Updates at Monday night’s Falls Church City Council meeting to two proposed large-scale mixed use projects that have been before the Council on repeated occasions both moved closer to the starting line. One, already approved, was just a report and the other was a temporarily unsuccessful effort at winning a Council vote for a preliminary approval.
Already eight new mixed-use projects have been completed in the Little City since 2004 and, according to a City economic development review reported by the News-Press, are currently generating more new tax revenues to the City as a proportion of total budget than in any other regional jurisdiction. But there are two more eager to add to that, the Mill Creek’s long-awaited Founders (formerly Mason) Row project of 4.2 acres at the northeast corner of W. Broad and N. West Street, and the Insight Builders’ more recently proposed 2.68-acre E. Broad at N. Washington plan.
Representatives of Insight were hoping the Council would vote for a preliminary OK Monday night, but after a lengthy presentation and discussion, and a lot of comment from citizens living in the same neighborhood, the Council deferred a vote until after Labor Day.
Disappointed with that were not only the developers, but also the large contingent present from the Creative Cauldron performing arts and learning theater, who just last week inked the deal to move into the project with 5,000 square feet facing onto Broad Street. The highly-acclaimed small theater program is facing the expiration of its current lease in the Pearson Square building on S. Maple in two years, and is eager to have a new home for making a seamless move by June 2019.
The common issue for both projects is that the developers want the Council’s blessing to build without having any signed leases to confirm who will occupy them.
In the case of Founders Row, Mill Creek will require a Council approval of a revision to its plan to accommodate its decision to substitute for a hotel a large, age-restricted (55 and up) apartment building in addition to a movie theater, regular apartments and ample retail anchored by at least one large restaurant. But Tom Caldwell assured the Council that he will not be back seeking that OK until he has leases signed for the movie theater and restaurant, which he said Monday are both near at hand.
But the Council did not hide its disappointment in the failure of the project to move forward to date, as did neighbors to the site who spoke up. At least one business owner currently on the site, Ken Currle of the Sunoco station at 934 W. Broad St., complained that for years now he’s had to operate on a month-to-month lease arrangement which has handcuffed his ability to expand and renovate his site as his Sunoco parent company has desired.
Caldwell offered a “mea culpa” for the delays, and also for the unfortunate move at one point recently to divide the 7-Eleven parking lot that ran into a blizzard of public outrage and had to be quickly reversed. He said it was done to force an unresponsive 7-Eleven organization to the bargaining table to work out terms of that store’s exit from the site.
On the Insight project, the complaints coming from the Council were three: 1. the inability to date to come to agreeable terms with neighbors on Lawton Street just behind the site in terms of proposed height and setback modifications, 2. the lack of any signed leases for its retail component, which is also supposed to be anchored by a large restaurant, and 3. a less-than-spectacular (in Mayor David Tarter’s view) overall proposal, in terms of the net tax yield it is projected to bring to the City. Attesting to the high quality and outstanding reputation of the developer, “You can do better,” Tarter told them in closing comments before the vote to defer action was taken (a 6-1 vote with Karen Oliver the lone dissenter).
Tarter also urged the Founders Row developers to renew efforts at finding a hotel option for its site. Whatever the reason for the loss of the earlier deal for a hotel there, he said, could not be due to the lack of a market for one at that site, so he encouraged a redoubled effort to identify another hotel candidate.