It was another long, long night for the Falls Church City Council and Planning Commission Monday, beginning with a walking tour of the site of the Spectrum Developers’ plans for massive mixed-use development of assembled parcels adjacent the Broad and West Street intersection, and when it ended the developers got what they came for, a Council commitment to grant a preliminary first reading approval for the project at this coming Monday’s Council business meeting.
The Council seemed inclined to settle for more talk and no action Monday night when former Falls Church City Manager David Lasso, now a consultant for Spectrum, grabbed the microphone and told the Council in no uncertain terms that given all the money his client had already spent on the project plans, including many revisions, that it was unreasonable to send them away with no commitment to moving the project forward.
The developer after all, he stressed, needs to keep its bank financing source in the game by showing some concrete signs of progress. A first reading OK allows the City to set in motion the full resources of its volunteer boards and commissions to weigh in on the plan.
The main value of the walking tour of the site was the ability to show how much of the land involved is nothing more than broken asphalt and concrete now. Were the Spectrum’s plan to be approved, it would generate, minimally, $1.2 to $1.3 million in net tax revenues to the City, compared the paltry sum the City is currently able to glean from the four-acre area.
Spectrum’s Peter Batten, the major spokesperson for the project, detailed numerous changes to the project since it was first introduced to the City Council last March. Most significantly, the changes included the elimination of a Walgreens super drugstore as an anchor retail site.
“We killed it,” Batten said, due to “a lot of pushback” from the public at the prospect, given the proximity of a number of other drugstores in the immediate neighborhood.
The “new look” of the proposed project, with its 150 room “preferred use” hotel, 47,000 square feet of retail and 320 rental and condo residential units, is aimed at retaining its attractiveness to a younger demographic, a specific goal of the developers.
The floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of the project, with the new revisions, actually grows from 2.27 to 2.91, and the ratio of commercial to residential increased to 26 over 74 percent. Currently, the FAR of the four-acre site is significantly less than 1.0.
Rick Goff of the City’s Economic Development Office said that the new plan is projected to bring in gross new tax revenues to the City of $3.4 to $3.5 million, but when costs are factored in – mainly, the prospect of as many as 90 children that will enter the school system – the so-called “net net” tax yield to the City will range from $1.1 to $1.4 million annually, more than three cents on the real estate tax rate.
However, the developers are calculating that the appeal of the project to younger “millennial generation” renters will tend to suppress the number of children living there.
The “travel light” values of “millennials” tend to hold off on having children, among other things, it was noted.
The new Northgate mixed-use project on N. Washington Street, Batten said, is drawing a “millennial” demographic that is attracted to its proximity to the East Falls Church Metro station, and it has almost rented out completely to “millennials” who are sharing one- and two-bedroom apartment spaces.
Batten said his project is “being geared to what millennials want,” although some on the Council and Planning Commission commented Monday that the revised design seems to detract from that goal, adopting more of a “fortress look,” as the Planning Commission’s Russ Wodiska put it.
Wodiska made it clear, however, that he is “very supportive” of the project, noting that the walking tour demonstrated the project would be “a vast improvement over what’s there now.”
Mayor David Tarter concurred that the “site has great potential.”
Batten said that the new redesign will focus on a retail “promenade” in its center that will attract gourmet fresh seafood, butchery, cheese, wine and bakery and other elements for a “union market”-style of appeal.
Ample underground parking would make it a “destination location,” and its appeal will be augmented by its proximity to the W&OD Trail and West Falls Church Metro station, he added. A shuttle from the project to the Metro station is envisioned, and the hotel component would serve customers seeking to stay three days to a week, mostly a business clientele.
Batten said the margin making the project financially viable is slim, and many changes from its current design would undermine Spectrum’s ability to get the financing it needs. “That’s why we want to pack as much retail into it as we can,” he said.
Making good use of the proximity to the W&OD Trail is a priority, Batten said. He wants to add public restrooms to the immediate area and will make a special effort to keep existing retailers there that cater to the users of the trail, such as Lazy Sundae, to stay on.
With the expected first reading this coming Monday night, the project will be shipped out to various City boards and commissions for comment, and will come to the Council for a final approval by November. Sally Cole, executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, was present for Monday’s briefing, as well.