By a set of three unanimous 6-0 votes (Councilman Dave Snyder abstaining), the Falls Church City Council approved the long-debated 4.3-acre Mason Row mixed-use project that will bring a new hotel and movie theater complex to the City of Falls Church. Monday night’s vote came after over three hours of comments both in favor and against, and met the bar of a super-majority vote required because the Planning Commission had failed to recommend it last month.
Also approved unanimously (6-0) were measures to establish an amusement tax for all tickets to the movie theaters and a revenue-sharing agreement with the site developers – Spectrum and Mill Creek – to allay their cost of construction.
The project will include a hotel, expected to be a Home Suites 2 by Hilton, that will have between 122 and 141 rooms (depending on how much conference space it will have, a matter still under consideration) and a multi-screen movie theater by a prominent national chain that features a dining component as it two main commercial anchors, and 322 rental units, as well as an internal private street and a public-use square, retail spaces that with the allure of the anchors, can be expected to draw a minimum of two fine dining restaurants covering 20,000 square feet, 9,400 square feet of service retail with restricted use options, ample parking that will include a provision for 50 spaces for Sunday morning use by a nearby church, compliance with the City’s policy for desired affordable housing units, and a total of 33 percent commercial compared to residential uses.
Compared to the $190,000 annually that the City gains in taxes from what’s there now, the project is projected to bring in a “net-net” yield (taking into account the cost of potential school age children to the school system, and so forth) of between $1,108,980 and $1,881,174 per year.
Sean Caldwell, a former Falls Church resident and chief spokesman for Mill Creek, said that groundbreaking for the project should begin in about a year, after site plan and other considerations are taken care of, and that it will be about three years after that until it is expected to be fully completed.
He told the News-Press that existing tenants on the property will have up to a year to relocate and that such timing decisions will be up to them.
In a process that began three years ago and has been before the City Council and the City’s various boards and commissions for better than two years, what became known as the Mason Row project (subject to a new name in the future if the Council so wishes), had many iterations, ups and downs, and looked doomed at certain points. But the tenacious development team seemed never to tire of meeting with neighbors, listening to their wishes and doing the same innumerable times at City Hall.
Key turning points came as the Spectrum team brought on Mill Creek, formerly Trammel Crow, as a heavyweight residential real estate developer for that component of the large project, and the local City Council election last November when outspoken proponents of the project, Councilman Phil Duncan and newcomer Letty Hardi, were elected, and outspoken opponents were defeated.
In early December, the F.C. Planning Commission, in a contentious meeting, failed to forward an endorsement of it to the City Council when it was deadlocked in a 3-3 vote. Among other things, some on the board criticized the chair’s willingness to have the vote despite the fact that one active member had to be absent.
That meant the matter would require a the super-majority vote of at least five of the seven Council members.
But following the Planning Commission meeting, the developers made some substantial modifications to their plans, including additional voluntary concessions and a decision to move the movie theaters above ground, a total of 23 new changes in all, and the Council voted to delay the vote it originally planned for December 11 into the new year.
That enabled a critical shift in the make-up of the Council to bring Hardi on, while project opponent Nader Baroukh (who chose not to seek re-election) departed.
The Council gave an extensive review to the new changes to the project at a work session last week, and peppered the developers with more questions before taking their vote Monday night.
Snyder surprised the near-capacity turnout in the Council chambers when, deeply into the deliberations at about 10 p.m., he suddenly announced that he would abstain from voting because of a potential conflict of interest arising out of the fact that a family member had retained an attorney also representing the Mason Row developers.
There were groans from the audience as a result of the unexpected news, especially since five “yea” votes were required to pass the measure and it signaled to seasoned observers that the “no” votes were not there to reject it.
The long meeting (Mason Row was the only item for action on the Council agenda) heard strong arguments from the public both in favor and in opposition. Among those in favor were representatives of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, including Rachelle Barimany, owner of Dominion Jewelers, a business across the street who, she said, would benefit from the project.
Opposition came mostly from neighbors to the site with Grove, Park, Lincoln, N. Spring and Jennifer Lane addresses.