Kensington Groundbreaking Marks Shift in New Housing

BREAKING THE GROUND, aka a “groundbreaking,” at the W. Broad Street site of the former Burger King was a large delegation of Falls Church dignitaries ceremonially launching the construction of a new senior living mixed use project, The Kensington. (Photo: News-Press)
BREAKING THE GROUND, aka a “groundbreaking,” at the W. Broad Street site of the former Burger King was a large delegation of Falls Church dignitaries ceremonially launching the construction of a new senior living mixed use project, The Kensington. (Photo: News-Press)

The rousing groundbreaking ceremony held last week for The Kensington, the City of Falls Church’s latest large scale mixed use project that will now rise out of underutilized land in its commercially-zoned corridors, symbolically signaled a new prevailing theme for new residential development in the City.

The Kensington is designed for senior citizens, while other projects in the queue for City Hall approval, such as Mason Row and anticipated submissions for the City’s newly acquired land that is currently home to its high school and middle school, suggest that designing rental apartment homes for younger couples, singles, the elderly and others seeking greater affordability reflect the “new normal” of the national economy, overall, and what people most likely to want to live in Falls Church are looking for.

For years in The Little City, residential meant single family homes, and there have been over 4,000 built, and counting. In the post-war 1940s, the first deviation from that came with what was called Tyler Gardens, on the model of what boomed nationally as GI loan housing, and is now called Winter Hill, having converted to condominiums in the early 1970s.

There were a few other cases, such as Park Towers, the Merrill House, the Broadfalls, Oakwood and Roosevelt apartments, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the tide turned in a significant way for the City with the completion of its first major mixed use project, The Broadway.

That was followed by The Byron, The Spectrum, the Read Building, Pearson Square, Northgate and a couple others located just yards beyond the City limits, all completed in the past decade, with two more now risen out of the ground – the Rushmark home to a future Harris Teeter and the Lincoln at Tinner Hill on S. Maple – to be ready for occupancy within the next year.

The first few featured luxury condominiums, but when the market for those fell out with the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, condos fell out of favor and everyone began building rental apartments, including Pearson Square, which won City Hall approval for converting that project from condos to apartments.

While concerns the new condos and rentals would flood the City’s schools and wind up costing taxpayers money to educate the new kids, the opposite has turned out to be the case, as studies by the School system and City Hall’s economic development office have shown.

The six recently-completed mixed use projects are now yielding about $7.1 million in tax revenues to the City annually, equivalent to over 20 cents on real estate tax rate. For every school aged child living in the projects, the average yield is $38,688 apiece, well more than twice the $15,703 it costs to educate them. (By contrast, the average single family home contributes only $10,400 for each child it has in the school system).

In sum, for the City’s economic development office, “In aggregate, mixed use development has proven itself a reliable generator of millions of dollars each year in new tax revenue and positive net fiscal impact for the City. Pupils generated by these projects account for a fraction of the growth in the City’s school population, which comes primarily from the turnover in single family homes from older owners to younger families.”

But even so, the latest trend is to even smaller living units in apartment projects, even with the prospect, mentioned in a Washington Post editorial last week, that “efficiency units” could be a solution for affordable housing, seniors and young couples and singles entering the job market for the first time.

Mason Row’s developers have said their smaller average apartments will have an appeal to those who will also be eager to utilize the W&OD bike trail across the street from where it is planned to go.

As for the Kensington, and its ground breaking last week, principal developer Ed Novak of Nova Habitat, no stranger to what’s gone on in Falls Church the last dozen years, noted to the gathered assembly of Falls Church officials and A-Listers that it was 14 years to the day that the City Council approved the first of the new generation of mixed use projects, The Broadway.

He said, “Exactly 14 years ago today, on September 10, 2001, at 11 p.m. in the evening, the Falls Church City Council voted to approve for Nova-Habitat a special exception for The Broadway, across the street from us. It was to become the first mixed use project in the City.”

He added, “For those of you who were around then, you may recall that the property, known as the ‘Ad Com site’ had been previously approved for a Marriott assisted living residence. When Marriott abandoned those plans due to a downturn in market conditions, I agreed to buy the site and proposed The Broadway in its place…So here we are in 2015, and I submit the City is far better off.”

“The Kensington will produce three times the total tax revenue and over six times the property tax revenue of the Burger King it replaces. It will produce nearly twice the total tax revenue projected for the original Marriott project on a site that is less than half the size. The ground floor cafe with its outdoor seating, the retail space to be occupied by the Falls Church Arts, the hundreds of visitors a month to Kensington’s residences will add to the pedestrian livelihood and activity that is finally developing in the area.”