With Latest OK, West End Economic Project Named ‘Little City Commons’

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

Accompanying the Falls Church City Council’s latest unanimous vote to advance the West End Development Project Monday night was the inclusion in staff reports of spectacular prospects for the fiscal yield of the project to the City and the decision by the economic development team to give its 9.45 acres of dense mixed-use development a name: “Little City Commons.”

The Special Exception Entitlement approved by the Council, 6-0, Monday is the latest major step forward in the massive project with its many moving parts. It followed on the signing of the comprehensive agreement last month, and comes six months before the Council will be tasked with OKing another special exception, this one for the more detailed project site plan expected to come in January.

But with Monday’s vote, the development team of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency Centers issued a press release Tuesday that for the first time put the name, Little City Commons, to the 1.3-million square foot mixed-use development on the current site of the George Mason High School at 7124 Leesburg Pike.

The new name reflects the language used by PN Hoffman founder Monty Hoffman, who referred to the project as a new “neighborhood.”

In the latest flurry of documents required for Monday’s vote of approval, including last minute modifications to the long list of voluntary concessions attached to the deal, was included a preliminary assessment by the City’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, using an economic modelling tool it has evolved over almost two decades, to conclude that the Little City Commons will yield almost $7 million in annual net tax revenue to the City.

Falls Church Council member Phil Duncan noted at Monday’s meeting that the whopping revenue estimate may mean the overall project — inclusive of the construction, now underway, of a brand new, state of the art high school — will not only be achieved with almost no impact on the residential real estate tax rate, but may wind up lowering that tax rate if the project’s revenue estimates are anywhere near what will actually happen.

Becky Witsman, the City’s economic development division chief, cautioned to the News-Press that “the estimated unit mix and square footages used for this analysis are subject to change depending on the ultimate development plan that will be decided during the Special Exception Site Plan phase” now underway.

She added, “We had to do a fair amount of guesstimating on specific inputs that we won’t get until the next phase of the project is approved, which won’t be until next January. It’s also hard to predict today what the market will be like when this project delivers. Many factors can and will change over time.”

But contextual factors have all been looking up, notwithstanding the fact that some kind of national or global economic slowdown is almost bound to happen. This week, Virginia was named the No. 1 state in the union for doing business, and this designation should help attract new businesses eager to enjoy the benefits associated with that. Also, of course, the successful attraction of Amazon to Northern Virginia will be huge and is already making an impact.

Real estate is being bought up in anticipation of values rising dramatically in the next half dozen years associated with the Amazon move, and satellite industries are also beginning now to plan moves to the area. On top of that, Amazon’s arrival coincides with a huge move by Virginia Tech to build major new tech-oriented educational facilities in the area, and that includes a major ramping up on its property immediately adjacent the Little City Commons in Falls Church.

Well underway, in fact, are planning and conversations to link the development of the “Little City Commons” with the Virginia Tech property here and the Metro-owned 24 acres adjacent its West Falls Church Metro site in a potentially-seamless megadevelopment.

But by virtue of being in the boundary limits of the City of Falls Church, the Little City Commons promises to dwarf, from a net revenue standpoint, all the significant mixed-use development projects that have been built here since 2001.

At an estimated overall floor-to-area ratio of 3.6, the 9.25 acres will add more than 1,000 new residents to the City in a mix of rental units, condominiums, senior housing and, in a novelty beginning to gain traction in the regional market, so-called micro units of rentals that are relatively affordable. This is on top of the number of regular apartment rentals that will be proffered by the developers as “affordable,” unless the City decides to accept a cash sum in lieu of the units that could be put to a different “affordable housing” solution.

The Little City Commons developers stressed at Monday’s Council meeting that as they work intensely with the City staff on the critical next phase of the process, leading toward approval of the Special Exception Site Plan by January, more public forums and meetings will be scheduled.

Among aspects of this next phase are specific building placements, architectural and public art choices, and details of parking, tree canopy, and other factors.