CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect that developer Bob Wulff, director of the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at George Mason University, not Bob Wolfe of J Street Consultants, has been retained by the City. The News-Press regrets the errors.
Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields announced at the City Council meeting Monday a series of major shifts and additions to City staff aimed at helping gain the maximum economic development punch from what’s now being called the “West Falls Church Project,” formerly known as the 10 acres set aside for commercial development on the George Mason High School campus.
The Council also voted 5-2 to exercise eminent domain on the so-called Fellows Tract on S. Oak St. adjacent Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
Under the personnel changes announced, the City’s Economic Development and Planning Offices are merged under this plan, with current Planning Director Jim Snyder elevated to head up the recruitment of potential developers and tenants for the 10 acres, and current senior planner Paul Stoddard elevated to the position of planning director.
In addition, the consulting group of Alvarez and Marsal will be retained through the summer of 2019 to also work on finding the best developers and development plan for the project, while the Washington D.C. Deputy Mayor for economic development, Lee Goldstein, has been retained to be the manager of all the major decisions of the project. He will begin Jan. 16.
Veteran developer Bob Wulff, the director of the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at George Mason University, will be retained on a piece-work basis as “an advisor in key parts in the process.” Wolfe was on the Urban Land Institute team that first proposed the W. Broad at Haycock location for the City’s 10 acre development.
Shields said that the annual retreat of the City Council on Feb. 10 will be an opportunity for a major discussion of the changes and their impact, and a town hall forum on the project will be held in advance of that on Sunday, Jan. 28.
Councilman David Snyder commented that he was concerned about what he called “the absence of an aggressive outreach to the development community” in the moves, and he questioned the use of advisors who’ve also worked for WMATA, given the surprise revelation this week that WMATA has submitted plans to Fairfax County for a major development at the West Falls Church Metro station, adjacent the City’s property, without any prior notification to or conversation with the City.
Councilman Ross Litkenhous also expressed concern that these changes will leave the City adequately staffed to address other development plans at issue in the City, to which Shields said he feels “we are,” with more decisions to come on staffing.
Councilman Dan Sze said he “applauds the realignment,” and asked the role of deputy economic development office staff person Becky Witsman in this new arrangement, and Mayor David Tarter also expressed support for the moves, saying that Jim Snyder “will thrive in that role.”
In the Council’s only major action Monday, it voted 5-2 to proceed with the imposition of eminent domain on 1.95 acres known as the Fellows Tract adjacent the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on S. Oak St. Council members Dan Sze and Ross Litkenhous voted against.
The sole long-time resident of the site, Lilia Fellows, died last fall and the City had already taken the action to designate the property for park land or a school. It is assumed that the acquisition, while for purposes of a park at first, is ultimately being done to enable the further expansion of TJ Elementary.
The offering price by the City for the land is set in the ordinance at $3,250,000, or in terms of the seven plots into which it has been subdivided by the trustee to the family estate, a value of $420,000 per lot.
Steven Carpenter, the trustee for the estate who addressed the Council Monday night, said the land value of “seven prime pieces of land” is much higher than the amount designated in the ordinance, with plans to build seven 3,500 square foot bungalows. The land has been in the Fellows family since 1920, almost a century.
“It’s worth way more than what’s offered,” he said. “We’ll fight hard on this.”
Five residents adjacent the site all spoke against the eminent domain move.
In response to questions, Shields said the difference between the Fellows Tract and other single family homes in the area is that taking over individual homes, rather and a two acre tract, would be more disruptive of the neighborhood, and although no review of the plan for a park on the site has been undertaken by the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board, only minor changes are envisioned.
Right now, construction work at the site is for the realignment of sewer and water pipes in the event of the heirs’ desire for a subdivision and development.
The Council went into a closed session after the public hearing before emerging to vote on the eminent domain ordinance.