For the first time in a public meeting, the scope of a three-party cooperative effort to put over 40 acres of dense mixed-use development adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station was unveiled Tuesday night at a forum on the campus of the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Graduate Center.
With representatives of all the involved parties present at the forum, including WMATA (the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that operates the regional Metro rail system), Virginia Tech and the City of Falls Church, the full scale of the vision for a seamless combination of their three properties into one coherent array of residential, office and retail projects was presented, tied together by a colorful, wide boulevard extending from the Metro station to Route 7 just west of Falls Church.
Fairfax Supervisor John Foust hosted the event and commented at the outset that the public turnout was considerably higher than he expected. A large classroom at the Grad Center was filled to overflowing.
But the concord and generally common vision among the three property owner entities, and Fairfax County, exhibited at the meeting was historic. Nina Albert, managing director of WMATA’s Office of Real Estate and Parking, Kenneth Wong, director of the Virginia Tech center, and Wyatt Shields, city manager of the City of Falls Church, all appeared solidly on the same page.
While Falls Church has been heavily invested in the last year in its plans to build a new George Mason High School and free 10 acres of that campus site for dense development, WMATA and Virginia Tech have launched efforts they hope will lead to necessary zoning and comprehensive plan changes in Fairfax County to bring them into a position to develop the shared vision.
The WMATA development proposal, Albert said, involves the repurposing of all the ground parking and “kiss and ride” traffic loops on the 21 acres there, with the disposition of the structured parking garage to be determined. The initial plan is for 150,000 square feet of office, 50,000 square feet of “viable” retail, 200 residential townhouses and an increase in the height limit from 45 to 85 feet.
The Virginia Tech plan would call for roughly 205,000 square feet of academic building space, 100,000 square feet of research lab space, and 300,000 square feet of residential.
These two would compliment the 1.5 million square feet of economic development on the 10-acre Falls Church site.
While the City of Falls Church selected last fall the team of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency to develop its site, Virginia Tech has already received proposals from the same group plus the Hitt-Rushmark group that came in second in bidding for Falls Church. And WMATA has determined that it will solicit proposals from those two groups, only.
The WMATA team hopes to get approval for its plan on Jan. 24 from its board of directors, and to have its development partner selected by the end of May.
The Virginia Tech plan is to make its decision on its partner for the development of the site by the end of February, with a plan to press ahead by this fall. That may involve the purchase of 5.33 acres of its land that are currently under lease from Falls Church.
The City of Falls Church will come to a final agreement with the EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency team by May, and construction of its new high school will begin the day classes let out in June. Once the new high school is built, projected to be completed by December 2020, the current high school will be demolished and work on the 10-acre mixed use development portion will begin.
The vision for a wide boulevard-like connection running from Route 7 to the West Falls Church Metro station was clearly appealing to all three parties. It would feature a wide center promenade its full length, where park-like and an array of other public activities would take place.
Albert said that WMATA has been considering such an option since the opening of the Silver Line (from the East Falls Church Metro to Dulles Airport) severely diminished ridership at the West Falls Church station, dropping from a range of 8,500 to 11,500 rides a day down to 2,600. The current plan would be a way for ridership to be built back up, she said.
Currently, with ridership off so steeply, 37 percent of riders come to the station driving alone, and 20 percent walk. Others are dropped off and car pooled.
Shields told the large assembly Tuesday night that while, combined, the site would be larger than the Mosaic District in Merrifield, “This is not a Mosaic plan, this is a West Falls Church plan.” He said that the goal is for a “vibrant, walkable site for people to live and work,” that “will enhance the communities we are in.”
Residents near the sites present at Tuesday’s meeting expressed concerns for traffic congestion, mainly, even as extensive traffic studies have been and are scheduled to be undertaken. The proximity of the site to the Metro station will mitigate the impact of street traffic, it was noted.
Foust noted that addressing storm water issues will be far better with a large-scale plan like this than in dealing with individual parcels. Comprehensive solutions can be found.
A West Falls Church Task Force assembled by Foust has been looking at the prospect presented Tuesday for some time already, and was scheduled to hold a meeting following Tuesday night’s presentations.