The news reported on the front page of the News-Press last week about the rapid progress on aggressive plans to develop the Merrifield district of Fairfax County just west of the City of Falls Church should serve as a wake up call to everyone Falls Church. The plans call for just the kind of “town center” that Falls Church has been haggling about for more than a decade and, as yet, still unable to pull off. Some remember, and still have the yellowed news clips, that this concept was hotly debated in Falls Church as far back as the early 1970s. But to be kind, we’ll limit the age of the latest push to around the time somewhere in the late 1990s when it was figured out to bring the consulting firm, Street Works, into the picture for a full blown public vetting process on what a town center should involve.
In the case of Merrifield, the process didn’t start until 2001, when an update to the area’s Comprehensive Plan was completed. It’s still taken awhile to evolve, but now the town center, and the entire plan for the development of a brand new “main street” and massive commercial and residential development, capitalizing on the proximity of Dunn Loring metro station, is already taking shape. New buildings are already rising out of the ground there, and the final approvals for the town center should be ready by the end of the year.
Falls Church officials need to face up to reality: this Merrifield push is tantamount to eating Falls Church’s lunch, and it’s not because they’ve done anything wrong. They’ve simply beaten Falls Church to the punch. That development can be counted as one more looming shadow, along the lines of other existing two-mile-radius circular shadows emanating from Tysons Corner, Ballston and Bailey’s Crossroads that already cover Falls Church. These shadows define what retailers consider the immediate market area for their stores. In other words, major retailers with stores in Tysons, Ballston or Bailey’s consider that they’ve got the Falls Church market already covered. New ones that will come into Merrifield will calculate it the same way.
In the context of this, from where, exactly, does Falls Church think it can attract retailers for its new developments? So far, the builders who are completing major new projects in Falls Church have been aggressive and creative in finding tenants for their retail spaces. But now they’re up against fresh competition from Merrifield.
The short lesson to take from all this is that Falls Church simply cannot afford to diddle around with the handsome project that City Hall and Atlantic Realty have submitted for the first phase of a major downtown redevelopment. If Atlantic Realty feels it can build and find occupants for this plan, more power to it. Push on. And more power to the City, which will benefit from at least $2 million in net tax revenue annually, if it gets built before too many more others have trumped it.