Neighboring Businesses Bemoan Broad-Washington Project Impact

“Katherine and I borrowed a significant amount of money to open this restaurant. A labor of love. This is our dream and we made it come true. We promised our investors 110% payback before we see a penny of any profits from our restaurant. Needless to say, to find out that all of our parking will virtually disappear for over a year when our business is still so young is frightening. We don’t think our business will survive this. We have no other source of income. Also, we have convinced friends to move to Virginia to work for us and become a part of our restaurant family as salaried employees.” — Gabe Thompson, co-owner, Thompson Italian.

The above written comment was provided to the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce’s executive director Sally Cole by the co-owner of the City of Falls Church’s newest, and popular regionwide, restaurant, Thompson Italian, located at the site of the former Argia’s two doors down from the State Theatre.

He is one of a number of small business owners in the immediate block who expect to be severely impacted by the Insight Property Group’s latest plan for its property on that block. Late last year, the group announced that Whole Foods supermarket signed a lease for a 50,000 square foot store at the intersection of Broad and Washington, and the project will include 350 residential units above, and involves the acquisition of the City-owned parking lot behind Thompson Italian and Clare and Don’s Beach Shack.

Thompson’s response came in reply to a meeting of the Chamber’s Legislative Affairs committee with Insight’s Maury Stern last week, where Stern laid out the same proposal that he came with to the City Council last November.

Yesterday, in response to that meeting, Stern said in comments to the News-Press, “We are very aware of the concerns that have been raised and we are working on solutions now.”

He said a new submission to City Hall is now likely to come sometime next week. While there is no plan to add a commercial office space component to the project, he said, the issue of parking and good relations with business as well as residential neighbors to the site is a primary concern. Stern said that while “in the past, we’ve said ‘no’ to the idea of doing the project without the City parking lot component, I will now say that we’re looking at all options.”

For other retailers like Thompson Italian, Clare and Don’s and the State Theatre, the major concern centers on Insight’s proposal to purchase a City-owned parking lot and fold it into its development plan.

Public access to the parking lot, a surface lot sitting directly behind Thompson Italian, Clare and Don’s and adjacent the State Theatre, is considered by those businesses among their most critical assets for attracting the customers they need to succeed.

Also, taken together, the three businesses are among the most popular from a customer standpoint in the City, along with Ireland’s Four Provinces, Dogwood Tavern and other popular destinations within a block’s distance. Thompson Italian has arrived with a splash after opening last summer. In the most recent edition of Washingtonian magazine, it was included on its list of 100 best restaurants in the greater D.C. region where, it writes, “Gabe and Katherine Thompson will woo you with far more than just bucatini all’amatriciana.” (The only other City of F.C.-based restaurant on its list is Rice Paper at Eden Center).

In a touch of true irony, the same edition of the magazine that touts Thompson Italian also dedicates a long feature story to Todd Hitt, the developer fallen from grace now serving out a lengthy prison term for running a ponzi scheme with investors. It was Hitt who worked with Insight on the original plan for the Broad and Washington project, and that version included a substantial Class A office space component (to be occupied by Hitt’s company), that all went south when Hitt was busted in October 2018.

With Insight’s new plan, announced last November, the decision, of course, on its request to buy the City-owned parking lot space lies with the City. The City is being tempted by claims that the Insight project in its new form will produce $40 million in 20 years in net tax revenues to the City.

The next public meeting between Insight and the City has yet to be scheduled, although the reaction of local businesses to what Insight presented to the Chamber of Commerce indicates the kind of tough issues that loom.

Gabe Thompson added to his letter, “We love being a part of the little city and feel we bring value to the city. We originally felt that Falls Church was focused on small locally owned businesses which is why we selected the location we are in. By having Whole Foods and this large developer come in and potentially destroy two locally owned businesses seems the antithesis of what ‘the little city’ means. Clare and Dons and Thompson Italian bring more heart and soul to the area than Whole Foods ever could.”

Kathy Hamon, board chair of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment located just on the other side of the State Theatre, wrote, “We have noticed an increase in attendance at our classes/workshops that are held every evening during the week. In addition, people are renting the space for classes during the day. Attendees of all of these events currently use the public parking. It would be detrimental to the CSE to lose the free public parking and we feel it would negatively impact our church should that happen.”

She added, “The developer’s interim solution to provide valet parking is also troubling as people would have to wait for their vehicles and if there is a time when it is particularly busy at all the establishments effected, this would be harmful to our event/service attendees as there would be lengthy delays which would leave a bad taste in people’s mouths about the convenience in attending any of our future events.”

Erik Pelton, owner of Erik M. Pelton and Assoc. which is adjacent to the property, a member of the City’s Economic Development Authority and spouse of a co-owner of Clare and Don’s Beach Shack, wrote personal comments stating, “Apart from the impact on neighboring businesses, I do not support a project that will not have office included at the heart of ‘downtown’ crossroads, and will forever change the character of Falls Church by making its most visible intersection at 7 & 29 into the place with the Whole Foods (and other supermarkets), and will I believe rapidly diminish the character for ‘The Little City’.”

He added, “The project does little or nothing to enhance the character of Falls Church and it also does nothing to improve the lack of affordable and workforce housing.”

Steve Rogers, retired business owner, resident, and former vice mayor of Falls Church who was in the Chamber meeting with Insight last week, wrote, “Our small retail and restaurants are what makes Falls Church special. Since I came to F.C. in 1975 the City has morphed from a sleepy village to a small city. Some don’t like the change and businesses have been lost in the process, but during this period of change Falls Church has not lost its soul.

“I was and remain an advocate for mixed-use development both because of the vibrancy our new neighbors bring and the revenue they deliver both to our businesses and our City. That said, to maintain Falls Church as a unique and some might say special place we must do everything we can to preserve our unique restaurants and businesses.”