St. James Pastor Agrees to Pact With Developer
“They might not have gotten what they’d hoped for, but the input of the St. James Church, the St. James School parents and the neighborhood vastly improved the project, and it will be a great benefit for the City and the area.” So stated Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner to the News-Press following the City Council’s unanimous vote late Monday night to approve the construction of a Hilton Garden Inn Hotel at 706 W. Broad St.
It took since the first submission last August by the Jefferson Park, LLC, group to seek required zoning, special exception and other changes for the final approval which came this Monday, despite persisting and angry opposition mostly from parents of students at the St. James School.
“Let the boycott begin!” wrote one opponent to the hotel, writing on the News-Press website in response to an article reporting the vote.
“I agree totally. I will shop elsewhere and pull my kids out of their doctors’ and dentists’ offices immediately and I will never recommend the Hilton,” replied another.
The threat of a boycott of local Falls Church city businesses was repeated by hotel opponents more than once during the many public hearings, petition periods and special meetings held in recent months, including before the Planning Commission, City Council work sessions and at City Council general business meetings.
Despite the fact that only 37 of the more than 600 students at the St. James School reside in the City limits, the parents argued that they spend a lot of money in the city, and that could stop if the hotel were approved.
Foremost among many objections to the 110-room hotel was the notion that its proximity to the school would encourage pederasts to reside there to prey on students.
However, City officials said they could find no evidence that this should be a particular concern, and some noted that school parents have never objected to existing, much older motels and hotels in the same area where students often walk after school.
In fact, Jefferson Park, LLC principle Bob Young offered considerable proffers to the City to improve safety in the overall neighborhood, including added lighting, cameras and upgraded sidewalks.
An important step secured the day of the vote this week was an agreement signed by Young, the Rev. Patrick L. Posey, pastor of the St. James Catholic Church, and Mark E. Herrmann, Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington for an array of crime prevention measures, including the erection of an eight-foot fence around the school playground paid for by Young.
Posey and Herrmann were present at Monday’s Council meeting to affirm their support for the agreement, over the objection of numerous parents who said it did not have enough “teeth” or that it ignored certain dangers.
Angry remarks included one that warned the Council that it could be sued for “negligence and reckless endangerment,” both individually and collectively, for “tempting fate of pedophiles,” by approving the project.
However, Falls Church citizen activist Kathy Kleinman, an attorney, said she accepted the task of exploring the incidents of hotels being located near schools, and found there were “more cases than we could count” across the U.S., and that in no case could reports of any problems be found.
In their comments approving the project, both Mayor Gardner and Vice Mayor Hockenberry chastised some among the opponents for what they called their inappropriate behavior. “There was an undercurrent of a lack of respect for City Council members. Some went down a vindictive, nasty road,” said Hockenberry.
Mayor Gardner said she regretted some “bitterness” that she encountered, “including yelling at me, with my children, at the Memorial Day parade. I did not appreciate that,” she said.
One leading official of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, which was a strong supporter of the hotel project, reported Tuesday that a local businessman said he’d been threatened with a boycott if he did not sign a petition opposing the hotel.
Another Chamber official noted that none of the businesses that hotel opponents said had opposed the hotel appeared at the Council meeting to personally express their opposition.
A petition for a temporary restraining order was filed in the Arlington Circuit Court by St. James parent, and attorney, Pierre Coin, on Thursday, but it was summarily dismissed the same day.
“This is not a black or white issue,” Mayor Gardner said at Monday’s meeting. “There are very legitimate concerns regarding the children. But the question should be, ‘If there is a hotel, then can we make the school safer?’ We got the right outcome, because the school will become safer.”
In the last iteration of the project, Young dropped plans for an office building at the back of the hotel, enabling access to both levels of the parking deck from Broad Street. That was aimed at mitigating the traffic impact on Oak Street, separating an entrance to the parking deck from the St. James School.
He also added to his financial proffer for improvements around the school, although City Manager Wyatt Shields cautioned that that money could not go directly to the school, as a private entity, but to City upgrades.
“When we ask if this hotel will represent a change for the better, the answer is ‘yes,'” said Councilman Hal Lippman. “I do what is in the best interest of the City, overall. That is my overriding rationale.”
Councilman Dan Sze made a similar comment, asking, “Is this a change for the better?,” prior to voting for it.
Councilman David Snyder, who was present at the beginning of the meeting but had to leave before the hotel vote to catch a plane for a business trip to Paris, said that if he could, he’d vote for the hotel.
Similarly, Councilman David Chavern, also not present for Monday’s vote, relayed to Mayor Gardner that he favored it.
The hotel will be the first upscale hotel in Falls Church. Citizens who spoke in favor of it Monday pointed to its positive impact on the City, including as a draw for more business development, and to its tax revenue impact. Conservative estimates are that it will bring $380,000 annually in tax revenues into City coffers.