Can you envision 10- and 12-story buildings on Falls Church’s east end? A team of Virginia Tech students from the Northern Virginia campus in Alexandria can, and have.
In a visually stunning presentation last Thursday before members of the public and the City of Falls Church’s Economic Development Authority (EDA), graduate students in the Virginia Tech Urban Design Studio Class unveiled their long-term, urban vision for the city’s “East End.”
The East End is comprised of the city’s eastern-most points, centered around the Eden Center and the property formerly occupied by retail giant Syms.
Early last year, Falls Church’s Economic Development Office (EDO) Director Richard Goff coordinated with Virginia Tech Professor Shelley Mastran and consultant Jim Snyder to help the students with their project.
This project is not a first for the city. In 2004, a similar class of graduate students from Virginia Tech presented a redevelopment vision for the area surrounding the East Falls Church Metrorail station. Earlier, they linked the East Falls Church station to Route 7.
The current class of 27 students brought the focus from the East Falls Church station less than a mile away, up Sycamore Road to the city’s East End, adjacent to Fairfax County’s Seven Corners.
In its presentation, the group studied how the city could utilize the commercial and residential zones in the East End to capitalize on the nearby Metro and pull in commuters traveling between Tysons Corner and Arlington on Route 7.
Eight of the students at the EDA board meeting Thursday night presented a series of Powerpoint slides and diagrams detailing their ideas of the economic potential and possible landscapes of Falls Church’s East End by 2050.
“I can’t tell you how much work went into today’s presentation,” Mastran told the board, adding, “For a 65-acre site looking ahead 40 years, it might have been a whole lot easier to come to a consensus with a class of 10 students, but each of the 27 students brought his or her ideas to the overall vision.”
The students’ presentation, led by student designer Kate Youngbluth, pieced together the various neighborhoods in Falls Church’s East End and parts of adjoining Fairfax County to create “a continuation of the sort of development you see in the Ballston-Court House corridor,” Youngbluth said. “The particular concern here was to stimulate the economy, and on the area’s heavy reliance on commercial and retail.”
The vision boosts the Floor-to-Area Ratio (FAR) of the area from around 0.39 to a range between 1.5 and 3.0, which would result in residential high-rises and multi-story office spaces rising upwards of 10 stories with wide avenues and street side boutiques.
The presenters also said that for their vision to succeed, Falls Church would need to implement “multi-modal forms of transportation between East Falls Church and the East End,” said graduate planner Jill Chen. She added that likely forms of transportation could include “light rail, a shuttle system between urban areas and an extension of the city’s bus system like GEORGE.”
Members of the EDA were impressed with the student presentation, with EDA Chair David Tarter stating the board “was very thankful for an excellent vision of what Falls Church could be in 40 years with smart planning.”
Tarter added that he was impressed with the students’ creation of a sky-walk, hi-rise entrance to Falls Church that would pull drivers’ attention to “The Little City.”
“I like the idea of attracting people’s attention to the city rather than letting them pass right through without batting an eye,” he said.
Some members of the audience and on the board raised concerns about the increase in traffic population around the new development, and questioned the process of getting developers to come to Falls Church.
“It’s a matter of attracting the right kind of developers,” Snyder said. “Right now, the sort of buildings you have there are really underperforming.”
According to the presentation, if the Virginia Tech plan were implemented, the East End, which currently generates about $2.6 million in revenue annually, could produce upward of $15.1 million as an urban, transit-connected corridor.
Regarding concerns over GEORGE and the success of a transit system, Snyder said that unlike the current, car-oriented construction, “you need to have the right density for a mass transit system to work,” adding, “Rather than go along with what you have right now, you have to attract the right kind of commuter through the door.”
Chen noted that among young urban professionals “only about a third drive cars or live in communities where they need to drive one.”
Snyder said that “Falls Church educates young professionals very well, but they don’t come back to work. You need to capture that brain talent, instead of losing those folks to Arlington and Washington.”
In connecting the city to the Metro, Youngbluth said the city “could take advantage of the transportation in the area.”
“You’re geographically in the right place,” she said. “You just need the right density to pull in residents who want to enjoy cultural spots and nightlife here in Falls Church.”
Falls Church Council members Lawrence Webb and Nader Baroukh attended the presentation, and spoke favorably of it at Monday’s City Council meeting.