F.C. Kept in Dark About WMATA Plans to Develop W. Falls Church

West Falls Church Metro. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Despite the desires and expressed intentions of top City of Falls Church officials to seek cooperation and collaboration with the surrounding areas as they proceed toward development of the 10-acre West Falls Church development project, they were caught totally unaware this week when reports surfaced that new plans for the adjacent 24 acres of property at the West Falls Church Metro station were submitted to Fairfax County in December.

The plans, in the form of a “North (Fairfax) County Site Specific Amendment Proposal” to adjust Fairfax County’s Comprehensive Plan, were submitted by the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) to the county’s Office of Planning and Development on Dec. 5, 2017.
Its main new component calls for 150,000 square feet of office uses and 50,000 square feet of retail uses, over and above 500 proposed residential units, closest to the West Falls Church Metro station.

The plan calls for, along with the residential, a 85-foot maximum height limit with an urban plaza adjacent Haycock Road and framed by the office-retail buildings to “function as a gathering place and visual anchor,” and with a walkway linking the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech education center with (Falls Church’s) George Mason High School to the West Falls Church Metro station.

In WMATA’s mind, as explicated in their plans, no area of the City of Falls Church is subsumed into its 47-acre “West Falls Church Transit Station Area,” and its “concept for future development” is carved into an area of Fairfax County abuting the City of Falls Church, while at no point crossing over the line into the City. This careful, surgical exclusion of the City of Falls Church, much less the failure of WMATA and Fairfax County to notify Falls Church about these new plans has given some City officials pause.

Falls Church Mayor David Tarter told the News-Press last weekend that he had no clue about the WMATA submission to Fairfax County. Councilman and former mayor David Snyder was clearly incensed at Monday’s City Council meeting having learned about the plan from a News-Press article posted online last weekend, and stated publicly that anyone hired as consultants by the City should not also be consultants to WMATA, as that could constitute a conflict of interest. (Bob Wolfe of J Street Consultants has been retained by the City for its West F.C. Development effort despite also being a consultant to WMATA).

An option in the WMATA plan includes “an opportunity for 240,000 square feet of institutional use on the City of Falls Church and University of Virginia and Virginia Tech tracts” which “may be appropriate for development of an education center.” The land is owned by Falls Church, but located in Fairfax County.

Of particular concern to some in the City is the extent to which the City of Falls Church was persuaded by consultants, such as the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and other groups Wolfe has been active with, to limit its commercial development options to the portion of its land the farthest from the area WMATA is now intending for its most dense development.

If that was done with the foreknowledge of what WMATA has now submitted its plans for, then concerns for a conflict of interest between Falls Church and WMATA for anyone involved with the two entities become even more pronounced.

The WMATA submission does acknowledge that “opportunities may exist for a joint development effort between the City of Falls Church, WMATA and private owners…for 1,100 dwelling units plus 243,800 gross square feet of commercial development,” but that option comprises only the 5.34 acre site currently owned by Falls Church but leased by the universities located in Fairfax County, and not the City-owned 10 acres presumably to be further down Haycock at W. Broad in the F.C. city limits.

The announcement has come as a blockbuster for the City of Falls Church, which is in the preliminary stages of developing 10 acres of its own on George Mason High School property immediately adjacent the WMATA site. Falls Church Mayor Tarter told the News-Press that while the City has been in touch with neighbors to the site about the potential for collaboration in development efforts, this week’s news has come as a surprise to him.

Tarter noted that the West Falls Church Metro station site has been losing about $1 million a year since the Silver Line opened and has been siphoning off passenger traffic from points west on the Orange Line from where it merges with the Orange Line at the East Falls Church Metro station. A structured parking lot at the West Falls Church station has been largely vacant since the Silver Line opened, and according to the Journal report, WMATA’s plans there “plays into the authority’s work to monetize its real estate holdings and increase ridership.”

According to the report, the county is now processing the WMATA nomination, along with others around the county, and a community review will commence in March. Public hearings on resulting proposed comprehensive plan amendments beginning in June. Final Fairfax Board of Supervisor approval of any changes are not expected until 2019.