I tried to convince the News-Press that a couple of pictures are worth more than anything I could say in an 800 word “guest commentary”. Unsuccessfully, of course. And what’s worse, there isn’t room to include the photos in the print edition of the News-Press, so I have to refer you to www.fcnp.com to actually see what I will be trying to describe. There you will find two aerial photos of a section of West Broad Street, taken 10 years apart, courtesy of Google Earth.
The “Now” photo is actually 18 months old, taken in July, 2012. As such, it does not yet show the Hilton Garden Inn currently under construction. But it does show five completed projects: The Broadway, The Byron, The Spectrum, The Reed Building and The Flower Building. Interestingly, the photo also depicts a healthy amount of green tree canopy around the perimeters and in the courtyards of this three and a half block stretch of Broad Street.
The “Then” is from April, 2002. A mere decade earlier on the calendar, but a difference that is clearly dramatic in many dimensions. Where the Broadway now stands at 502 West Broad was the former “Adcom Building.” A single story brick building that had sat vacant and boarded up since the late 1990’s, with a chain link fence around the 1.6 acre site courtesy of abandoned redevelopment plans by the Marriott Corporation. Where the Byron now stands was the former Red Lobster restaurant. Purportedly Darden Restaurant Corporation’s poorest performing restaurant in the region, occupying a prime two acre site with an asphalt sea of parking spaces that were rarely more than one third filled with cars. Where the Spectrum now stands was another surface parking lot on Broad Street and an undeveloped gravel field along Park Avenue. Plans that the City enthusiastically approved for a $30 million office building sat on the shelves of Akridge Company and gathered dust.
Looking at these photos side by side reminds me of photos on the internet depicting the before and after shots of New Orleans, New Jersey and New York in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. But with a very fortunate difference. In the Falls Church photos, the chronological direction is reversed and it’s not the City being devastated by a natural disaster. Rather, some of the City’s most depressed and underutilized properties have been redeveloped with attractive and vibrant projects.
Admittedly, I am looking at these photos through the eyes of a developer who was fortunate enough to have participated in a couple of the projects. But if I was a City resident, I think I would actually find the changes depicted even more dramatic and attractive. The three mixed use projects – Broadway, Byron and Spectrum – collectively represent barely seven acres of land, about one half of one percent of the City. But are now home to numerous retailers, restaurants and over 350 luxury condominiums with new residents – and taxpayers – supporting the City. On this seven acres that collectively generated less than $250,000 per year in annual tax revenue in 2002 now sits over $200 million of new investment that generates well over $2.5 million in annual tax revenue for the City. And the schools.
This redevelopment did not occur simply by virtue of the City being in the right place at the right time. The previous decade of the 1990’s saw enormous economic development in Northern Virginia that largely passed over Falls Church. When I first arrived in the City in 2001, I believe the only new construction that had occurred along Broad Street over the previous five years was the construction of a new Eckard (now Rite Aid) drugstore on the west end of town.
There was much debate at City Council over each and every mixed use project that was approved for this little section of Broad Street. Often including concerns about adding residential units to the “commercial corridors” of the City. Frankly, I think the debate was mostly healthy. I also think the positive results of the decisions to approve the Broadway, Byron and Spectrum may still not be fully appreciated. These projects are not just collectively adding over $2 million in tax revenues to the City. They have helped to breathe new life into an area that even the most nostalgic among us would say desperately needed a new life. And they have paved the way for projects such as Hilton Garden Inn, The Reserve at Tinner Hill, Harris Teeter, and others.
As we collectively look to the future of the “Little City,” I simply want to offer my own thanks for having had the opportunity to be part of it, so far. It certainly looks a lot brighter today than it did when Marriott erected the chain link fence around the boarded up Adcom Building.
Happy New Year.
Ed Novak is President of Nova-Habitat, a development company based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.