Virginia Tech Unveils New Visionary Plan for ‘Waterfront’ in Falls Church

Says to Enhance Tripps Run Near W. Jefferson St.

A compelling vision by Virginia Tech students to turn the Tripps Run creek and Four Mile Run that it feeds into a mini-waterfront adjacent a new one-acre park for the City of Falls Church drew an unexpectedly appreciative response from the City’s Economic Development Authority Tuesday night.

The graduate students’ project report, “West Jefferson Conceptual Plan,” proposes the total redevelopment of nine acres on the east side of West Jefferson Street bordering Arlington County. It calls for cleaning out all the old storefronts and parking lots in the area, and replacing them with an green roof office building of up to nine stories, retail, residential and a park with amphitheater that fronts a totally-opened and landscaped Four Mile Run.

“This is the best conceptual development plan I have ever seen for Falls Church,” said local developer Bob Young, who sat in on the meeting along with the Economic Development Authority (EDA), three City Council members and members-elect and two Planning Commissioners. Young added, “It is wonderful and realistic. You could pay a professional $250,000 and not get something as creative as this.”

While 11 Land Use Planning course students at the Falls Church extension of Virginia Tech developed the plan, they were overseen by their instructors, Dr. Shelley Mastran and Jim Snyder, who were present at Tuesday’s meeting. No one in the room was more enthusiastic about the plan, especially its “waterfront” component, than Snyder, who led Arlington County’s development planning efforts for 33 years.

Snyder pointed to how redevelopment efforts, that included improving storm water management, in cities like San Antonio, Texas and Providence, Rhode Island became not only major environmental and open space amenities, but enormous drivers for economic development, as well.

Young Andrew Shapiro, the only student from the class present Tuesday, reported on a tour he did for the project effort of such redevelopments in other cities in Ohio, Maryland and Texas.

As a lively conversation at Tuesday’s meeting shifted from the vision project to the nitty-gritty of how to get something like it actually done, it became clear from EDA members, Falls Church Planning Director Sue Cotellessa and Rick Goff and Becky Witsman of the City’s Economic Development Office (EDO) that one landowner dominates the area included in the study.

Falls Church-based Jennings Properties, Inc., owns more than 50 percent of the developed land in the area now, which is virtually in the shadow of its headquarters. Contacted yesterday by the News-Press, Corry Jennings said she’d not heard of the plan and that, to her knowledge, it had not been discussed with anyone at Jennings to date.

Cotellessa said that perhaps the prospects of the City’s willingness to permit the kind of ramped up density on the site would make it attractive enough for Jennings to participate in a plan of this kind.

The study includes two options, one for 519,000 square feet of office-retail-residential construction, with a “floor to area ratio” (FAR) of 2.63, and a second option for 468,000 square feet and an FAR of 2.37.

While that would allow for much more development than is permitted there now, it would be appropriate for a location so near the East Falls Church Metro station, Snyder pointed out.

“The East Falls Church station may be outside Falls Church’s city limits,” Snyder noted, “But its got your name on it.”

Dr. Mastran said the area selected for the study was particularly intriguing to the students because of its immediate proximity to a number of important factors, including the Metro station, but also the W&OD Bike Trail, Tripps Run and the entrance to the City, its “gateway,” so to speak. The students walked the site many times in putting their heads together to formulate their report.

The study also included an economic impact projection, based on working closely with the City’s EDO. David Tarter, chair of the EDA, noted the area is currently “underperforming economically,” while it is “an extremely paved site” with “undistinguished buildings and parking lots.”

The area’s assessed value would jump from $14.2 to $117 million, it was noted, adding $1.2 million in new tax revenues to the City’s coffers.

It’s an area where the land is worth more than the buildings on them, and that is always a sign of poor economic performance, Snyder said. It is an “upside down” condition that fails to contribute robustly to the City’s tax base.

The commercial corridors of Falls Church, overall, are “not performing as they should be,” he said. He cited an commercial appearance that is “old and tired, paved, and friendly to cars but not people.”

He said that in this context, the West Jefferson Street area is currently “in conflict with the aspirations of Falls Church,” with Tripps Run “almost completely forgotten.”

Snyder drew on his extensive experience in Arlington to remark that such projects take time, but require a firm vision, such as this one, to launch. “Ballston and Shirlington both took a long time,” but with a vision to work from, they succeeded.

“It is important to get the City’s stakeholders in alignment to begin with,” he said, “and for people to be able to see themselves in a place like this.”

Goff said that tax increment financing could be used for such a redevelopment, and Young chimed in that a “Community Development District” could be created to help advance the plan, noting that Jennings owns enough of the land involved, himself, to form a district on its own.

Also, it would be appropriate to use federal or state funds earmarked for storm water management in a project of this kind, it was pointed out.

In addition to Shapiro, students who developed the plan include Monica Andrews, Kate Dykgraaf, Karen Helbrecht, Iqbal Khaily, Andrew King, Garrison Kitt, Nancy Moorman, Sergio Ritacco, Thomas Sheffer and Patt Talvanna.