To at least one member of the Falls Church Planning Commission, the vote to reject the Mason Row project despite the absence of a key member Monday night was explicitly to override the will of the people as reflected in the November 3 election.
Repeated pleas by the Spectrum Group developers to seek a delay in the vote until January based on the need to evaluate new changes, pleas that began with e-mail exchanges with commission chair Rob Meeks the Friday before, went unheeded Monday night.
Veteran commissioner and former chair Ruth Rodgers let the proverbial “cat out of the bag” on her reason for not delaying the vote when she said that “the major change (if a deferral were OK’d–ed.) will be a change in the makeup of the City Council, and that’s what this is all about.”
In other words, Rodgers acknowledged that the outcome of the will of the citizenry in the Nov. 3 election needed to be immediately negated by the Planning Commission, despite being shorthanded, by Monday’s vote. Once the makeup of the new City Council would be changed in early January by the results of the Nov. 3 election, she suggested, the outcome would be favorable for Mason Row, while she was adamant in her remarks Monday about her opposition to it. “This project is not going to be what we want,” she intoned, accusing the plan to make the theater component work through a subsidy “money laundering, Little City style.”
Chairman Meeks’ resolve to deny Spectrum’s request for a deferral as reflected in his e-mail exchanges with Spectrum the Friday and Saturday before likewise came with no objective reasons based on the merits of the project and the commission’s deliberations. Claims that the plan had been delayed enough, already, were met by Peter Batten of Spectrum Monday with the reminder that the City, and not Spectrum, delayed the project from a July 24 submission until late last month. It was known over the weekend that commissioner Melissa Teates would not be in attendance Monday night due to a business conflict.
When a motion to defer was put to the vote Monday night, commissioners Andy Rankin and Russ Wodiska stated they felt it was important for the entire board to be present for such an important decision. They were joined by commissioner Lindy Hockenberry, while Meeks, Rodgers and Kwafo Djan voted deny the deferral, causing the motion to fail, 3-3, since it lacked a majority to pass.
Subsequently, the vote broke along the same 3-3 line when it came to moving to recommend approval of the project after 38 petitions from the public were heard, mostly opposing the plan from neighbors adjacent the site, again failing for a lack of majority to pass.
Among the new changes from the July submission that Spectrum introduced Monday and sought more time for review by the City staff involved a complete makeover of the intersections at W. Broad and N. West, and at N. West and Park Avenue. They also involved opening up a left turn option for the Brickhouse Square commercial business across W. Broad, and a change in the mix of the rental apartments, reducing the number of two-bedroom units and increasing the number of one-bedroom units that would involve a change in the overall square footage of that element of the project, and of net tax income projections.
With the changes, the City’s planning staff continued its recommendation of approval of the project.
Hockenberry, a former City Council member and vice mayor, said the project “will be good for the City, but still needs some improvement.”
Wodiska said he was “very pleased” with the project’s new submission that included significant new additions to the developer’s voluntary concessions. “Many are really excited about it,” added, highlighting the market square component as “like nothing else in the City.”
Rankin said the project is “actually less dense” than some other projects approved earlier, and called it “a really good opportunity for Falls Church.”
Just prior to the final vote, Meeks said that if the project were to be approved, there could be significant difficulties when it would come back to the Planning Commission for site plan approval.
Speaking to Djan’s claim that the project “lacks any vision,” Batten recapitulated the components of the project that make it an “urban village” space anchored by a hotel, theater and quality restaurants around a town square that could become a city center. “The combination of public space, theater and restaurants is as good as it gets in this industry,” he said, noting additionally its proximity to the W&OD Trail. “The W&OD Trail and downtown Falls Church come together there,” with the project’s focus on “repetitive visits” by happy customers.
With Gary LaPorta, Barbara Cram and Racelle Barimany speaking out for themselves, the board of directors of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce weighed in with a strong letter in support of Mason Row, with executive director Sally Cole reporting favorably on the project developers’ willingness to change the street configuration to address the traffic access needs of Brickhouse Square businesses.
“The Chamber’s legislative committee and board of directors believe that this project will benefit a vast majority of current businesses and the greater community,” wrote chairman Joe Wetzel in a letter to Mayor David Tarter, Vice Mayor David Snyder and members of the City Council. The letter delineated benefits of fiscal impact (generating between $1.3 and $2 million in annual tax revenues), of new residences (adding new customers for our local businesses), environmental impact (adding modern stormwater management where none now exists), rejuvenation of a commercial area, smart development, public amenities, creating a “destination” on the City’s West End, road improvements, and compatibility with the City’s vision and strategic plan, citing successful development, neighborhood preservation and community life, diversity, environmental harmony and “a special place” notion, “as defined by a visual aesthetic, increased artistic venues, and festivals and events.”