Top City of Falls Church leaders and citizens got a heady dose of what this year’s transfer of those 40 acres into the City limits from the sale of its water system could mean from a panel of the region’s top experts in the field last week. Under the auspices of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, a ULI “Technical Assistance Panel” of nine experts spent two days of intensive work at the site that includes the George Mason High and Henderson Middle Schools.
They came away with a dazzling presentation, made in the new Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Falls Church, late Thursday that whetted the thirst of City and regional officials about what could happen there, all the time saying their work was “back of the napkin sketches.” All the major players in the Falls Church development scene were there, from City Manager Wyatt Shields to Mayor David Tarter and members of the City Council, Planning Commission and City Hall economic development efforts, as well as private developer interest.
“This is a huge gift for the City,” Falls Church developer Bob Young told the News-Press afterward. Not only did they produce what often costs a jurisdiction hundreds of thousands in consulting fees, but they produced their report in two days, instead of six months or longer, he noted.
The group came up with a series of graphic examples of how the area of the property closest to the intersection of W. Broad and Haycock Road could be densely developed adjacent the schools to create an “agora” modeled on the ancient Greek city state, where academics and commerce meet, a “creative marketplace of ideas and goods.”
The proximity of the commercial retail development of the site with the schools would be augmented with public spaces, providing “civic uses in a mixed use context” that would allow for a more complete use of the schools in after hours, among other things, allowing the wider area to be a “great public place” for evening events and galas.
One idea for the residential development at the site would be to enlist the cooperation of the Virginia Tech graduate center there to produce on-site student housing
that would bring younger more vital adults to the area, with less of a tendency to have children with them.
Also stressed was the potential for working with others in proximity to the site, such as Beyer Automotive, which has assembled a considerable amount of land, Federal Realty which owns the West Falls Shopping Center where Giant Food currently is, and Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, which share use of a graduate school building there.
There is a remarkable opportunity here for joint planning to unlock the greatest value in the property, the experts said.
Their team was composed of Bob Wulff, chair of the center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at George Mason University, Elizabeth Baker of Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley and Walsh, PC, Leonard Bogorad of Robert Charles Lesser and Co., Anthony Chang of the Washington Real Estate Investment Trust, Martin Combal, AICP, for the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Peter Crowley of LandDesign, Robert Eisenberg of Heritage Property Company LLC, Gary Malasky of Malasky Properties, and Sean O’Donnell, AIA, LEED AP of Perkins Eastman.
“The key is to avoid the misplaced concern at this stage of exactly what should go where,” Young told the News-Press. This is going to take time to develop, and what the market will want by the time the time comes to build may look a lot different than today.”
He noted that one of the ULI experts said that had they been asked to do a conceptual design of the site six years ago, it would have been predominantly commercial office.
But there has developed such a glut in that market now, that it is the last thing to include in a package. Similarly, in the coming four years or longer, the market will shift again. “In two, five or 10 years, who knows?” Young quipped.
He said the key elements the ULI experts brought was the notion of partnering and the potential of the land. “With this kind of vision, a major developer will be interested,” he said.
The ULI presentation, both the video of the forum on Thursday and a powerpoint of the drawings and illustrations they compiled, are available online.