F.C. City Hall Scrambles, Beats Deadline for $2 Million Grant

The City of Falls Church filed an official proposal for the utilization of $2 million in federal stimulus dollars this week for purposes of the construction of a “multi-modal transportation center” at the intersection of S. Washington St. and Hillwood Ave.

But it was hardly easy.

Sudden Decision on S. Washington ‘Multi-Modal’ Plan

The City of Falls Church filed an official proposal for the utilization of $2 million in federal stimulus dollars this week for purposes of the construction of a “multi-modal transportation center” at the intersection of S. Washington St. and Hillwood Ave.

But it was hardly easy.

After the pressure-cooker environment that existed around the Falls Church City Hall this spring, burdened with an enormous budget shortfall requiring unprecedented layoffs, salary and program cuts, and a humongous 17 cent rise in the real estate tax rate, you’d think it was time for a break.

The painful budget was adopted on April 26 and the following week incumbency took a beating in the City Council election. It was time to step back, take a deep breath and sink, at least for awhile, into a comfy recliner.

No such luck for the beleaguered troops at City Hall. This time, it was the federal government, in the form of the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA), that dropped a new bombshell on those tending to The Little City.

The City was notified by FTA officials in no uncertain terms a week ago Tuesday that it had three days to make a submission about how it concretely intends to spend $2 million in public-transit targeted federal grant money (actually, $1.67 million in federal dollars with a $417,000 state match for $2,085,000 total). The City had been working with a September deadline for the matter, but was told by the FTA that the Obama administration decided to dramatically speed up the deployment of its economic stimulus dollars.

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields and Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester tried to avoid panicking and went to work feverishly to put together a plan, which would require the approval of the City Council. They decided to take what had been a series of options being explored and boil them down to two specific ones for the Council’s consideration.

Then, about 4 p.m. last Thursday, the word went out from City Hall that an item was being added to the agenda of that night’s Council work session that could have veritably epochal consequences for the City’s economic development prospects.

Sally Cole, executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, was notified, and she shot an e-mail to business members of her organization she thought would be most impacted. Among others, journalists — at least one of them — who thought they might finally have a reprieve from the endless succession of numbingly-long Council meetings, groaned.

At the meeting in City Hall last Thursday night, a noticeably weary Council and City Hall staff weighed into discussing the monumental decision it suddenly had only a couple hours to make.

The formal submission to the FTA was due by Monday. But technically it was not the City, but the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) that had to make the submission, so the City had to get its materials to the NVTC by Friday afternoon.

The $2 million had been provided to the City by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran for use in developing a so-called “multi-modal transportation center” that ideally would have had a major public parking component. City officials had considered how to integrate such a multi-modal center into its ambitious City Center Development plans, and preliminary consideration of locating such a center at the current site of Brown’s Hardware at the intersection of Routes 7 and 29, or on Park Avenue by City Hall, were met with resounding opposition.

The discussions fell to the back burner when the City Center plan ran afoul of the recession, and funding for its launch by Atlantic Realty suddenly dried up.

In the early part of the decade, a $1 million federal grant secured for the City by Rep. Moran was actually withdrawn because the City failed to act in a timely fashion to provide plans for its use. Rep. Moran was reportedly livid when that happened, but was willing to try again for the City, coming up with a two-phased grant totaling near $2 million.

Abruptly last week, the City found itself on the brink of losing yet another federal grant handed its way by Moran.

So, Shields and Mester presented to the Council Thursday night hastily-assembled options for constructing a “multi-modal transportation center” that would include the ability to integrate and transfer between bus, bike and car transit, including showers and lockers for those taking bicycles to the location to transfer onto a bus or car.

One location, the one the Council agreed up, is 7,500 square feet on the east side of S. Washington Street, where Hillwood Avenue meets the street at an angle.

The other location was on City-owned land, now used for surface parking, next to the State Theatre and behind Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Argia’s Restaurant.

It was clear from the outset that Shields and Mester preferred the S. Washington location, because former City Manager David Lasso was invited to the meeting to inform the Council of the problems he ran into when, in the 1990s, the State Theatre site was being considered for a multi-story public parking garage.

Lasso reported that a condition had been placed in the deed transferring that land from the Robertson family to the City. Namely, the land could not be used to charge for parking without having it revert back to its original owners.

Shields told the Council that the “full potential” of that land, namely, a use as a multi-tiered public parking garage, could not be realized solely by the $2 million in federal money, but that it would require around $6 million in City funds, in addition. And, he added, the cost of construction could not be recouped through charging people to park there.

On the other hand, officials in the City’s Planning Department had already been assessing the changes they would want to see at the S. Washington-Hillwood intersection as part of a bigger S. Washington landscaping improvement plan. They’d already come to a preliminary conclusion that integrating an island there with the adjacent sidewalk by closing that entrance onto Hillwood was a good idea.

Now, this could be paid for by the $2 million, and the total of 7,500 square feet there could readily accommodate the “multi-modal center.”

Moreover, a parking component, although not nearly as ambitious as a garage by the State Theatre would be, could be added across the street as an additional deck on an office building, the proposed McKeever Building, that Jefferson One and developer Bob Young is planning to build.

It was a compelling argument, and the Council, notwithstanding the efforts of Council member Nader Baroukh to consider other locations, was convinced. By about 11 p.m. Thursday night, a sufficient consensus was reached to give Shields and Mester what they needed to assemble the plan and submit it Friday afternoon.

One added element did not make it into the public realm until the Planning Commission meeting this Monday, however. That involved the FTA’s insistence that the modest parking component of the proposal must be put out to bid.

So, while Young has offered to provide the parking with a third deck of parking on his five-story McKeever Building, that is subject to the City initiating a formal process issuing a “request for proposal” and taking bids on potentially-alternative plans.

Mester told the News-Press yesterday that if the submission is approved by the feds in September, the project could be under construction by the fall.