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Hilton Groundbreaking Signals New Development Wave in Falls Church

A CEREMONIAL groundbreaking for the new Hilton Garden Inn involved City and industry dignitaries at the site last Thursday.. (Photo: News-Press)

What’s Next? Move Mt. Daniel to City Hall & Much More?

The “win-win” deal struck last month between the City of Falls Church and the government and water authority of Fairfax County – trading Falls Church’s control of its water system for some undeveloped real estate with almost limitless commercial development potential adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station – in only one component of what’s shaping up to be an unprecedented development boom.

Accompanying the water-for-land deal was the long-awaited groundbreaking ceremony for the Hilton Garden Inn in the 700 block of W. Broad St. (Route 7) last Thursday afternoon. Passersby can now witness a rapid construction process on the site, and a hotel that will be open to serve the public in early 2014.

The Hekemian Company’s Northgate mixed use project is rising out of the ground on N. Washington St., and the construction of new two-story commercial use buildings in the 900 block of W. Broad and at the Annandale Road intersection of Rt. 29 are also proceeding.

Beyond that, City Hall seems eager to have the Lincoln Properties large-scale mixed use plan on the current Saab dealership site on S. Washington at Maple, a plan for the redevelopment of 400 N. Washington St., and the “big kahuna,” the construction of a mixed-use plan bringing a Harris Teeter grocery store to the 300 block of W. Broad.

Each of these projects will bring a lot of new revenues to the City’s coffers, needed to maintain the high national reputation of the City’s schools.

Moreover, active minds in the City’s Planning Department, on the School Board and the City Council are remaining ahead of the curve with some far-reaching, truly “out of the box” ideas for optimizing the whole process.

In at least two public meetings in the last weeks, for example, ambitious plans to shuffle around school and City properties were aired, even though City and school officials don’t like to talk about them when asked.

But City Hall and School Board insiders are privy to the broad outlines of what’s being contemplated, and to studies that have been done “sotto voce” to support their feasibility.

The plan calls for moving Mt. Daniel Elementary off its current property, tearing down City Hall, and building a new elementary facility where City Hall now sits. Studies have established it can work without encroaching on Cherry Hill Park or the Community Center.

Under this scenario, a new City Hall, a new municipal building that would house the Police Department and maybe even the library, would be constructed elsewhere in collaboration with components of the structure dedicated to private office uses, such that the public-private partnership would make the project financially viable.

City officials have already been looking around town for places where such a new municipal building might go, and a couple of good prospective sites have already been identified.

Even though 70 percent of the 39.6 acres by the West Falls Church Metro that Falls Church will acquire in the water-for-land deal is stipulated as limited to educational uses for 50 years, the question of a new high school or high school-middle school falls into this equation, as well.

The driving factor in most of these considerations is the high costs that needed renovations of the high school and City Hall, in particular, and the size limitations of Mt. Daniel involve.

Daunting numbers have been marked onto the City’s Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) calendar for a new high school and massive renovations needed at City Hall. In light of this, some have argued that wasting money on renovating old and dysfunctional existing buildings may not be as wise as some more innovative approaches.

For example, the sale of the property on which Mt. Daniel now sits could help offset the costs of building a new structure big enough to handle continued enrollment growth. The sale of the property on which the library now sits could do the same for the construction of a new City Hall building that would also house the library, and it could be especially viable if costs could be shared with a private development entity.

This innovative thinking is scaling up at City Hall now, and all these development ideas are being spurred by the revival that the Hilton Garden Inn groundbreaking represents, that optimistic feeling that comes over a public official who never dons a hard hat, or lifts a shovel, unless it is for such an event.

With these developments, Falls Church has been given a “new lease on life,” capable of providing for its long-term sustainability with such visionary approaches, even while in the past the no-growth ethos in the City repeatedly dashed the possibilities of great things.

It was in the mid-1990s, when the way was found to marry the interests of the until-then-contentious City’s school system and tax revenue-generating commercial development, and a new process was set in motion. It led to the first of five large-scale mixed use projects beginning with the final approval for the Broadway on Sept. 10, 2001, and others followed including the Byron, the Spectrum, the Read Building and the Flower Building before the Great Recession broke the trend by causing the indefinite stalling out of the $314 million City Center Project that had achieved all its necessary approvals.