Modified West End Plan Includes 150-175 Affordable, Workforce-Friendly ‘Micro Units’

A RENDERING OF the City’s West End Development project. (Rendering: EYA, PN Hoffman, Regency Centers)

Early-stage modifications to the interim agreement for the dense economic development of the City of Falls Church’s 10.3 acres of its high school-middle school site designated for that use will, if approved by the F.C. City Council going forward, include an extra 150,000 square feet in residential density, including 50,000 square feet for senior housing and 100,000 square feet for 40 or so of the first new condominiums built in the City in over a decade, and even more notable, some 150-175 “micro unit” rentals.

The modified plans of the team of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency, operating under the moniker of the Falls Church Gateway Partners, hammered out the terms in a series of intense closed sessions with the City Council in the last month, with the final product made public for the first time this Monday night.

The modifications, coming almost immediately after the terms of an original, high profile tentative agreement were struck in December, came in the context of other changes (see story, left) to address the developers’ needs to win necessary financing for the ambitious development project which will transform the west end of Falls Church adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station.

With the changes in mind, the F.C. Gateway Partners announced Monday that they’d formally filed petitions for necessary zoning and special exceptions with the City this Monday. The Council will mull these, in line with what they hammered out in the sequence of lengthy and arduous closed sessions where the City’s consultants on the project, leading representatives of Alvarez and Marsal, were also present.

The changes, F.C. Councilman Dan Sze noted, were “happy-happy” in nature, giving the City added revenues and providing the developers with needed real estate tax breaks at the outset of the effort, on the one hand, and greater density with added residential components on the other. The challenge will be to live up to the promise that all the new residential units will not overburden the school system with more new students than it can handle, although everyone is very sensitive to the fact that nothing can be said or done to imply that the units will deliberately restrict school aged children (only designated “senior housing,” under the law, can do that).

The position of both the City and the developers is that the nature of the units themselves will tend to attract “empty nesters” in the case of the condominiums, with children already raised and moved away, and very young tenants just or soon out of college in the case of the micro units.
Overall, the denser development will increase the floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of the overall project by a factor of only 0.3 according to EYA’s Evan Goldman, who along with PN Hoffman’s Shawn Seaman, fielded questions from the City Council on Monday night. The FAR on the overall 10.3 acres will remain under 3.5 he said.

There has been no interest in building residential condos, none, in the region since the housing crisis led to the Great Recession of a decade ago. Condos were the hot commodity before that, but when the developers of F.C.’s Pearson Square were trying to move ahead with that project on S. Maple, it had to be conditioned on an agreement by the City to convert what were to be condos into rental apartments, instead. Given the larger floor plans of the rentals, then, Pearson Square became a magnet for families with school aged children to move in, making it the only new multi-family project built in the City since 2001 where the school-aged student population added significantly to the project’s net cost to the City.

So, the new West End project’s proposal for 40 new condominium units in its mix marks a healthy turning point in the development of the residential mix in Falls Church.

Even more significant, however, is the prospect for the micro units, which are studio and small one-bedroom apartments ranging from 370 to 600 square feet which by definition are more affordable and fit the range of so-called “workforce housing” that those entering the workforce after college and others can actually afford in an area of notoriously high rents.

There has been a repetitive mantra in Falls Church for the last 30 years or longer that children who grow up in Falls Church and go through its outstanding school system from kindergarten through 12th grade cannot afford, after going off and completing college, to come back and live here.
Notable recent cases of children of prominent citizens have found them locating in Arlington and Annandale, for example.

But 150 to 175 micro units in the City is intended to change all that, and also ensure that the West End project would enjoy the added vibrancy of a younger and more diverse population.

The micro units are a residential product that are only just beginning to catch on, Seamon told the News-Press after Monday’s meeting. He said that PN Hoffman is putting some in as part of its D.C. waterfront development, and that some are going in at the Mosaic in Merrifield. Some of the waterfront units are so small that murphy beds are part of their makeup. That’s not planned for the Falls Church cases, however.

He said that only general market studies have been applied to the decision to build the units here. Generally 20 percent or more smaller than regular one bedroom apartments, their monthly rental price could be in the range of $1,200 and up.

Goldman said the micro units can work in the West End development plans because everything for someone living in one of those units will be available to them right out their front door, including shopping, restaurant, entertainment and nightlife needs.

It was in the midst of the last Great Depression of the 1930s that micro units became the staple of urban centers in the U.S., many of which exist to the present day or were converted to a different use since then.

Councilman Sze said Monday, “We need residential to fill this market,” adding, “It is a very exciting prospect.” The micro units will “attract the young, transit-oriented people,” Mayor David Tarter added.