By a razor-thin 4-3 vote, the Falls Church City Council gave a preliminary approval for what’s now known as Founders Row 2, a 2.07 acre mixed use development that would fill the now-vacated Rite Aid and its massive parking lot eyesore and the perennial carpet store on the S. West at West Broad corner.
The project is seen as a companion to the original 4.3 acre Founders Row that began moving in residents this week (see story, elsewhere this page), with the Mill Creek Residential Trust as the developers of both.
The vote marked one of the few times in the recent period that the Council has been so sharply divided on an issue, but the plan squeezed by to push ahead by forwarding it for comment to all the City’s major boards and commissions before coming back for a final vote in March.
It was Council member Debbie Hiscott who provided the decisive “yes” vote, the main unknown going into the meeting. She was joined by Phil Duncan, Letty Hardi and Ross Litkenhous in providing the thumbs-up, while Mayor David Tarter, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly and David Snyder voted no.
Preceding her vote, Hiscott cited the project’s commitment to affordable housing on its 14-page list of voluntary concessions (sweeteners to encourage Council approval of the project), in particular at the uncommonly high rate of 12 percent of the total 280 residential units in the project, or 34 new units.
The 12 percent would be evenly divided between ones for which residents with 60 percent of the area median income (AMI)are eligible, and those who which residents with 80 percent of the AMI are eligible. Moreover, Mill Creek is offering “cash in lieu of” residential units if the Council’s wish is to accumulate resources for something like a bigger, stand-alone affordable housing project.
Moreover, this affordable housing component, the highest percentage of total units offered by any developer in the City so far, and way above the former average of six percent, is also distinguished by the offer to make them permanent, rather than maintained as affordable for only a finite period.
These are big deals for a city, like the region as a whole, that is committed to a serious increase in its affordable housing stock, and in the case made by Council member Hardi Monday night, also to remove blocks, such as U.S. citizenship requirements, to residents that qualify to apply for the units.
But Mill Creek has also made other recent concessions to its list of sweeteners, including more green space and streetscaping, a drawdown in building height from 76 feet on W. Broad to 33 feet where it abuts residential homes on Ellison Street behind it. There is also more commercial space, now at 26,000 feet, half dedicated to, ideally, three restaurants, neighborhood-serving retail, fewer residences than originally proposed (reducing the height by a full story), and flex office spaces.
Overall, the voluntary concessions amount to an average of $41,000 per home in the project for a total value of $11.6 million.
And, as Council member Duncan offered, it needs to be considered in the context of the blight that’s there now. He noted that it is not like other projects that had to displace existing businesses to get built, with the Rite Aid closed for some time already and the carpet store planning to close soon, it will “be a strong plus without displacing any existing businesses.” He also hailed its unusually strong commitment to affordable housing.
Mill Creek’s Joe Muffler, who is also their major public spokesman on Founders Row 1, said he is “eager to get out of this room to hold open discussions with the wider community” on the merits of the project, and to take feedback.
Neighbors, for example, have already expressed concern for the traffic impact, including for the overall impact at the intersection of W. Broad and West Street with the new Founders Row 1 going in catty-corner across it.
Council members who voted against granting the preliminary OK cited the lack of a sufficient commercial component, with Tarter noting it is the lowest percentage of commercial use of any new mixed use project in the city.
But Hardi countered that “residential is not a bad word” because when there are more feet on the ground around the city, existing businesses benefit. Council member Litkenhous reiterated his assertion that not all projects have to have a robust commercial component to contribute to the city’s economic goals.
With its preliminary approval this week, the project will be presented for consideration and comment to a dozen city boards and commissions, including its Economic Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce, before coming back for final consideration next March 28.