Not everyone at Monday night’s jammed, standing room only turnout at the Falls Church City Council meeting at the temporary Senior Center digs at the Falls Church Community Center stayed past 11 p.m. when the final votes were taken. But there were still plenty on hand to witness the Council vote unanimously three times, 6-0, 6-0 and 6-0 (with David Snyder absent), to approve the most ambitious mixed-use development project yet in the City’s history at its iconic central Broad and Washington intersection.
It’s taken nearly three years for this final OK, after the initial submission from Insight Development Group in August 2015 to put 295 rental apartments, 100,000 square feet of Class A commercial office space and retail construction (including 13,000 square feet for a restaurant and 6,000 square feet for a specialty grocery store), 90 feet at its highest point, 600 parking spaces, a public plaza, a public pocket park, a public office lobby and 5,000 square feet for a subsidized permanent home for its cherished Creative Cauldron acting troupe.
Countering fears that the project might delay its construction, the developer withdrew a request from a just a week earlier asking for an extension of the OK for five years, more than the three years usually offered by the City. That request was withdrawn, and Insight’s principal Rick Hausler, who was present at the meeting, assured the News-Press that the construction would begin “as soon as possible,” although there are more steps required to get started, such as the OK of a site plan by the Planning Commission.
“The clock is ticking” for the Creative Cauldron, among other things, said Scott Adams, a representative for Insight, which is facing an end of its subsidized residency at the Pearson Square, where it is working with half the space it will have at the Broad and Washington project.
Adams also said Monday that his client had received a letter of intent for 20,000 square feet of the Class A office space, the entire top two floors of the office building, by Kiddar Capital, the operation headed by Todd Hitt that owns the land and is currently headquartered in the four-story old Robertson Building at the site.
In addition to the Robertson Building, the site includes the current Applebee’s one-story building and a two-story office building just east of Applebee’s. The plan is to work to retain two other neighboring locally-owned restaurants, Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Argia’s, that essentially link the site to the popular State Theatre live music venue. A big issue Monday night was the effort underway to provide a median cut on N. Washington St. to enable traffic coming south to turn left into the City-owned parking lot behind Clare and Don’s and Argia’s, since once construction begins on the Broad and Washington property, it would become difficult for south-bound traffic on N. Washington to pull in and patronize the existing businesses now there.
A filing with the Virginia Department of Transportation has already been submitted to seek the median cut.
As recently as last Friday, the Insight Group offered more modifications to its plans to address concerns raised by the Council at its work session last week, including dropping the request to extend the expiration date of the approvals by two years, and also to allow flexibility in the project’s proffer for affordable housing, modifying its options for five or six percent of the rental residential units as subsidized affordable units, to allow for a cash-only payment by the developer for a contribution to a City affordable housing fund as an alternative.
Proponents who spoke at the public hearing portion of Monday’s City Council meeting included Andrew Painter representing the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, who said a Class A office building at that site would attract not only more daytime employees (it is estimated there would be 311 new employees) to work and spend money in the City, but also more businesses, as well. “It is an important trophy location,” he said.
Other proponents included Gina Caceci, Mark Werblood and former Falls Church Vice Mayor Marty Meserve of the Creative Cauldron board and two Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School students who extolled the virtues of the teaching theater component of the program. Both, at their young ages, were “veterans” of youth theater productions there.
Their testimony was augmented by the annual report of the Falls Church Arts and Humanities Council delivered by Barbara Cram at the meeting. That report noted that, in Falls Church, the arts contribute $25,778,233 annually in economic activity to the local economy, generating $1,804,000 annually in tax revenues.
Others opposing or calling for a delay in the project were neighbors to the site, including Rebecca Tax of Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Erik Pelton, owner of an office building nearby.
But the City’s planning staff, represented by Gary Fuller, expressed its continued support, noting the unanimous support for it, with provisos that were all subsequently addressed, by the Planning Commission. Becky Witsman of the City’s Economic Development Office said that the positive fiscal impact of the project will amount to between $805,492 to $1,196,901 in net tax revenue annually, which would rank it the third highest net revenue project in the City.
Adams focused on the “energy and vitality” the project will add to the City’s downtown, noting that the fiscal impact study is “conversative.” Four uses on the ground floor will be for a restaurant, the Creative Cauldron theater, a specialty grocery and 1,500 square feet in other retail uses.
The value of the subsidy to the Creative Cauldron was put at $2.5 to $3 million, and the project included five or six percent of the residential units being dedicated to affordable housing (depending on the size mix) for life, or an alternative to provide an all-cash comparable alternative gift to the City’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The project’s voluntary contribution to the City schools will be $2.1 million.
“Clearly, I like what I see,” said Councilman Dan Sze. “A lot of progress has been made,” said Councilman Ross Litkenhous, “This is a project we need in the City.”
“This is the kind of project we need to do time and time again” to maintain the viability of the City, said Councilman Phil Duncan. “This project is exciting, a great thing for the City,” added Mayor David Tarter.
Those comment preceded the three unanimous votes in favor.