Site Plan Nixed, 174 Affordable Units May Fail
A stunning denial of site plan approval for the City of Falls Church’s most ambitious affordable housing project was voted by the City’s Planning Commission Monday night.
Citing mostly their concerns for parking provisions, the Commissioners voted 6-1 to place the project in extreme jeopardy of failure.
This vote came after the City Council, a body elected by the citizens of Falls Church compared to the appointed Planning Commission, had enthusiastically for the voted necessary final approvals for the City Center South Apartments (CCSA) in August.
The project for 174 affordable housing units in downtown Falls Church is now in jeopardy because of the unyielding timeline the developer, the non-profit Falls Church Housing Corporation (FCHC), must comply with to apply for state tax credits needed to make the project work, financially.
The Housing Corporation has been pushing to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for application to the Virginia Housing Development Authority for the tax credits, worth about $14 million. Carol Jackson, executive director of the FCHC, told the News-Press following the Planning Commission vote Monday, that her group is already working furiously to achieve some modifications to the site plan that can win the Planning Commission over, with a new vote at its next meeting Dec. 15.
Site plan approval is normally a routine process following City Council approvals of a development project, with the role of the Planning Commission being to work with the developer to achieve mutually-satisfactory compliance. In this case, the Planning Commission was fully aware of the City Council’s wishes, supported by the professional City staff, that the project provide parking below the level as called for in the official City zoning code.
In the view of affordable housing advocates, therefore, its rejection of the project on grounds of limited parking was tantamount to a veto of the City Council’s mandate, more than a reflection of cooperative concern for the site plan’s approval.
Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner was adamant in expressing her “disappointment” with the Planning Commission vote in comments to the News-Press Tuesday night.
She said that while on-going efforts involving the Housing Corporation, the City staff and some on the Planning Commission are underway for a redo of the vote Dec. 15, the Commission this Monday “did not focus on the benefits of the project, and was not willing to work through the issues” to approve the site plan.
“Some expressed they didn’t like the project on policy grounds, as opposed to considering the site plan on its own merits,” she said. “If you review the transcript of the meeting, you will find that substantial comments were made that were not germane to the site plan.”
The City Council gave its final vote of approval to the CCSA at its Aug. 11 meeting, approving four separate features of the project by votes of 6-1, 6-1, 5-2 and 5-2 in the wee hours of Aug. 12.
The carefully-crafted agreement involves collaboration between the FCHC, the Homestretch, Inc., non-profit housing organization, Thomas E. Sawner, chief executive of EdOptions, a for-profit educational support company, and the City. It involves the demolition of old office buildings at the 360 S. Maple site, and the construction of two new buildings. One would house 174 affordable housing units, and the other would be an office building owned by Sawner that would provide the City with both parking for the CCSA and 30,600 square feet of new, taxable office space.
Jackson and other proponents of the project argued over the better part of the past year that the project would make the City’s school system more competitive by offering affordable teacher workforce housing near all the City’s schools. Also, not only providing affordable housing, but encouraging income and other forms of diversity, are among the City’s stated goals in its Comprehensive Plan and vision statement.
The FCHC, operating with the blessings of City Hall to provide affordable housing in the City’s 2.2 square miles, has been beating its head against the wall for the better part of a decade to craft an acceptable project to make a dent addressing affordable housing needs.
It was thrown out of sites behind the State Theatre and West End Park in earlier efforts, before the latest plan finally won enthusiastic City Council approval.
This week’s vote was not the first time the Planning Commission in Falls Church has killed a major project on grounds of its perception of insufficient parking. In October 1997, the Commission rejected the site plan for the renovation of the State Theatre on parking grounds.
The ensuing citywide outrage caused the Planning Commission to reconsider its vote in its subsequent meeting, and while railing against those, including the News-Press, who brought down the wrath of citizens on its earlier action, it voted to reverse itself.
In the 11 years since, to date, parking has never presented a significant problem to either neighbors or patrons of the State Theatre, which has emerged as one of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Region’s most popular live music venues and in recent years the host site of the annual Washington Area Music Awards fete, bringing generous revenues to the City’s tax coffers.
At this Monday’s meeting, only recent appointee Lindy Hockenberry voted in favor of the site plan. She said, “Affordable housing policy and financing issues are not the role of the Planning Commission. Those policy issues have already been dealt with. This is a truly imaginative, tremendous project. This should be a made-from-heaven situation. There is a parking shortage, but with as good as this project is, parking is important, but people are moreso.”
She also cited documentation of a national trend to reduce parking restrictions at affordable housing projects for a variety of reasons, including at specific projects in Arlington and Montgomery County.
Statements of support came from the Coalition for Smart Growth and former Planning Commissioners Rob Puentes and Bob Burnett. Sauner also reminded the board that as a for-profit businessman responsible for the new office building to go at the site, “I have total comfort with all aspects” of the parking plan.
The other commissioners all voted against the site plan, including chair Maureen Budetti, Christine Sanders, John Lawrence, Melissa Teates, Ruth Rodgers and Suzanne Fauber. Many argued that the parking shortage will be much greater than indicated, while Sanders added that new questions about the planned City Center project raise questions about the appropriate scale of the CCSA project.
Lawrence said that the project would “suck affordable housing resources,” causing affordable housing elsewhere to “suffer,” and Teates said she doubted the project made a good Comprehensive Plan fit. Rodgers said she was concerned for the effect of the project on “future development in the area.” Budetti said she interpreted the staff support for the project as “lukewarm.”
Critics noted that all such comments did not speak to the specific issues of the site plan per se, and therefore were “out of bounds.”
In a related development, four seats on the Planning Commission are up for appointments by the City Council later this month, including those of Budetti, Rodgers, Sanders and Fauber.
Three of the incumbent commissioners, Sanders, Rodgers and Fauber, have filed papers seeking re-appointment, along with Nigel Yates, an outspoken opponent of the Hilton Garden Inn project approved by the City Council this fall.
The deadline for applications, which all City residents are eligible to submit, is Dec. 9. The Council will make its new appointments prior to the Dec. 31 expiration of the current four terms.