In what could turn into the most consequential move ever for the 2.2-square mile City of Falls Church and its immediate environs, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Tuesday night gave a unanimous approval to a change in the county’s comprehensive plan that will permit substantial new development at the West Falls Church Metro station.
The much-anticipated vote opens the door for WMATA to collaborate with Virginia Tech and the City of Falls Church for a seamless development of over 40 acres at the site which could result in one of the biggest regional developments in Northern Virginia.
Being adjacent the currently underutilized West Falls Church Metro rail station, the grand plan, in the planning stages for a half-dozen years has been met with favor by “smart growth” and environmental advocates for advancing a huge transit-oriented option that will also lead to more Metro rail, bike and pedestrian uses in the area.
Under plans underway for the last five years, the project will be linked to the 10-acre megadevelopment project now beginning to get underway at the site of the former George Mason High School in Falls Church.
That school has now been demolished to make way for the mega-development, even as the brand new, state of the art Meridian High School has risen right next door and will welcome a full return of students next month.
The Fairfax Board vote Tuesday impacted two of the three parcels that will be developed in tandem at the site, the first being the 24-acre WMATA parcel that includes the rail station, the 7.5-acre Virginia Tech site that is currently being leased to the university by the City of Falls Church and that the university is committed to buying under the terms of the lease in the near future, and the 9.8-acre City of Falls Church land upon which the recently-demolished high school exists.
The three adjacent parcels combined total 41.3 acres that will be tied together by a boulevard running through their middle from Route 7 at Chestnut Street to the Metro rail station. The linking road, now known as a “commons,” was originally crafted by the Falls Church Gateway Partners team of EYA, Hoffman and Regency to be the central unifying feature of the Falls Church 10-acre development.
But from the beginning, it was envisioned being extended through the Virginia Tech and WMATA properties for a seamless run to the rail station. Tuesday’s vote now indicates that will become a reality.
Meanwhile, the Falls Church City Council was divided in its vote Monday night over granting modifications to the plans for its 10 acres. The changes have to be with the exit from the project of a partner for development of its senior living component.
Upon a deal with a new partner, Trammel Crow, the feasibility of the project will now require the addition of a new floor on the senior living building and some as-yet to be determined voluntary concessions, such as it pertains to affordable housing.
The still tentative nature of that plan, which calls for adding one floor from 14 to 15 stories and an increase in total square footage from 225,000 to 260,000, caused three members of the F.C. Council to vote against a preliminary approval, leaving it to “yes” votes by Mayor David Tarter, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, David Snyder and Debbie Hiscott to move ahead, while Phil Duncan, Letty Hardi and Ross Litkenhous voted “no,” for a split 4-3 vote approval.
Duncan wrote to the News-Press, “We still have a little ways to go in our negotiations with the Falls Church Gateway Partners, to make sure the final deal for the West Falls project is fair to both the City and our development partners.” He added, “I know our Council is committed to finding an equitable compromise.”
Concerning the county board vote Tuesday, Duncan, who was writing from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was on another frequent trip to look in on his 95-old-year father, crowed, “That is so terrific!” He said, “It sounds like we’ve reached a happy milestone in relations between our City of Falls Church and our friends in Fairfax County.”
Speaking at Tuesday’s county board meeting on behalf of the F.C. Gateway Partners, Andrew Painter spelled out five ways in which the proposed combined project will benefit the area, saying it will capitalize on the original 1986 plan when the West Falls Church Metro station first opened.
He said the new plan will provide interconnectivity between the Metro station area and its surrounding areas, that scaled back building heights will protect surrounding neighborhoods, as will buffering, provision for affordable housing by the Metro station will become available and a network of pedestrian and bike lane infrastructures will make the whole area accessible to non-vehicular transit.
David Baker, the director of government and community affairs for Virginia Tech, said that it is a strong desire of the school to buy the land on which it now sits with the waning years of a lease from Falls Church.
“We want an urban, walkable community,” he said. “It is what graduate students prefer.” He cited the grant, secured by State Sen. Dick Saslaw, for a “smart roads test bed” to be embedded at the site that will provide a network of sensors enabling adaptations to changing conditions.
Douglas Stewart of the area’s Sierra Club chapter spoke in support of the plan, as did Christin DeShauer of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association and Bernard Suchicital speaking for the Beyer Family, the largest landowner in the area.
The prospect of the Beyer Family folding its holdings into the 40-acre plan could make its scope significantly bigger and wider.
Nia Rubin spoke in favor of the project on behalf of WMATA, and Rochelle Barimany weighed in for the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce.
With the approval Tuesday, the county board then moved to the formation of a Falls Church Active Transit Plan to explore the next steps.