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F.C. Council Poised for Final OK of Hilton Garden Inn Plan

The Falls Church City Council is poised to give final approval to a set of zoning and special exception modifications that will effectively launch the construction of the first major brand hotel in the City. The decisive vote will come at this Monday’s Council business meeting, following a final public hearing on the subject

Upon approval, the first shovel may be in the ground to commence construction of a six-story, 110-room Hilton Garden Inn at 706 W. Broad St., in the same block as the Burger King, by October.

An important step came last Monday, when the City’s Planning Commission, provided a unanimous non-binding recommendation favoring the approval of the project. The only stumbling block as been the technical environmental standard the project will achieve.

The debate centered on whether the developers – The Gosnell-Palmer Holdings Group, based in Tysons Corner – would guarantee a building scoring 50-59 points on the “green building” grading scale known as LEED (the U.S. Green Building Council’s “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” standards).

LEED certification, according to a grading system first developed in 1998, involves achieving 40 to 49 points in a standardized check-off system, and the developers have guaranteed to the City that their hotel will achieve that. However, they stopped short of a hard guarantee that the building will score even better, achieving the rating of “LEED Silver.”

Developer Richard Palmer, both at the Planning Commission meeting Monday and speaking to the monthly luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, said that he believes the structure will qualify for “LEED Silver,” but that he couldn’t absolutely insure it, since there are some fuzzy variables in the scoring process, and if interpretations go one way instead of another, the project would have to upgrade its HVAC system in a way that would make the project, overall, cost prohibitive.

At the City Council’s work session Monday, Council members Ira Kaylin and Ron Peppe both commented that the distinctions between levels of LEED certifications are mostly technical and do not amount to very much.

Palmer told the Chamber of Commerce Tuesday that the project as originally approved by the City Council in 2008 was determined to be unprofitable, and thereby incapable of qualifying for bank financing. Therefore, modifications were introduced, such as removing a small office building on the back end of the project facing onto Park Avenue, removing the guarantee of a “LEED Silver” ranking, and a reduction in the dollar value of proffers offered to the City in exchange for needed approvals.

Actually, the City Council had been presented a report showing that the reduction in the dollar value of proffers to the City included in the current plan adds up to only $60,000, involving such minor offers as the milling and paving of the one block of N. Oak St. adjacent the hotel property.

On the other hand, the biggest number favoring approval of the project was the $540,000 in annual net revenues to the City it is estimated the project will bring to the City’s tax coffers. That is without the spin-off effects for other components of the City’s economy that having 110 rooms occupied by visitors will bring.

Palmer, speaking at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, thanked the Chamber for its long-standing support of the project, and said, “I don’t want to make any  predictions, but I think we’ll have good news” with the final City Council vote Monday.

He said with approval, he hopes to get construction underway by October, ahead of winter weather, and once underway, it should take about 14 months to complete. “I believe we will be open for business by the first quarter of 2013,” he said.

Permit fees and other factors should begin to benefit the City’s bottom line during the current fiscal year. It is generally asserted that hotels routinely return the highest net yield of any commercial or residential uses.

Chamber members Tuesday were particularly impressed by the hotel’s amenities that will serve the Falls Church community, especially the 3,000 square feet of meeting space that can be combined to serve 80 to 100 people at a sit-down dining event, of 120 seated in theater style. The space can also be cordoned off to create three smaller meeting rooms, including a 15-person board room with state of the art audio-visual capabilities.

There will be a full kitchen to serve either an event, or patrons of a first-floor restaurant and lounge, which will be open to the public although primarily designed for use by hotel patrons (as will be an indoor swimming pool and fitness room).

Although varying with seasons, Palmer said the average room rate will be about $150 a night. On weekdays, most of the use will be business-related, and on weekends, he said, the hotel hopes to cater more to special events, like weddings and receptions, as is done with a similar hotel project of his group in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia.

But Palmer said the restaurant and lounge will not be advertised to the general public, per se, because the hotel wants to cooperate with other businesses in the community, steering their guests to nearby restaurants and entertainment venues.

For example, he said he is looking into a way to partner with a bike shop to provide hotel guests with access to bicycles so they can take advantage of the nearby W&OD Bike Trail.