By a unanimous 6-0 vote (one member absent) the Falls Church City Council Monday gave preliminary approval of a “special exception entitlement” for the Falls Church Gateway Partners, the team of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency that has been given interim approval to develop a dense, creative economic powerhouse on the site where George Mason High School currently sits.
It’s the next big step in the multi-faceted effort to transform the 10.38 acre school site with a state-of-the-art new high school and 1.5 million square feet of combined commercial, retail, residential and community spaces that it is hoped will link up with redevelopment efforts on the adjacent Virginia Tech and WMATA properties to transform almost 40 acres into a powerful economic, transportation and higher education engine, complementing plans for the Amazon HQ2 campus in nearby Arlington.
For the City of Falls Church’s sake it is a matter of eliciting a project from the development parties that most recently transformed the D.C. waterfront that will not only pay for the new high school, but provide the City with upwards of $5 million a year in net new revenue, over and above the calculated costs of including 1,000 new residential units at the site.
With the approval Monday being a certainty given how the process has evolved to this point, the project will now go before a veritable blizzard of City volunteer boards and commissions, including two that are not technically affiliated with the City government (the F.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society).
Representatives of the Gateway Partners team will reprise their presentations over 14 times in the next few weeks before these groups, and take note of suggestions and fresh ideas to modify their plans before they come back for a final vote by the City Council, and the granting of a Special Exception Site Plan in late May.
Meanwhile, the City Council will be fashioning its operating budget for the coming fiscal year that begins July 1. There is abundant optimism that despite all the development in the works, there will be no real estate increase requested from City residents to keep the wheels of City government operating smoothly.
Among the elements will be an official groundbreaking just days away for another major mixed-use project nearby, called Founders Row, where already underway are land clearance and sanitary sewer water upgrades at its N. West Street and West Broad location, and the completion of the F.C. City Hall renovation and expansion, with staff relocating from temporary digs beginning by the end of next month. Also by June, anyone planning to run for election to three of the seven seats on the Falls Church City Council, and other three on the School Board, will need to get signed in with requisite filings and petitions by June.
“We are just beginning to embark on the most exciting imaginable decade ahead of us for the City of Falls Church,” a prominent developer told the News-Press this week.
The Gateway Partners team at the City Council meeting Monday night did not fail to point out the benefits of a “community that is aware of the good work” of the City Council and City staff in bringing the West End project to its 6-0 approval Monday night.
Evan Goldman of EYA, the chief public spokesman for the project, said his team is “very excited” to meet with the City boards and commissions in the coming period, and told the News-Press after the vote Monday that, with all the projects that he has worked on over the years with Federal Realty and EYA, “It is great to be working with a well-informed public, compared to land use cases that become contentious because too many citizens are not sufficiently aware of what is happening and fear getting caught off guard.”
Having citizens “rowing in the same direction makes it easier to solve problems,” he said, and the fact the project is linked so intimately to the construction of a new high school has also contributed to the great public awareness of the plans.
“There is no debate of too much or not enough transparency on this one,” Councilman Ross Litkenhous said prior to the vote.
The special exception calls for heights of up to 15 stories throughout the site, but the Gateway Partners are working with a range of potential heights on most of the buildings and the parking garage that go from six or seven stories up, depending on more detailed plans.
The jewel at the center of the site is a wide promenade with vehicle and bicycle traffic lanes in opposite directions on either side and a 50-foot wide space in the middle for fountains, lawns, kiosks and other gathering places. That promenade, it is envisioned, will extend north from Route 7 through the project and be extended in the redevelopment of the Virginia Tech and WMATA properties to lead directly to the door of the West Falls Church Metro station.
The Gateway Partners have stressed to the City that viable retail will run the length of the entire promenade adjacent wide sidewalks on either side, including restaurants with ample outdoor dining.
Other elements will include a maximum-seven story senior housing building, a hotel, a live music venue adjacent the new high school’s planned large auditorium and black box theatres to create the potential for multi-event festivals and programs, a major grocery chain store at the West Broad-Haycock corner, Class A office spaces and ample residential components (including condos and “micro unit” options).
The Gateway Partners are slated to meet this Saturday morning with the Virginia Tech redevelopment people, and it is the Rushmark-Hitt team that has been awarded the development of that project. Also, WMATA elected at a meeting two weeks ago to limit those it would ask to bid on its plans to either the Rushmark-Hitt team or the Gateway Partners team in order to ensure better coordination of the development of all three sites.
F.C. Mayor David Tarter also noted Monday that this effort should not overlook the potential to integrate plans for Beyer Automotive and Federal Realty, with significant real estate in the City right across the street, as well.
David Snyder was not present for Monday’s vote.