Buoyed by a strong endorsement from the influential regional Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Falls Church City Council Monday night gave final approval by a 5-2 vote for a special zoning exception to permit development of a cluster of 10 senior age-restricted 1,500-square foot bungalow-style cottages on Railroad Avenue in the City.
The unique project is the brainchild of F.C.-based realtor Theresa Twiford, who elicited the support of local developer Bob Young. It won approval despite fierce opposition from some of the neighbors to the location, which is tucked adjacent the W&OD trail on the fringes of the City boundary
One of the strongest arguments in support of the plan came from Stewart Schwartz, head of the regionally-influential Coalition for Smarter Growth. He appeared at the hearing to lodge his strong support for the novel housing model, congratulating Falls Church for “leading the way” with the first in the region housing model. “It will enhance the community and property values, providing for diversity and reducing the carbon footprint,” he said.
The final approval completed a year-long process that began with the Council OK’ing a change to permit construction of such cottage clusters as a matter of policy. That was followed by the specific Railroad Avenue plan that took months to gain Monday’s final OK.
In the end, it was in the spirit of the original allowance for cottage clusters as an alternative housing model that won the day on the Council, with the crucial approvals coming from Council members Letty Hardi and Karen Oliver for just that reason. They both cited their support for alternative housing models as grounds for their approval of the Railroad Avenue plan, saying that moderately priced alternatives to the City’s dominant focus on large single family homes, and in this case, restricted for senior use, constituted their grounds for support.
Once those two Council members went on record in support Monday night, the die was cast, and the remaining expected “yes” votes from Phil Duncan, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and Dan Sze only sealed the outcome. Mayor David Tarter and Councilman David Snyder voted “no” on grounds argued by those neighbors to the site who were opposed, that it was crammed into too small an area and that parking and emergency access issues were not adequately addressed.
Connelly also stressed the argument made by the developer that the alternative for the site would be four large single family homes that could be built “by right” which would be even more dense than the cottage cluster, in terms of floor-to-area ratios and which would involve no restrictions on parking and no improvements to the Railroad Avenue, itself, which under the cottage plan will tender the approval from the Fairfax Park Authority to grant an easement on its land to widen the street to 16 feet.
In his testimony, the Smarter Growth coalition’s Schwartz said his nonprofit, dedicated to promoting walkable, inclusive and transit-oriented communities, has “closely followed planning in Falls Church and have led three planning-oriented walking tours of the community in recent years…including a delegation from Sacramento to view the success of Falls Church, and led a campaign to win regional funding for the Capital Bikeshare in Falls Church.”
He said a close review of the Railroad cottages application led to the group’s “strong support” for its approval. “There is a tremendous need for housing in Northern Virginia and the region, including housing scaled to meet the needs of downsizing empty nesters. Cottage neighborhoods have been very successful in Seattle. I believe this will be one of the first projects in our region.”
He said, “The project is well designed and will enhance the community and property values. People are looking to live interesting, walkable neighborhoods with easy access to transit, recreation and services. These cottages offer this and will see very high demand and prices per square foot.”
“Sustainability features including solar and geothermal will combine with the location and transportation options to reduce the carbon footprint and help fight climate change,” he added.