Parishioners attending services at the historic Falls Church Episcopal Church last Sunday morning were notified that the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia had closed and signed a deal with the Falls Church-based Young Group to lease the long-idled Southgate Shopping Center adjacent the church on E. Fairfax Street.
The lease calls for the Young Group to renovate and re-tenant the center, which Young Group principal Bob Young told the News-Press, “We intend to do as quickly as possible.”
Young added that he will “give first priority for occupancy there to those businesses in the City that have been or could be displaced by redevelopment elsewhere.” He also said he hopes the renovated Southgate will include at least one or two restaurants with outside dining along with an eclectic mix of interesting businesses.
“We will try to bring needed new goods and services to the City,” he said. The center has 15,000 square feet and had been home to eight separate businesses before being vacated in 2005.
The announcement about the long-term lease was made at the church’s two services Sunday morning by Mark Hadley, warden of the church.
The church first acquired the shopping center, located directly across E. Fairfax Street from the existing church property, in 2001 with the intention then of demolishing the center and developing a new “parish life center” there.
However, the church leader ship at that time, after all of the tenants were expelled from the center, then led a congregational vote to leave the national Episcopal denomination, which brought the redevelopment efforts to a halt.
A six-year legal battle ensued over who had rights to the property, the local defecting congregation or the Virginia Diocese of the national denomination. The eventual ruling was in favor of the latter.
Shortly after that resolution, the Diocese of Virginia affirmed its desire for the shopping center land to be dedicated to a “highest and best use” to the benefit of the church and its programs serving the Falls Church community. A two-year process of exploring a variety of options for how to make this happen ensued, which led to the agreement on lease terms with the Young Group thus culminated last Friday.
The church’s original plan to acquire and then demolish the shopping center over a decade ago drew a lot of criticism in the Falls Church community, because all eight businesses operating there were doing so successfully for a long time.
Repeated efforts by the church to win approval from the Falls Church City Council first for a closing of E. Fairfax Street, altogether, to allow for a seamless extension of the church property across the street, and then to render the street one way only to a modified version of the same end, failed.
Back then the church was under the leadership of the Rev. John Yates, who subsequently led a defection by a majority in his congregation from the national Episcopal denomination. Following the vote to defect in December 2005, the congregation continued to occupy the historic church property and leave the Southgate Center vacant pending the outcome of the years-long legal fight over ownership of the church lands.
It was when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the ruling of the Virginia Supreme Court remanding the land to the Diocese of Virginia, forcing the expulsion of the defectors from the property, that the process was set in motion leading to last week’s momentous development.
Young has both renovated and developed numerous properties in the City of Falls Church in the last two decades, including the new so-called “Flower Building” at 800 W. Broad., the Read Building in the 400 block of W. Broad (with a similar Art Nouveau design exterior) and what is known as the “Tulip building” across S. Washington and W. Annandale Road from the church where Smashburger is located and, opening up this week, a new sushi restaurant, Takumi, among other businesses.
Young did not indicate whether his renovation of the Southgate shopping center will incorporate any of his flair for Art Nouveau design, but work on the location was observed being underway this very week.