By Todd Ray
The City of Falls Church had a problem. It was renting surplus space to the Easter Seals Child Development Center of Northern Virginia, a much needed social services program, but its growing public school system was in need of the space.
Ending Easter Seals’ lease meant losing an important community service. As municipalities throughout Northern Virginia become larger and more prosperous, non-profits like Easter Seals are going further afield to find affordable space. The City of Falls Church wanted to keep Easter Seals in its borders. A combination of fast-thinking, altruism, and collaboration allowed Easter Seals to not only stay in the City of Falls Church, but to own a beautiful new facility all its own.
Easter Seals is a non-profit organization providing services for millions of children and adults living with a variety of conditions, from autism to cancer. The Easter Seals Child Development Center (CDC) in Falls Church provides programs for children, with and without disabilities, from six weeks old to five years old. In the area, it is one of a limited number of organizations serving populations with special needs.
For James Snyder, Director of Planning and Development Services for the City of Falls Church, keeping the Easter Seals Center in the City was imperative, but there was no new space to house the program. Snyder had an idea.
“A contractor [I knew] had purchased a property with an old building to relocate his headquarters” Snyder explained, “but due to the turn in the economy the project was never realized.” The contractor, Monarc Construction, was willing to sell the property at a price Easter Seals could afford, and they offered to renovate the building, a nearly windowless, one-story, industrial warehouse.
While the area around the building was ripe for development, the property itself languished. Because the site straddled the border of the City and the County, it was subject to the regulations of four different zoning districts. This limited its potential for development. When Monarc first purchased the warehouse, a sustainably designed headquarters was planned. That idea foundered in the economic downturn and the tangle of zoning regulations. Turning the property over to Easter Seals spurred a review of the zoning to permit the new land use.
The Falls Church Economic Development Authority created a bond package to assist Easter Seals in obtaining financing for the project, and the development team created a new sustainable design for the warehouse and began the process of negotiating the cumbersome zoning approval process.
Because the municipal lease was ending, the 14,000 square foot child day care center had to be completed in seven months. To expedite the development, the two municipalities whose border cut through the property had to act as one. Remarkably, both the City and the County agreed to a singular building permit review. Their shared realization that Easter Seals was a critical community asset helped foster a unified vision. Despite this, the obstacles to development continued. Zoning rules required that almost 100% of the site had to be paved with parking. Easter Seals wanted play areas, gardens, and limited parking. A multi-jurisdictional solution was found adjacent to the site where the City and the County jointly maintained a parking lot. They agreed to allow Easter Seals staff and visitors to use this parking area. The site could be developed sustainably, as envisioned.
“The land development aspect of the Easter Seals project fit the definition of LID, Low Impact Development,” explained Karen White, the civil engineer on the project. The facility was built within the shell of the existing warehouse, allowing tax incentives for adaptive reuse. And the gardens on site retain and filter storm water without straining City facilities or increasing pollution in area waterways.
The new facility also generates much of its own energy through roof top solar panels. It also includes a geothermal field, which will eventually have the capacity to heat and cool the entire building. The Easter Seals development began giving back to the community even before it was completed, providing an impetus for the City to make much needed public improvements. As part of the agreement to keep Easter Seals in Falls Church, the City allocated funds to provide sidewalks, street and safety lighting where there had been none.
The Easter Seals development is an example of how creative urban redevelopment, shared vision, collaborative municipal efforts and sustainable design can support critical community programs, even in an over-heated real estate market.
Todd Ray is an FAIA member and principal of Studio Twenty Seven Architecture. City of Falls Church Urban Planner Loren Bruce contributed to the commentary.