By a 5-2 vote, the Broad and Washington large scale mixed-use project finally won a preliminary approval from the Falls Church City Council Monday night. The plan, for 295 apartments and 66,000 square feet of Class A office space, has been before the City government for two years, finally breaking out with a favorable vote after extended efforts to appease the concerns of residential neighbors behind the site.
Only three of those neighbors, residents of Lawton Street, showed up to express their opposition Monday night, even following extensive efforts by the site’s developers, the Insight Group, to modify plans by lowering elevations and adding pocket park spaces at the Lawton Street end of the plan.
The 2.63-acre plan, which would replace the Robertson Building now at the northeast corner of the City’s central intersection of Rt. 7 and Rt. 29, and the Applebee’s restaurant behind it, would devote 5,000 square feet for a permanent home for the popular Creative Cauldron theater troupe and add over 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail that would include restaurants and other businesses attracted by the presence of the Creative Cauldron space, in particular.
Even after two years and lots of modifications, the plan was opposed by two members on the Council — David Snyder and Phil Duncan — on grounds that it does not yet include nailed-down, signed lease commitments from major retailers for its ground floor retail portion.
But Monday that complaint was met strongly by Councilman Dan Sze who raised his voice sharply to remind his colleagues that the tax revenues from the project, predicted to be worth three cents or more annually on the City’s real estate tax rate, “is part of the effort to mitigate the impact on taxpayers of the cost of building a new high school.” Voters had approved the $120 million school bond referendum by a wide margin just last week, but there appeared to be a disconnect between that and Monday’s Council debate until Sze intervened.
The turning point in the voting was Council member Letty Hardi’s vote in favor. Until then, it was a 2-2 proposition, with Karen Oliver and Sze in favor, and Duncan and Snyder against. While Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly was expected to vote yes, it was when Hardi’s signaled her “yes” that Mayor Tarter announced his “yes” that made the final vote 5-2.
Tarter said his personal preference would be for a modestly-sized grocery store to be included in the project. Duncan stressed that the location is the most important one in the entire City. He said it has “such great potential, and I don’t feel we are quite there yet” in terms of what might locate there.
Councilman Karen Oliver said she has “confidence in the boards and commissions” who will now review the plan and make recommendations. Snyder said there is “no certainty” about what will go into the project at this point.
At the public hearing prior to the vote, in addition to three Lawton Street residents who urged a “no” vote, David Tax of Clare and Don’s Beach Shack, the popular restaurant between the development site and the State Theatre on N. Washington, asked the Council to consider “mitigation policies” to relieve the disruptive impact the project will cause. Owners of the adjacent Argia’s restaurant, although not at the hearing, have also expressed concerns, including for the impact of parking.
On the other hand, board members of Creative Cauldron, and one student enrolled in its learning theatre program, spoke up in support of what the project would do for their program, noting that they face an expiration of their current lease in a much smaller space on S. Maple coming in the summer of 2019.
Cauldron executive Laura Hull cited the benefit of the project being led by two men — Rick Hausler and Todd Hitt — who have been recipients of the Fairfax County Arts Council’s top awards. “They are not just developers in it for the money, they’re community builders,” Hull said.
As presented Monday, the project would include large signage on its northside identifying the “Falls Church Arts District.”
While the plan now goes to the City’s boards and commissions for their advisory input, it is currently slated to come back to the Council for a final vote on April 9, 2018.