Local Commentary

Editorial: The Urban Land Institute’s Gift

The extraordinary contribution to the City of Falls Church by the expert “Technical Assistance Panel” team from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute last week was an eye popper. The report the nine experts made Thursday afternoon after two days of examining the potential of the 40 acres of land transferred into the City was remarkably thorough and filled with great ideas (see story, page one of this edition).

Their vision for the site was high-minded, based on the ancient Greek city state idea of the agora, the combining of the institutions of education and commerce. But a lot of the expertise they brought was centered on process, what it will actually take to get the property developed to its highest and best use, and the most useful idea there was delivered at the outset: involve neighbors to the site, too, the Beyer Automotive, Federal Realty, Virginia Tech and University of Virginia people.

Less important were the specific plans they drew up about how to develop the site. As the experts themselves said, these are subject to always-changing market forces, so it is not necessarily productive to be speculating now about what a developer might be drawn to do when it comes time to develop in, say, four years.

It did surprise us, however, that the study did not seem to appreciate what many feel is the single greatest asset of the site, its proximity to the West Falls Church Metro station. The station seemed to impress them little, with one citing the lack of energy at the Vienna Metro station.

But that notion was, in our view, based on the fallacy that the Metro station would draw people to the retail and other options in the area of its location.

The more dynamic idea is to put something by the Metro station that causes people to want to locate there to begin with, and to use Metro to move around the region. There is already evidence of the viability of this approach.

An informal poll taken of patrons of the new Hilton Garden Inn in Falls Church revealed that most people chose to stay there because of its proximity to the Metro. The brisk sales of the new Northgate rental property on N. Washington is also based on the same amenity.

So, something placed on the new City land at the West Falls Church Metro station of a hotel or residential nature would be bound to be a winner. As to the complaint that it would be away from the City, and not visible along any main corridors would be dashed if a single structure was tall enough to dominate the skyline. Customers would be from the 15 million tourists annually who visit the D.C. region.

Why not offer a developer the opportunity to build a combination hotel and luxury condo project there on the condition that it put the City on the map by being the tallest building in Virginia?