The development team of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency Centers was chosen by the Falls Church City Council Monday night to orchestrate a dense and diverse $500 million development of 10.3 acres of City-owned land where its George Mason High School currently sits.
By a 6-1 vote, the Council ratified the unanimous recommendation that came from the City’s talented and exhausted Evaluation Committee that met eight times and made its choice known to the Council in a closed meeting on Nov. 5. The Council vote Monday was for an interim agreement subject to a final comprehensive agreement next May. The winning team was chosen over a second finalist team of Rushmark and Hitt Development.
An overview of what the team has proposed was unveiled to the public for the first time Monday, building on what was a much more general public submission when the selection process began last February with six bidders.
What was presented Monday night includes a wide boulevard-like street with a promenade down its middle that would run through the project from south to north and could be extended, if redevelopment agreements are reached with adjacent Virginia Tech Grad Center and WMATA properties, to run from W. Broad all the way to the West Falls Church Metro station and make for a comprehensive development area as large as the Mosaic District in Merrifield.
But while that is far off as a distant possibility, the City’s 10.3 acre site, which would begin development in 2021 after a new $120 million George Mason High is completed on adjacent land to its west and the current school is demolished, could yield to the City upwards of an estimated $6.374 million in revenues annually, according to a report from the City’s consultants on the project, Alvarez and Marsal. At that level of annual yield, it would cover virtually the entire City debt service obligation on the $200 million school bond approved by City voters by a 64 percent majority a year ago.
Moreover, the project would provide a wide mix of uses addressing the wishes of citizens here for a diverse and character-centric site, to be built in two phases. In phase one, 276,000 square feet of multi-family apartments would be complemented by 40,000 square foot of grocery, 67,100 feet of retail, 175,000 square feet of senior (55 and up) housing, 126,500 square feet of office space, a 23,600 square foot civic music and entertainment venue, an 81,000 square foot full service hotel, 151,100 square feet of residential condominiums and possibly a parking garage that would be adjacent the new high school to serve both the school and the development itself.
Phase Two, the element further from the new high school, would include 6,400 square feet of retail, 265,000 square feet of office space and another 154,800 square feet of residential condominiums.
The total transaction value to the City could go as high as $55,200,000, including $34,500,000 for a 99-year lease on almost all the land (except that set apart for privately-owned residential condos), which will come in the form of an initial $500,000 payment this month, a $6.5 million payment upon completion of the comprehensive agreement next May, then four annual $7 million payments, and an additional $5.3 million if the City decides it wants the parking garage. There is another prospect of an added $3 million yield from the formation of a Community Development Authority (CDA) that can tax the businesses in the 10.3-acre area, “capital event fees” (or recordation taxes) of approximately $2.4 million for each time the land may change hands or be refinanced, and a final $10 million payment (or higher, if appraised values exceed that amount by then) for the initiation of Phase 2.
These numbers, of course, are estimates and drew fire from Council member David Snyder for being too vague, and he became the only “no” vote Monday night as a result. “There is an unacceptable degree of uncertainty,” he said.
The plan includes provision for six percent of all residential housing to be offered as an “affordable” rate, or 60 percent of the area mean income, but the Council retains to the right to take that value in the form of a cash payment, if it prefers, to invest in a separate affordable housing building elsewhere.
Environmental sustainability is considered another premium of the winning bidders’ proposal, with everything LEED gold and the hotel LEED silver.
An extensive series of public town halls and previews of the plans will commence next month, with special exception and other entitlements applied for by late January, a Planning Commission recommendation by April 1 and the May 2019 final action by the Council to supercede the interim agreement with a final comprehensive one, should all go well.
Mayor David Tarter crowed Monday night, “This is an exciting day for the City of Falls Church, culminating years of work.” Council member Letty Hardi said, “This has been a long time coming, and it will help cover the cost of the new high school and will be a vibrant, walkable site that will be a destination for the whole region and a catalyst for the west end of the City.”
Councilman Phil Duncan noted that the City had to give up nothing for this agreement, but that “it will more than cover the cost of the bond for the new high school.”
While the plan includes two 15-story buildings, he said “there is no absolute cap set on height except non-threatening numbers, and that greater height can create more open space and affordable housing. He added that he hopes the final version of the project will have a “more distinctive Falls Church look,” making it a “compelling visual corner” that “will impress outsiders.”
Councilman Dan Sze hailed the “world class team” that won the bid, and said “this is our best chance for a successful project.” This interim agreement is “only the end of the beginning,” he said, but he loved the idea of the wide center street and promenade evoking a European look.
Councilman Ross Litkenhous said is was “an honor” to be part of the evaluation process that led to Monday’s vote, this is a “community-centric” and “multi-generational decision,” he said, with “substantial upfront value for the City.”
Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly said, “I am very confident voting on this, because of how this was done.” The plan epitomizes “place making,” she said by interfacing a school, Metro, inward and outward focus.
Tarter said the plan “is the best long-term value to the City” and offers student enrichment next door to the new high school. He said he hopes it will catalyze the development of adjacent properties, including Fairfax County, Virginia Tech and WMATA.
Evan Goldman of EYA and Shawn Seaman of PN Hoffman spoke to the Council after the vote, Goldman saying, “We are humbled to be accepted.” Raphael Munoz of Regency Centers, the point person with the City for that element of the team, was unable to be present. Former Falls Church City Manager and longtime City resident David Lasso was present as the team’s land use counsel.
Also speaking representing the Planning Commission was its chair Russ Wodiska, who called it “a wonderful project,” and “transformational for the City.” He said participating on the Evaluation Committee was like “an embarrassment of riches.”
Besides Wodiska, others on the Evaluation Committee were the School Board’s Erin Gill and School Superintendent Peter Noonan, Councilmembers Hardi, Tarter and Litkenhous, Bob Young of the Economic Development Authority, consultant Bob Wolff, Planning Director Paul Stoddard and Shields.