The third time will be the charm for the Hekemian Company that finally found favor with the Falls Church City Council Monday with its latest plan for a large-scale, mixed use project, including 105 rental apartments, on the N. Washington St. site of the old Pearson Funeral Home. They plan to call it “Northgate.”
After the major regional firm was sent packing with rude rejections of two earlier versions of what it hopes to do at the site, a number of factors have gone into a marked change of heart by the Council, only one of which is significant adjustments to the plan, itself.
Others have to do with overriding fiscal pressures on the City drawn from the recent nosedive in growth rates for residential real estate, with calls from the business community and others to push ahead against typical neighborhood objections, and with the example of what Arlington County did just down the street by approving the WestLee, a handsome mixed use condo project that has just been completed.
Still, there is no doubt that the newest changes to the Hekemian plan has given the Council the impetus it needs to withstand neighborhood objections and, very likely, grant approval for its construction.
Compared to the earlier plans, the first coming forward in March 2005 and the second last summer, the building has lost its box-like look and now involves varied setbacks, bay windows and an attractive overall look matching if not superior to the WestLee’s.
The number of rental apartments has been reduced from 124 to 105, and the percentage of the project dedicated to ground-floor retail and office space has grown to 23%. Also, the building tops from five stories at its southern end to three stories, a string of 10 rental townhouses, facing onto the E. Jefferson St. neighborhood.
“This is a much better, smarter project,” came the first words out of the mouth of City Council member David Chavern after the report on the new plan at the Council’s joint work session with the Planning Commission Monday. (The Council, expecting a larger turnout than usual for a work session, moved the location to the art room at the Community Center. It still turned out to be too small).
Chavern was among the sharpest critics of the earlier Hekemian offerings. As a resident in the neighborhood, he objected to the traffic, density and negative aesthetic impacts. He said he remains “skeptical about the traffic issues and the ability of E. Jefferson to bear the burden,” he said.
But coming out of the meeting, two Council members told the News-Press they believed the project would eventually go forward with the support of six out of the seven Council members (with David Snyder still strongly opposed).
Last time around, last summer, three newly-elected Council members sought giving the earlier plan at least a first reading, but they came up short, 4-3.
Rob Puentes, a member of the Planning Commission present Monday, said “There is no reason for this not to go to first reading. It is much improved aesthetically, and with attention to traffic issues. “There still needs to be more thought on transportation and other mitigating measures for the neighborhood.”
Hekemian Senior Vice President Chris Bell told the work session that his company “listened to the City Council and neighborhood” during the last go-around, and made many modifications in its plan as a result. They impacted decisions on height, mass, number of units, buffer and other transition to the neighborhood issues, the commercial-residential mix, affordable dwelling units, general traffic, drainage, hydrology and truck and delivery traffic.
Specifically, the project calls for 14,015 square feet of Class A office space, 22,700 square feet of specialty retail, and 124,000 square feet constituting 105 residential units. Overall, the project will be 22.7% commercial, and 6.67% of the rental units will be set aside as “affordable.” That would be the highest percentage of any project yet approved for the City.
Rick Goff, the City’s economic development chief, said that the par dollar value of all the proffers the developer will provide the City totals over $3 million. That includes $7,014 for every residential unit as a contribution to the City schools and $1 million worth of under-grounding of utility lines on the street.
Net annual revenue to the City’s coffers from the project are conservatively estimated at $208,000 in the first year, he said, and $195,000 every year thereafter.
Rents, Bell said, will range from $1,300 per month to $2,500, depending on the size of the unit, although most are being planned as two-bedroom.
There is a strong demand for such rentals in Northern Virginia now, he noted. The occupancy rate at existing facilities is 99.5%. So much of the population of the region is transient that rental have special appeal, as do locations within a quarter-mile of a Metro station.
“An average household of two $50,000-a-year breadwinners could afford to live in these,” noted Council member Hal Lippman.