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Preliminary OK Due Monday on F.C. Affordable Housing

A repeat of the fireworks between Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner and Dr. Steve Rogers, chair of the Falls Church Housing Corporation (FCHC), at Monday’s City Council work session is not likely when the Council meets next Tuesday to consider an ambitious affordable housing project. But you never know.

Gardner and Rogers, a former F.C. vice mayor, went toe-to-toe Monday over the timing of Council approval for the plan to build 174 affordable housing apartments in property adjacent to the now-approved $317 million City Center project on S. Maple Avenue.

Gardner argued that if the Council gave a preliminary OK to the plan, which would involve a considerable subsidy from City taxpayers, then City boards and commissions, including the public, would need two months to review the matter prior to a vote on final approval.

But Rogers said the matter will have to be finalized in only one month, because that’s the deadline needed to develop the plans in order to apply for and get vitally-needed low state interest rates.

“We are now working on a path to go down collectively,” Carol Jackson, executive director of the FCHC told the News-Press yesterday, crediting Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester with refereeing constructive progress toward an amicable resolution.

“If we can’t have a final OK by the end of June, then we’ll pull this project off the table right now,” Rogers told Gardner and the City Council at its work session Monday. “We simply won’t be able to qualify with the state.”

Gardner questioned whether the FCHC had dragged its feet getting the proposal to the Council, causing the time crunch. But Rogers insisted adamantly that it was the City’s timetable, not the FCHC’s, that was responsible.

“There might have been an impression created that we were procrastinating, but that is definitely not the case,” Jackson said. She would not offer details on what kind of agreement is being hammered out between her organization and City Hall, but she said it “should work” when the matter comes for the Council vote Tuesday.

The proposed project is a seven-story, 174 unit structure developed jointly by the FCHC and Homestretch, Inc., a non-profit that currently owns the site. Atlantic Realty, the prime developer of the City Center South project next door, would be the builder of the new structure, fulfilling some of its proffer to the City for the approvals it needed for the City Center.

The need for affordable housing in Falls Church was underscored by a report that the new City Center project would create 1,450 to 1,475 new jobs, alone, while 200 existing affordable housing units in the City were lost since 2000, and another 650 are potentially at risk of being demolished or refurbished into high-priced units.

The proposed structure, the most ambitious project of its kind ever in the City, would provide housing for those earning up to 60% of the area’s median annual income. Half of the project would open up for current residents at Winter Hill affordable housing units, and the FCHC would then renovate the Winter Hill units to sell to qualifying first-time home buyers earning up to 80% of the area median income.

In addition to money already set aside for affordable housing in the City, the project would involve real estate tax exemptions for all the units, debt service and government service costs.

“This is going to cost a lot of money. Affordable housing doesn’t come cheap,” Rogers said. “But the City has a commitment to this, and it is needed by the business community to provide the opportunity for close-by housing for employees. The bottom line is that this is the best project we’re going to get.”

Among the financial concerns some Council members expressed was the matter how much some other, more profitable development on the site would accrue. However, the property is presently owned by Homestretch, a non-profit which has no intention of putting the site to a different use, it was pointed out.

While Gardner argued that a final approval could not be achieved before the end of July, others on the Council disagreed, including Councilman Dan Sze. “I’m willing to do everything humanly possible to get this done by June 30,” he said. “It comes down to the question of whether or not we want affordable housing.”

In another development Monday, the Council decided to postpone a second and final vote on exceptions requested for the construction of a Hilton Garden Inn in the 700 block of W. Broad, since developer Robert Young indicated he was beginning new talks with neighbors to the site, including those representing the St. James School, and he needed more time. The vote is now set for June 9.

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