In a series of unanimous 7-0 votes Monday night, the Falls Church City Council gave final decisive approvals to special exceptions and the site plan for the biggest project in the City’s history, a 9.75-acre mixed use development at the site of the now-demolished old George Mason High School property.
The project, with an estimated value of $380 million and to yield an estimated $5 million in net annual revenues to the City, now awaits a groundbreaking set for early next year.
As pointed out by Council member Ross Litkenhous, the project will not only completely pay for the now-completed $122 million Meridian High School right next to it, but also promises to provide City taxpayers with a hefty reduction in property taxes.
The project will also be complemented by development of two adjacent sites, one now occupied by Virginia Tech and the other constituted by WMATA’s West Falls Church Metrorail station, which combined will constitute 44 acres of seamless development that will be unified by a boulevard running through its middle from Rt. 7 to the West Falls Church station. According to a spokesman from the team that is also involved in the WMATA development site, a go-ahead was received for that land Monday, and as a result all components of the overall plan could come on line roughly simultaneously.
All the pieces have come together so perfectly to this point since the days just a few years ago, in 2014, when the City of Falls Church agreed to swap acreage upon which its old high school sat from Fairfax County in exchange for ownership of its beleaguered water system.
Annexing the land into the Falls Church City limits, the first step was to divide it into two parcels, one dedicated to the construction of a new high school and the other to economic development for the purpose of paying for the new high school and possibly more.
So far, it has worked out like a charm, with the new Meridian High School now completed and awaiting the arrival of students in a few weeks and the economic development side, under the command of a first-rate development team, winning a critical series of unanimous votes of approval from the Falls Church City Council this Monday.
That same day, the City Council unanimously approved a Special Exception Site Plan for Phase One of the West Falls Project, located at the intersection of Haycock Road and W. Broad Street The development is a 9.78 acre project with a million square feet of retail, office, hotel, civic space, senior housing, and a mix of condo and rental multifamily housing within a short walking distance of the West Falls Church Metrorail station.
The approval marks a significant development for a project that started in 2014 with the boundary adjustment that brought Meridian High (formerly George Mason High) and Mary Ellen Middle School campuses into the City limits.
In 2017, City voters approved a $120 million bond issuance for a new high school on the site, which freed up approximately 10 acres of school property for commercial development to generate revenue to partially cover the expense of the new high school.
The City chose Falls Church Gateway Partners (FCGP) to develop the site in 2018 after a competitive procurement process under the Virginia Public Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act (PPEA), and executed a Comprehensive Agreement with FCGP and granted preliminary land use entitlements in July 2019.
The site is leased to FCGP over a 99 year term. In addition to the lease payments, the City projects that the annual net fiscal impact (tax revenue minus cost of government and educational services) from the site will be over $5 million per year after stabilization of the site in 2029.
The West Falls project will provide 32 units of affordable rental housing committed for the life of the year lease, and an annual developer subsidy of $228,000 will be used to maintain affordable senior housing.
Also this Monday, the City Council voted unanimously to approve an ordinance establishing a Community Development Authority (CDA) which will issue infrastructure bonds and impose a special assessment on the 9.78 acre site to cover the annual debt service for those bonds.
It is anticipated that the CDA will issue approximately $13 million in infrastructure bonds to pay for certain roads, stormwater facilities, and other public improvements on the site, and will impose a special assessment equivalent to 15 cents on the real estate tax rate on the West Falls property. The City is not liable for the debt issued by the CDA. The CDA method of financing public improvements has been used elsewhere in the region such as the Mosaic District, but this is the first one created by the City of Falls Church. FCGP stated at the meeting that they plan to start construction of the West Falls Project in the first quarter of 2022.
(In July, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors set the stage by approving a comprehensive plan amendment to facilitate the redevelopment of approximately 32 acres of land adjacent to the site, including the West Falls Church Metro Station and the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Center. The City and County have coordinated planning efforts on these sites, including road design and transportation improvements.)
“All the time and effort that has gone into this over the past years and all the attention to the details have taken it to a much better outcome, if not perfect. This is a very nice project, it pays for the school, will bring tax relief and will be great for the City,” said Mayor David Tarter. “I am very excited about this project.”
Council member Phil Duncan called it “a heroic effort by staff and the Council members.” The public “has only seen the tip of this iceberg,” he added. “It has been an exercise in commitment and passion.”