The Falls Church Planning Commission was treated to the rolling out this Monday night of a comprehensive plan developed by the City’s Planning Department with help from the region’s Virginia Tech urban planning program to make Park Avenue the City of Falls Church’s showcase “Great Street.”
The plan, presented to the commission under the title of “A Civic Great Street of the Little City,” based on a national trend toward such undertakings, was seemingly sudden in its emergence. But a closer look at its elements reveals that an awful lot of what’s already in the planning stages in Falls Church happens to impinge right onto Park Avenue.
Park Avenue, running parallel with W. Broad Street one block north, is wide and currently serene and tree-lined with a mix of residential and low-key commercial. When the City decided to revive its annual Memorial Day Parade and Festival in the early 1980s, after years of a hiatus, Park Avenue was the obvious choice for the bulk of its route.
(A move by the local Chamber of Commerce in the early 1990s to put the parade on W. Broad where it would be in front of, and thereby promote, more commerce, the way parades do in other regional towns, like Vienna, was quickly dashed when the W. Broad businesses themselves howled, saying the parade would disrupt their long-held habits.)
So now, the 10,000-15,000 people who come out and come into Falls Church every Memorial Day are accustomed to sitting and standing on a Park Avenue that comfortably receives it all, from its top to its bottom – from where it originates on its western end at the clumsy intersection with West and Grove Streets to its other end, where it dead ends at N. Washington St. and looks right into the historic State Theatre, now the City’s most energetic live entertainment venue.
Here’s what Park Avenue already has going for it, moving from east to west. As already mentioned, at its east end is the State Theatre and the parking lot that has been made available for public use in the Kaiser Permanente complex. On the south side of the street (north, south, east and west are all askew given the angle at which the street lies, but the approximations parallel identifiers of other streets in town and to that extent, they work), is the City-owned asphalt parking lot where a lot of the outdoor activities associated with the eventful monthly First Friday fun goes on, including live bands and classic car rallies.
On the corner at Maple Street, on the west side, is the ancient Blue and Gray building, the wooden frame 1797 house that has been idle for years, but now an enterprising restaurateur is pitching to the City special exceptions that would enable him to revive it, while retaining its historical structure, for a trendy new restaurant.
On the corner of the next block is City Hall, or the entrance to it, being that it is set back somewhat but its parking lot there serves as the home to very popular weekly farmers’ markets and the festival portion of the annual Memorial Day event. Behind City Hall is the recently renovated but too small and constantly used Community Center and Veterans Memorial.
City Hall happens to currently be near the top of the list for a major renovation and expansion in the City’s plans that could make it more welcoming and physically attractive to a Park Avenue landscape.
The same goes for the Mary Riley Styles Public Library across the street. Plans call for an $8 million renovation and expansion on that site, with a $3 million parking deck thrown in on the adjacent surface lot owned by a separate entity.
Those improvements, including having the main entrance to the renovated library face onto Park Avenue, would also augment the “Great Street” image being promoted by the new Planning Department study. The parking deck, something the Chamber of Commerce and others in the City have been begging for seemingly forever, would provide access to Park Avenue in addition to the library, and take pressure off the surface parking in the Broaddale Plaza strip mall behind it on W. Broad (notorious for predatory towing).
Moving west, Park Avenue already boasts the historic, restored Cherry Hill Farmhouse and entrances to Cherry Hill Park, the City’s largest that, among other things, hosts weekly Concerts in the Park every Thursday night in the summer.
Less attractive is the back end of the Hilton Garden Inn that faces onto Park, but that is a small problem. There is the St. James school, including its basketball gym, and stately gray brick church facade, and then as the end of Park to the south there is what may come as the so-called “Mason Row” project whose developers are proposing to draw a lot of pedestrian and “festival” traffic with a walk-through and internal plaza around shops, restaurants and a movie theatre complex below new residential rentals and a hotel.
That project’s plan could also include a relocation of all or a part of the public library, through that hasn’t yet caught fire with anyone.
Then, on the corner where Park Avenue ends there is the W&OD Bike Trail crossing, leading up over the elevated bridge that crosses W. Broad, where there is room for a small park, the City Planners say, which could function as a rest stop for bikers and joggers on the W&OD Trail, with a water fountain, benches and a small replica of the old train station that used to be near there with restrooms and a small museum.
That would connect with the West End Park that has already gotten the OK for significant upgrades in the coming period.
The Park Avenue “Great Street” plan includes sidewalk improvements, pedestrian crossings and other amenities to integrate design and use, and the kicker is that its promoters at City Hall say a lot of the funds for these integrating features could come through federal, state and foundation grants, relieving citizens of the tax burden for them.
Senior Planner Paul Stoddard, who was the City staff person in charge of Monday’s Planning Commission meeting as his boss, Jim Snyder, was needed by the City Council, along with senior planner Garrison Kitt and Planning Department Intern Heather Scharfetter were instrumental in pulling this “Great Street” concept together.