Correction: In the print edition of the News-Press, the commentary was erroneously attributed to Lawrence Webb.
By Dan Sze
Last week, City Council approved the Founders Row project final configuration; swapping out a previously-approved hotel for a multi-story active adult apartment building. To paraphrase one of the many citizens engaged in helping Council shape its conditions for the project: “change is coming to the West End.” How true. This change has been a very long time in coming. This project first became visible in Spring 2012. Then developer Spectrum explored the possibility of this project with the community by holding small meetings in neighbor’s backyards. It’s an understatement to say that much time has passed for this 4.3-acre parcel, the largest to be redeveloped in our City. If projections bear out, it will also be the largest generator of revenue per acre. The estimated range for the total net revenue is between $1,759,339 to $2,094,167. Those amounts will go to adding to our comfort zone for the economic development revenues our city will absolutely need to offset the cost of funding replacements for aged infrastructure, starting with school facilities at the top of the list. Successful high school graduates continue to be our primary industry.
Founders Row was first proposed as a monolithic scheme with blank facades, two single family houses on Park Ave. backing to an 85-feet wall and a drugstore at its most visible corner. With arguably the highest level of civic conversation on whether, how and what this project could and should be, our city now has an opportunity to embrace a redevelopment that exemplifies the best in urban design. The public process extending over half decade has lent important knowledge along the way. We learned that actual data from fully occupied recent developments would give us the granular data needed for confidence in using revised pupil generation numbers. We learned that cultural facilities, including movie theaters, in our region, require some level of financial support and ours would be no different. We learned that hotels are a fickle industry and that the proposed age-restricted living component is not dissimilar to long-term stay high-level hotels having concierge features.
We have worked very hard as a city (as has the developer) to lower many areas of risk. It will realize generation of higher net revenues at an earlier point in time as highlighted by over 50 percent of the commercial space having been pre-leased, while including important features that characterize our collective virtues for commercial, residential and public spaces. We understand the commercial space remaining available is creating positive buzz in the marketplace; we anticipate other attractive restaurants. The relationship between certificate of occupancy for the rental spaces and the buildout of the commercial spaces remains intact. The active adult spaces have stringent provisions to keep them all-adult and represents a first for rental spaces in this city. The included concierge and program features promise a lively and interesting segment of our demographic. Like the recently approved Broad and Washington mixed-use project, the number of school-age children rely on actual data generated by completed developments. The metrics for recently-occupied apartments indicate a lower number (.085-.095 ratio or 46 pupils total in two projects) than was estimated during planning and approval phases. That partly explains the improvement in fiscal impact analysis for net revenue. The new model applies a 50 percent increase in current projections or between 84-125 additional students. Founders Row with Broad and Washington net yields between $0.064 and $0.081 increase in revenue based on the current tax rate.
This is not a perfect project. No project is ever perfect, but having survived the test of public opinion, this is a pretty good project. Some items worth mentioning include locking-in affordable dwelling units in perpetuity, a change from prior practice of 20-year expiration, and the possibility for robust attractive offerings to persuade some of the 40,000+ daily cars streaming through our city to actually stop and spend some money here.
This project will be characterized by several “firsts.” The W&OD trail is an homage to the railroad since it is laid on top of the railbed. That trail will now have its first deviation from a straight path to enhance the safety of the pedestrian box at the corner of West and Park, which helps solve a longstanding concern. This will be the first extensive use of metal, adding to the architectural palette. It will have the first spray garden water feature, the first interior street festival space, first multi-story active adult facility, first designed-in bike share (with maintenance also in perpetuity), first modern movie theater in the city, first outdoor mural, and environmentally sustainable features: including Silver and Gold certifications, abundant EV charging stations, and maximum rooftop area held free for future solar arrays.
Indeed change is coming and I look forward to seeing the new form of our city and seeing first movie to be shown at our Founders Row.
Dan Sze is a member of the Falls Church City Council.