With 6-0-1 Final OK, Founders Row Plans Groundbreaking Next Month

FALLS CHURCH PLANNING office veteran Gary Fuller (left) spoke to the Council on the City staff”s recommended approval of the Founders Row project. (Photo: News-Press)

By a unanimous vote (with one abstention on a technicality), the Falls Church City Council late Monday night once more gave its blessing, and authorization, to the Mill Creek developers for their Founders Row plan to build the biggest development in Falls Church history.

Construction on the 4.3-acre project, at the northeast intersection of W. Broad and N. West Streets, will include a multi-screen movie complex, one major restaurant so far, almost 400 apartments, including affordable rate and active senior age-restricted ones, and a public square with a large fountain.

Mill Creek’s Joe Muffler, who with Sean Caldwell spearheaded the public face of the approval process in front of the Council and numerous civic groups in the last months, told the News-Press Wednesday that folks can look forward to a ceremonial groundbreaking in just a month or so.

It will await the final purchase of the properties, and the 7-Eleven on N. West will be vacated before the end of September. Ken Currle’s popular Sunoco station on the corner will have an extra 60 days beyond the mid-September closing to vacate, but there are already signs up on the station grounds thanking customers for their patronage and encouraging them to move their car service needs with them to a new location behind the Trader Joe’s in Pimmit Hills.

Muffler said it will take awhile, maybe into November, for the public to begin to see any major demolition at the site. While trailers will be there, a lot of preparatory work will need to happen first.

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields told the News-Press Wednesday that Mill Creek has already submitted the formal site plan for the project and, given its size, the detailed plan is very thick. The Planning Commission will review and approve it, although all the issues pertaining to the City’s approvals to move ahead were resolved with Monday’s vote.

The vote Monday concluded over six years of efforts to get the approval finally done, and of the large crowd that turned out at the start of last night’s public hearing, debate and vote, the developers and their entire team remained standing to congratulate one another once the votes were cast. Only Councilman David Snyder, who expressed support for the project, withheld a “yes” vote on the technicality because family members were working with the project’s legal team which, in his view, created a potential conflict.

The Mill Creek team appeared to clinch the deal with a few voluntary concessions added in the days following last week’s lengthy work session on the subject. On the most potentially contentious issue, that of a crosswalk from Grove Street that approaches the project at a diagonal from the west, the developer did not include last week, Mill Creek’s Muffler announced Monday that his firm will comply with any decision among three options reached by the Council for a crosswalk there or in the immediate vicinity.

However, it was City Manager Wyatt Shields who then reported it was not so much Mill Creek as the City’s engineer who nixed the original plan for a crosswalk on safety grounds and that any modification of that plan would still need to be signed off on by him.

A total or more than $2.4 million in “voluntary concessions” to the community were offered by Mill Creek, including for the first time, affordable dwelling units that will be retained as such not for a limited time but in perpetuity.

Another strong statement of support for the project was presented by Andrew Painter, a zoning attorney representing the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, who was present with the Chamber’s executive director Sally Cole and other board members.

Painter said the project, which had been approved by the Chamber board earlier despite the fact that some Chamber members were included among those who had to vacate the site, said changes to the plan have only further enhanced the financial viability of the project, such as the replacement of the hotel with senior age restricted housing, which will drive more resources to the business there.

Council member Ross Litkenhous said he happened upon a Studio Grille theatre complex, akin to what will be at Founders Row, on a business trip to Houston and “I feel better about the Founders Row business model as a result.

Councilman Dan Sze said that compared to the original submission in 2012 which was for hundreds of apartments above a Walgreens drug store, the plan approved Monday is “extraordinary,” has “survived the test of public opinion,” and “while not perfect, its economic development offset will help immensely with the new school costs.”

He quipped that the 17,000 square foot plaza and its “spray fountain” are “no Bellagio, but close.”

Council member Letty Hardi noted that with the age restricted and affordable housing components, the project “raises the bar on housing diversity.”

Councilman Phil Duncan remarked that the project will be the biggest, in terms of housing, for the City since Tyler Gardens was built after World War II, converting a cow pasture into 600 small GI Bill units that became Winter Hill and Cherry Hill to turn the lazy village into the preconditions of what has come since.

He said, “We’ve persevered and are here today. In the future others may look back on this Council and praise how we chose this path, providing places to live, dine and entertain. We will not be Tysonized, but our people will not need to go somewhere else.”

Mayor David Tarter commented that he went to the old State Theatre in Falls Church as a kid, and now his kids will be able to go to the new movie theater coming to the City. The project “is vibrant and another piece of the puzzle for the City, and it’s not by accident.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good,” he said.