Following the recommendation of the Falls Church City Planning staff, the F.C. City Council Monday night voted unanimously to defer final action on the 4.3-acre large scale mixed-use project known as Mason Row until its first business meeting of the new year on Jan. 11, 2016.
With a turnover on the Council coming Jan. 1 from the election in November, it is expected that the project will gain another supporter in incoming Council member Letty Hardi, who was officially sworn in to her new job Monday along with two re-elected incumbents, Mayor David Tarter and Phil Duncan. Departing Council member Nader Baroukh, who did not seek re-election last month, had been a critic of the project.
Major new changes were made to the project in the last week, including downsizing the number of rental units, removing a fifth floor over retail in one section facing onto West Street, and shifting the location of the movie theater from underground to second floor. These changes, and more, necessitated City Hall’s need for more time to evaluate the project, City Manager Wyatt Shields told the Council Monday. There also needs to be a new fiscal analysis of the project which there has not been time yet to complete, he said.
In the public comment period, there were strong statements in favor of the project, including from a delegation from the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, and also from nearby residents to the site who said that based on recent changes, they’ve changed from opposition to supporting the project.
There was also a surprisingly strong turnout of citizens appearing before the Council for the first time who expressed enthusiastic support for the project. Drew Walter, a Sycamore Street citizen, said he was speaking for 19 of his neighbors, what he called part of the “quiet majority,” who enthusiastically support the project and other younger citizens who said they are “ecstatic” about it.
Andrew Painter, a zoning attorney who’s become active in the Falls Church Chamber, said Mason Row will represent a “vibrant urban experience.” Chris Prior, who lives nearby the proposed project in the 500 block of N. West Street, coined the term “ecstatic,” adding, “It is exciting to see the City embracing thoughtful smart change.”
Rachelle Barimany from a business across the street with a 30-year history in Falls Church, spoke in favor of Mason Row.
Amanda Franklin, living nearby the proposed project on S. Spring Street, said she “loved” the experience of living near the newly-redeveloped Clarendon neighborhood in Arlington and is very pro-Mason Row now.
Tim Stevens of the City’s Environmental Services Council said that the project will contribute to the walkability of the City, and thereby help to lower the “carbon footprint” here. He also said that contrary to remarks made at a Planning Commission meeting earlier this month, “this project has a vision in keeping with that developed by the regional Council of Governments.”
Others, such as Madeleine English, Alison Kutchma and James Morrison among others, reiterated their opposition to it. Two citizens, Mark Mathew and Kathy Kleinman, said they’d changed their minds to now support the project, based on the changes that have been made to it over the two years it has been under consideration.
Former Falls Church City Manager David Lasso, now representing the Mason Row developers (Spectrum Group and Mill Creek), in a letter to Falls Church Planning Director Jim Snyder, summed up the new changes made to the project since its July 24 submission that were presented Monday night.
“The development team believes there should be two anchors, a hotel and a movie theater. That was the City Council’s directive to the team over a year ago, and that directive has now been fully embraced, leading to the exemplary development now before the City Council,” he wrote. He added that even more revisions had also been made, including:
Reducing the number of apartments by 5.3 percent, or 18, to 299 market rate units and 23 affordable units; the height of the building along N. West Street has been reduced by a full floor, and the “massing” has been reduced to present less of a “presence” to the immediate residential area,” and more.
He wrote that the current annual tax revenue to the City from the retailers currently at the site is about $100,000, by contrast with the City’s estimate of the net new income to the City that would come from the Mason Row development, being in the range of $1.3 million to $2 million annually.
Voluntary concessions now include full compliance with the City’s desired policy for affordable dwelling units, the relocation of the theater to above ground, and 30 parking spaces offered to the neighboring St. James Church for services.
“Mason Row has evolved and is now a premier retail, hotel, entertainment, residential gathering place…Mason Row provides for land consolidation, superior net new income to the City and the specific uses set out in the City’s zoning code as requirements to be deemed exemplary,” Lasso wrote.
Concerning the proposed theater, although no lease has yet been nailed down, the developer says the prime candidate for the venue “is offering a dinner and a movie concept in a small size theatre with large reclining seats with tables,” adding “the theater will be half the size of the typical multiplex theaters in our area and will function as a restaurant-lounge and special events venue in addition to being a movie theater.
The theater will be limited to 800 seats in eight auditoriums and will offer first run movies from Hollywood studios, noted small budget and artistic films and special screenings of films. All theaters will be 100-percent reserved seating.”
Developer Peter Batten told the News-Press yesterday that the negotiations are well underway for the theater operator, but that any identifications made to date are merely speculative.
When the Council does take up the matter for final approval in January, it will need a five-vote “super-majority” of its seven total members because the Planning Commission failed to recommend it on a 3-3 tie vote.