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How Huge Are New ‘T-Zone’ Changes?

The City of Falls Church Planning Department came to the F.C. City Council work session Monday with a significantly revamped plan for modifying transitional zone changes that have had local citizens concerned about the issue scratching their heads trying to figure out what it all means.

The way that F.C.‘s chief planning czar Paul Stoddard explained it to the News-Press yesterday, the changes are mostly technical, while it was comments coming from the Council Monday on the kind of housing they would like to see there that may prove the most impactful. He said that a consensus of Council guidance was significant that urged modifications to  incentivize a majority of the new housing that may get developed on the “T-Zone” areas of the City to be built for under a million dollars at under 2,000 square feet per unit.

“This is being read by the wider development community as suggesting Falls Church is getting back into the town house development business,” he said.

Otherwise, the revisions proposed by him and Planning Department colleague Jack Trainor suggest only technical revisions to bring their proposed ordinance into compliance with state law, Stoddard said. They include making it clear that increases in affordable housing numbers must be correlated with increases in density bonuses for developers.

For the more than 120 public meetings that have already been held in the last year and a half in the City on the contentious issue of the transitional zoning changes, the changes introduced this week do not change the calculus in any meaningful way for the scores of citizens who’ve stepped up to voice strong opposition on grounds that new building in “t-zone” areas threaten to impose on their properties. Matters of building heights and setbacks are not changed in this new set of modifications.

F.C. Planning Department’s Jack Trainor (left) and boss Paul Stoddard explained their latest modifications to proposed changes to F.C.’s Transitional Area zoning changes at the F.C. City Council meeting Monday night. (News-Press Photo)

That’s at least what’s intended, Stoddard told the News-Press. He suggested that the Council comments Monday caused townhouse developers to “perk up” around the region, although the result would not be an extraordinary amount of new development on the thin areas designated at “T-zones” that are designed to be buffers between commercial zones and purely residential ones.

He said that suggestions to limit the maximum average size of a new unit in that area, and the Council urging that they be built for less than a million dollars each is being read by developers as a suggestion that townhouses are the desired housing product. This outcome would not be equated with some of the newer townhouses on Park Avenue built in recent years, it was suggested, where average prices are now much higher.

Most of the building under the Planning Department’s latest vision would be on parcels under an acre with a maximum of 20 units per acre. “These would not be spectacular profit makers for developers,” Stoddard suggested, “but still allowing enough profit to attract them.”

They would tend to not go to developments in “T-zone” areas currently very active, such as the Kaiser Permanente clinic or the now-expanding Columbia Baptist Church, but in spaces occupied now by older buildings in greater disuse.

According to City Manager Wyatt Shields, the newest changes also add more flexibility to affordable housing options, which was set at a fixed 10 percent mandate before (that is, that 10 percent of new units be officially affordable under state guidelines) to one which could go up to 17 percent affordable in exchange for density bonuses for developers.

It is not yet known whether or not there would be any takers for that last option, and Stoddard said that information would await an evaluation of developer feasibility sentiments that will be forthcoming.

In summary, the Council was told Monday, there are four new concepts in the latest changes: 1. New housing types of from eight to 20 units per acre at a maximum size of 1,850 square feet per unit (and possibly higher with greater density bonuses), 2. Maximum unit sizes of 1,850 square feet, modified upward based on higher density bonuses/affordable housing percentages), 3. The affordable housing components linked to density bonuses up to 17 percent of units affordable, and 4. The changes shall apply to T-1 zones only with no consolidation of T-1 with T-2 zones.