“If history recalls anything about tonight, it’s that the City Council, confronted with the real threat of the pandemic indefinitely suspending the West Falls mixed-use project, summoned the optimism and resolve to cast a nearly unanimous vote to keep moving forward with our partners.”
Falls Church City Councilman Phil Duncan offered this observation following the 6-1 vote Monday to accept modifications to the massive 9.7 acre mixed use project that was first approved last year to drive the promised economic growth that would help pay for the newly completed high school.
Due to the wider economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group of developers who formed the West Falls Gateway Partners have been in behind the scenes talks with City Council representatives and its primary consultant, Ted Richer, before the two sides went public with their agreed-upon changes last month and voted on this Monday.
Thus, with the 6-1 passage this week, the project pushes ahead, giving the developers breathing room to amass the financial resources to carry on. While the deal involves the City giving ground on payments in the immediate future, in the longer term, the City actually comes out ahead by a considerable amount.
One major feature of the renegotiated changes is a six month delay in the delivery date for Phase One of the plan. With that, the first four payments on the ground lease will be cut from $7 million to $4.5 million, being offset by the agreement to increase the ground rent payments to begin in 2025 instead of 2031.
While the lease payment decrease will go from $34.5 million to $25.5 million, they are offset by the rent payments that result in a net increase to the City over time of $45.7 million.
There are other features, as well, including an increase of the City’s participation in condominium sale profits and an increased share of “land lift” profits.
The adjustments, such as they allow the project to go forward, are a marked contrast to what happened during the Great Recession of a decade ago, when a huge Atlantic Realty plan for downtown Falls Church had been approved, only to go into a deep freeze altogether.
It has taken over a decade for Atlantic Realty to begin moving on that project again, having held its first hearing before the City Council to offer its new plans just last month.
The current modifications to the West End project enable it to avoid such a fate and keeps it going.
Moreover, the long-term prospect of the project, and of its lining up with projects in adjacent properties controlled by Virginia Tech and WMATA, will be a massive bonanza for the City and its taxpayers.
So, as Duncan said, it amounted to the Council’s willingness to “summon the optimism” to make the near-term adjustments on the good faith that the project will ultimately deliver on all its promises.
As local developer Robert Young, chair of the City’s Economic Development Authority, offered at one of two public town halls on the changes last month, the three entities involved in the projects, EYA, Hoffman and Regency Centers, are first-rate in their fields with impeccable reputations for the work they’ve done in the wider D.C. region.
Included in the plan, which remains intact despite the adjusted payment schedule, are the 43,000-square foot grocery at the W. Broad (Route 7) and Haycock intersection, plans for retail to line both sides of the center promenade with a “carefully calibrated width” to invite shopping on both sides and the use of 1,200 – 1,500 square foot kiosks in the center space, for a 760 capacity car garage, for a range to encompass 969 residential units, for a hotel of 80,000 – 100,000 square feet from one of among four brands currently, for 40 – 50 street parking spaces, for 140 trees covering 5.5 percent of the site with tree canopy.
An important feature for the City was the agreed-upon date for the demolition of the old George Mason High School, which is being finally vacated this month as the move to the brand-spanking new $120 million campus is completed.
The old school sits on top of a big part of the large scale development project, and is set for a demolition that will be completed no later than May 29.
As to how the project will change under the conditions of a post-Covid world, Evan Goldman of EYA told the Council this Monday that “retail began changing before the pandemic, but enough is needed to create a sense of place.” He projects 60,000-80,000 square feet of small shops in the center of the project.
As it always has, he said, “retail will reinvent itself with a lot of creative, entrepreneurial and experimental components.”
The only Councilman to oppose the changes was David Snyder, who said the net result is to “take the risk off the developer and put it on the City” by virtue of the changes.
But Duncan said that the changes still allow for the project to pay for the high school, to meet the demolition deadline and remains a compelling place.”
“I want to continue to be out in front of everyone else” by pressing ahead, he said. “We are determined to maintain our reputation as a positive business environment.”
After the 6-1 vote to agree to the modifications and to press ahead, Mayor Daivd Tarter concluded the discussion by saying, “Let’s get this project started!”