With the right approach and a willingness to be patient, the City of Falls Church’s new West End campus property could blossom into a town center more vibrant and active than Merrifield’s new and popular mixed-use Mosaic, with an education focus that would draw education-related businesses, support a major performing arts center, expand the role for the University of Virginia already there and other universities, and with it all being linked to a new state-of-the-art George Mason High School.
This is not a dream by Hector Berlioz during his composition of the “Symphonie Fantastique.” On the contrary, while highly visionary, the thoughts come from a eminently practical man, the developer who brought Falls Church the recently-opened 301 West Broad (Harris Teeter) project and whose Kiddar Capital is now based at his recently-acquired property, the Robertson Building at the intersection of E. Broad and N. Washington.
Northern Virginia native Todd Hitt, the man behind the wildly popular 71,000 square foot Harris Teeter that opened in July, only the latest in his growing list of regional real estate triumphs, told the News-Press in an exclusive interview this week that he’s not ready to make a move yet, but is looking seriously at the West End and its potential.
Hitt initially responded to a News-Press editorial in mid-July entitled, “Calling All Big Time Developers,” after City officials abandoned a fruitless year-long effort to handle a competition for the land’s development between two competing entities and decided to go it alone. But, as predicted then, almost nothing has happened since, to the noisy frustrations of some Council members at a work session earlier this month. So far these officials are settling for a consultant to interview each among them on the Council and F.C. School Board in depth to better prepare, it is said, for more serious deliberations somewhere down the road.
But Hitt’s remarks to the News-Press this week may help some on the Council, the School Board and in City Hall Planning corridors to achieve some focus to move forward with a clearer resolve. If, that is, those in decision making roles are willing to think big.
Hitt’s vision can’t get much bigger. Unlike the downtown Washington-Broad crossroads area of the City, he said, the West End, almost all of it, “can be scraped flat” without losing anything of real significance, opening up an almost limitless array of possibilities to build. It is a big advantage, he said, that the land hasn’t been all carved up already. “It is now ripe and its time is coming.”
Hitt’s notion is for the City of Falls Church to combine its real estate and resources with those of WMATA, which owns three dozen acres adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station right by the City’s property, and the Northern Virginia Graduate Center of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. The aim: to put together something extraordinary that a new high school for the City would derive incredible educational benefits from. The area would evolve quickly as a magnet filling offices and residences, alike, becoming a “think tank area, an education campus.”
It would differ from the Mosaic, or One Loudoun further west, in that with education-related offices filled in the daytime, there would be robust, around the clock, buzz of commerce and activity. Right now Mosaic and One Loudoun lack office tenants, so all their business is at night or on weekends. This project “would support retail and residential living right there.”
The only concern, Hitt said, is that doing something like this “won’t happen fast.” But he quoted an old Navy slogan, “The patient pilot brings the plane home.”
“We have a global deal to put into place,” he said. Before getting started with the kind of “ground up” development he specializes in, Hitt said, “you have to have all the players on the roster, and work on government and community relations so “we won’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
He said that while patience is key, the project can be developed in phases, with some components coming on line sooner rather than later.
He reiterated that a world-class performing arts center as a component will be to the enormous benefit of a new high school as well as the entire development. As an “educational use,” such a center would be able to fit on the high school’s designated portion of the land.
Hitt’s optimism is also tied to his high marks for the Falls Church City Council, City Manager Wyatt Shields and especially Planning Director Jim Snyder. Having worked with them to get the 301 W. Broad project done, he thinks they’ve got what it takes to pull off his vision for the West End.
“This City Council doesn’t just roll over, either,” Hitt said. “They’ve proven their ability to stand their ground in negotiations with developers and to negotiate in a productive way.”
He mused that with a vision for the West End like his, including the astronomical tax revenues it would bring to the City, citizens of Falls Church will be far more likely to support a bond referendum to construct a new high school than if only a vague notion of commercial development options were out there.
Hitt said he’s pleased with his 301 W. Broad project. “The Harris Teeter is proving good for the greater community, not bad. Everybody gets benefits, every stakeholder in this is benefiting.”
Unlike the West End, he said, the downtown area of Falls Church has an authenticity about it in its current form. Here, you look to mix and match, he said, to augment what’s already here. He has the Stratford Motor Lodge property across from the Harris Teeter on W. Broad under contract and is trying to decide what he’d like to do there. “And I’m always looking for new opportunities,” he added.