The iconic but aging Merrill House apartments, one of the few large-scale, all-residential properties in the City of Falls Church, across E. Fairfax St. from the historic Falls Church Episcopal, may be demolished and replaced by its Denver-based owners, the F.C. Council’s Economic Development Committee learned last week.
The leadership of the Aimco Company flew in from Denver for the meeting. The family-owned company has 193 properties in 22 states, including 27 in the Washington, D.C. area with 7,300 apartments, took control of Merrill House in 2000 when controversy ensued from its increase in rents at that time.
Merrill House was originally built in 1964. The seven story structure has 159 apartments in seven stories, and it has had a net negative fiscal impact on the City estimated at about $600,000 per year.
With the building showing definite signs of aging after more than 50 years (as confirmed by those who were taken on a guided tour of the site after last Thursday’s midday meeting), the Aimco owners want to do one of four things, none of which are friendly to the current almost 200 residents.
Option One is a renovation of the existing building, requiring current residents to move out for two years, and with rents rising significantly upon its reopening.
Option Two would involve a demolition of the building and the construction of new town houses catering to families with children and including a clubhouse. It was pointed out that Aimco has a “by-right” entitlement to do this without any approvals from the City needed at all.
Option Three would involve a demolition of the existing building and construction of a new midrise building with age-restricted (for seniors) town houses.
Option Four would involve a demolition of the existing building and the construction of a new midrise apartment building and about one acre of open space dedicated to Falls Church Public School System’s construction of a small school.
However, the school option was uknown to anyone in the F.C. Schools until last week’s meeting, which Interim Superintendent Robert Schiller and School Board member John Lawrence attended.
The Council committee was composed of Council members Phil Duncan and Letty Hardi. City Manager Wyatt Shields was also present and he indicated he was not thrilled by any of Aimco’s options. None of the options, he said, “Fit in with our strategic objectives.”
According to News-Press sources, the City’s position is to get Aimco to sell the property to someone who would be satisfied with keeping it as it for the foreseeable future.
But even as is, the rents in the complex are not that affordable (that being relative, of course). According to its website, the lowest monthly rate for an efficiency apartment is $1,300 based on a long-term lease.
Falls Church Housing Commissioner M. T. Gutmanis, who also resides at the Merrill House, was present at the meeting last week taking notes. It would be hard to imagine that any of the four options would be suitable for the current residents there.
“These units now are not truly affordable,” Councilman Duncan noted. “We’re always looking for levers to enhance our affordable housing stock.”
Council member Hardi echoed a similar theme, but David Lasso, local attorney and former F.C. City Manager who was there representing his Aimco clients, reminded everyone that Aimco can act “by-right” without the need for any special exception approvals from the City, so that if the City wanted affordable housing units there, it would have to make an offer.
No timeline was provided at last week’s meeting for when next steps would be taken.