Fairfax Co. Plans to Back West End Collaboration

FALLS PLAZA shopping center has rebranded as Birch & Broad, preceding the massive, 10-acre West End development coming across the street in a few years. (Photo: News-Press)

The Fairfax County Planning Commission, at its scheduled meeting next week, is expected to endorse the proposed amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan that will open up the potential for a large-scale coordinated development of WMATA’s West Falls Church Metro station property and adjacent property occupied by Virginia Tech.

The changes, if subsequently approved as expected by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors later in July, will avail those parcels of land to dovetail with the 10-acre mixed use project at the City of Falls Church’s West End on the site where the former George Mason High School complex once stood, but has in the last month been leveled.

These momentous actions by the Fairfax Planners and Supervisors over the next month will lay the groundwork for a monumental transformation of the three combined properties covering more than 40 acres in total into what is planned to be a seamless project. It would be unified by a new “commons avenue” that would run through its center from Route 7 at the intersection of Chestnut Street west of Haycock Road north to the Metro station. That avenue has been central to the planning of the Falls Church component from the beginning.

The expansion and extension of the 10-acre West Falls Church Gateway plan conforms to some of the most hopeful visions of the City of Falls Church and key developers, such as EYA, Hoffman and Rushmark, who have been intimately involved in advancing the plan, with EYA and Hoffman, along with Regency, being the major players in the 10-acre Falls Church component on top of the others.

The eventual yield from the three-property development, which will exceed the Mosaic of Merrifield in its size and impact, will be beneficial both for the City and county, spurring a level of cooperation between the two often competing jurisdictions of an entirely new dimension.

Visionaries on both sides of the jurisdictional boundaries have also seen the potential for additional parcels adjacent to these to jump in, including in the City of Falls Church. They would include Federal Realty’s 144,000 square foot Falls Plaza strip mall and the recently assembled over 20 acres now owned by Beyer Automotive.

The Federal Realty property, running along the north side of West Broad from a Giant Foods store at one end to a Staples at the other, flanking Birch Street, is currently undergoing a significant facelift, including a name change to “Birch and Broad Center.” The Beyer Automotive property, across West Broad on its south side, includes the construction of a new showroom for its Volvo dealership, vacating the old one for conceivable demolition or repurposing in a new comprehensive development plan of its own.

The potential expansion to include those two major players would turn the overall plan into one of the biggest in the region with mind-boggling economic growth prospects for the whole area.

But its appeal to its advocates goes beyond the economic development potential to embrace a revived and expanded transit orientation that will come with the integration of the whole thing with the West Falls Church Metro station sitting right there.

Part of the explanation for the precipitous drop in ridership originating at that station the last eight years, while due mostly to the opening of the system’s Silver Line that bypasses it, comes from the difficulty accessing it by anything but vehicles. The new plan will open it up to much better bike and pedestrian access.

Fairfax’s Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust told the News-Press this week that, with the Planning Commission’s OK next week, he expects to make the motion at the July 12 Board of Supervisors meeting to adopt the comprehensive plan amendment. “A rejection doesn’t seem likely,” he said, noting the whole process has taken “a couple years to get together.”

“People are pretty happy with it,” he said. “It’s a good plan appropriate for the Metro station area to encourage transit-oriented development.” He said that there has been “a tremendous effort to mitigate the impact of this on the surrounding (residential) areas,” and that working with the City of Falls Church “has been very good.”

He said he is “absolutely committed to continue to actively work with Falls Church to improve pedestrian and bike access” to the Metro station. “It’s exactly the direction we’re trying to go.”

Last week, the Fairfax Planning Commission voted to defer action for two weeks on the amendment after hearing extensive public input on the plan that would permit significant new mixed use development on the WMATA-owned West Falls Church Metro station site and an adjacent Virginia Tech site.

Improving pedestrian and bike access to the West Falls Church Metro Stationis the goal of Fairfax Supervisor John Foust at the proposed site. (Photo: News-Press)

Planning Commission chair John Ulfelder said in advocating the deferral at the end of the lengthy meeting, “We have a little wood to chop and we’ll take care of it” before the matter comes back for a vote on June 30.    

Among the 19 who signed up to speak at the meeting, almost all by phone, proponents of the WMATA and Virginia Tech redevelopment plans who presented last night included the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Great Falls chapter of the Sierra Club, and numerous Chestnut Place Homeowners Association board members, including Adam Thormahlen who said he “couldn’t be more excited” and William Mugg who said the plans to integrate the development planned for the 10-acre site where the old George Mason High School was just demolished with the development plans for the adjacent Virginia Tech and WMATA sites would add value and extensive retail options to the area.    

A third Chestnut area proponent William Hederman focused on the importance of Virginia Tech’s expansion as part of the overall plan, saying it has become one of the top technology training institutions in the U.S., underscoring testimony by David Baker, a public relations specialist for Virginia Tech who said the students and faculty alike “prefer the urban, walkable and sustainable” community that the overall plan will provide. He said the plan will include an “infrastructure test bed” that will involve embedded sensors that will relay information to enhance transportation flows and reduce the area’s carbon footprint as a result.  

Falls Church consultant Andrew Painter, speaking on behalf of the EYA and other proposed developers of the WMATA site, was the first to testify appearing in person at the first in-person meeting of the commission since Covid-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted last week. He stipulated five reasons the development would beneficial to the area, that it would capitalize on the Metrorail station there, reversing the steep decline in ridership at that station since the Silver Line opened in 2014, would involve an interjurisdictional planning effort that would look past boundaries, that height and density factors would be mindful of the wider neighborhood, that there would be an important affordable housing component adjacent a major transit facility and that new sidewalk and other improvements would enhance bicycle and pedestrian safety, overcoming the current difficulties involved for anyone not driving a car getting to that Metro station.    

Adrian Whyte of an entity called Reclaim Falls Church spoke against approval of the comprehensive plan amendment, saying it would be a “gateway to gridlock.” But Ulfelder noted that the “commons avenue” road that would run parallel to Haycock through the three parcels from Route 7 to the Metro station would, with other improvements, “improve existing conditions,” making it safer and easier to get to the West Falls Church Metro station.  

Ulfelder announced that VDOT is “satisfied” with the plans for improvements at the Route 7 and Haycock intersection, with an acceptance letter coming soon to local jurisdictions as a result.