Buoyed by last week’s news that both Target and Aldi will be opening retail outlets in downtown Falls Church over the next two years, the Economic Development Committee of the George Mason Campus Working Group was open to the advice of its consultants to place almost no limits on the kind of commercial and retail development that it should invite to bid on the 10 acres of that 34-acre site that are set apart for that purpose.
“Don’t require limitations,” spokesmen for the Alvarez and Marsal consultants told the committee reps in what they said was a highly unusual open meeting at City Hall last Friday morning. Usually, they said, they advise such things in closed door sessions, but the City has made a deliberate effort to keep these meetings open to the public to help ensure a high level of public support for the process, which will require an approval for an expensive school bond referendum in November.
“There are some risks in this level of transparency,” a spokesman said. “Normally we never do this in public.”
But the consultant team led by Ted Rich stressed over and over again that to encourage the best and highest yielding use for the land, the City should step back and encourage the development community to come forward with its best shot.
“It’s important to encourage industry innovation,” they said, and to signal that, the idea of rezoning the entire site to “invite density and a mix of uses without limiting responses.”
The more value the City can get out of the commercial component of the site, the less the burden will be on City taxpayers to pay for a new high school and other pressing needs around the City for capital improvements.
One suggestion included rezoning the entire site to “B2” to allow by-right construction of heights up to 115 feet (or 11 floors), with an “overlay district” added which would make it easy to go even higher if a developer wants.
Another suggestion involved reducing the required parking component, leaving a greater proportion of the land available for development and reducing the highly-costly use of underground parking. This step would be justified because of the site’s proximity to the West Falls Church Metro station with its currently underutilized parking structure.
“Don’t prescribe a structure, but request structures and phasing scenarios from prospective developers,” Rich said.
Alvarez and Marsal is still in the process of finalizing its report and recommendations before entering into the process of soliciting industry bids and evaluating them later this year. Their “final strategic roadmap” is due on September 6, and they expect it to involve more than 1.l million square feet of development at a value of $440 million.
The land would be worth from $43 to $45 million in their initial scenario, the same estimate the group made to the committee last month. The mix of development would include retail, office, multi-family, senior and affordable residential units, including condos, and a hotel.
The goals for the City in soliciting bids, they proposed, should include maximum commercial and retail uses, the retention of a “sense of place,” that generates “a long-term positive impact for the City” that builds on access to the West Falls Church Metro, generates a synergy with the surrounding educational uses (including the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech graduate center site and the on-site George Mason High and Henderson Middle School) and includes a “civic space,” such as a public promenade as an example.
Requirements, they proposed, should include a demolition of the old high school, the dedication of six percent of the residential to “affordable housing” criteria, an up-front land sale and with the City retaining long-term ownership.