equally strongly opposed.

In a surprising development, six clergymen from local churches, a rabbi and two spokesmen for the NAACP spoke, all in favor of the project and a collateral affordable housing project that could flow from it. There were also representative of pro-affordable housing non-profits, such as Carol Jackson and Dr. Steve Rogers of the Falls Church Housing Corporation and Christopher Fay of the Falls Church-based Homestretch, Inc.

Falls Church Chamber of Commerce board members were also out in force to underscore their formal endorsement of the project, including architect Paul Barkley who has been working on various plans for a City Center in Falls Church since 1964. Chamber chair Gary LaPorta waved petitions with over 320 signatures of City Center supporters.

Even in the last week, additional proffers have been forthcoming from Atlantic Realty to improve the project, some based on constructive suggestions made by the F.C. Planning Commission last week.

Planning Commission chair Maureen Budetti explained, concerning the Planning Commission’s vote to recommend against the project last week, that the commission’s role was to critique the project, suggest improvements and identify shortcomings. “We didn’t have the luxury to say we approve of this and oppose that,” she said. “At the end of the day we had to vote up or down.”

A letter in support of the City Center project from Planning Commissioner Rob Puentes, who was not present at last week’s meeting, was read by the City Clerk Kathleen Buschow.

Voluntary developer concessions were enhanced in the last week it was announced, following a long list of revisions and new proffers responding to earlier Council, Planning Commission and public concerns, including a doubling to $400,000 of resources for open space development, wider sidewalks and the assurance there will ample free parking for the public at all hours in the six-story deck.

Members of the faith community and civil rights advocates who spoke Monday hailed the prospect that an affordable housing contribution by the developer of $4.2 million could be leveraged by the F.C. Housing Corporation and Homestretch into the construction of a 172-unit affordable housing residency across the street from the new City Center.

The Rev. Samuel D. Barnhart, pastor at the predominantly African-American Second Baptist Church, issued a statement read by Nikki Henderson that hailed the City Center project as a signal for his community to “come out of the shadows and into the daylight of a new, vibrant City Center.”

He said it will provide not only affordable housing, but jobs and will make Falls Church as a community “whole again.”

Charles Longalis, a long-time City resident and member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation, said the City Center will be served by two main artery lines of the Metro Bus system running along Routes 7 and 29. He said the notion that Falls Church is a “village” is “long, long gone.” Those who say so “are imagining,” he said.

But City icon Lou Olom, a participant in the founding of many early civic institutions in the 59 year history of Falls Church, criticized the plan, saying it will turn Falls Church into “a metropolitan big city,” insisting “it just doesn’t fit.”

Jeff Peterson, chair of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society, said the project has been advanced through a series of “irregular processes” and that the Council “is being rushed to vote.”

On the other hand, City Manager Shields noted the City has been working in earnest toward a City Center since 1999, and that the current proposal came officially to the City Council in January 2007, over a year ago.

He also noted that the prospects for a collateral affordable housing project adjacent the City Center will be considered later, and is not integral to the current plan.