News

New Children’s Indoor Play Center Set for E. Fairfax Lot

F.C. DEPUTY CITY MANAGER Cindy Mester lays out the scope and financing of future Capital Improvement Projects with the Planning Commission Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)

A new, single-story children’s play and exercise center is the latest project unveiled by Falls Church-based developer and chair of its Economic Development Authority Bob Young. His proposal would bring Scramble, a European-style indoor play center for infants and children, to a new building in the Falls Church Episcopal-owned lot adjacent to the Lily building on E. Fairfax St.

In a deal that required a vote of approval at the annual meeting of the church last Sunday, its result eliciting a cheer from the attendees, the project will be built on land owned by the church and leased by Young. It is on part of the land, currently used as a parking lot, Young has leased that houses the strip of businesses along E. Fairfax renovated in the characteristic Young-style of art nouveau design.

The lot, located at 130 E. Fairfax St. across from the Falls Church Episcopal, is now used for overflow surface parking for the church. Outside of Sunday services, however, it is often vacant, and the church was enthusiastic to learn that Young had struck a deal for its development.

The building will be constructed “by right,” but will need site plan approval from the commission. While the response from the commission, being introduced to the plan for the first time, was favorable, it was not so with vice chair Brent Krasner.

“To me, it just seems very outmoded…I don’t know how much room there is to rethink things, but I think there is potential to do more,” Krasner said, while adding on later, “I look at it as a building that isn’t going to add a whole lot to that part of town.”

Young said that “having a building there at all instead of a filthy parking lot that has no stormwater management “is a step in the right direction.” Along with the added benefits of putting the space back on City tax rolls, Young noted the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the church’s congregation.

Krasner conceded that something was better than nothing on the lot, but couldn’t endorse the aesthetic of the building’s design. Commenting that it appeared “suburban” and had a “strip mall feel,” particularly the synthetic stucco material the structure will use for its exterior, Krasner felt it didn’t speak to the vision that the City was trending in. Architect Jack Wilbern noted that since it was in more of a tertiary location, the visual aspect of the property was less of an emphasis, to which Krasner replied that the project shouldn’t be “building down” to its place.

But Krasner seemed to be alone with his concerns. Commissioner Cory Weiss expressed her support of the project’s purpose and Chair Andy Rankin chimed in to say that, for a by-right development, this was a solid proposal. Krasner countered by arguing the bar was being set low, though Rankin stated that “when we give them unrealistic suggestions, it’s not beneficial,” and that, logically, there wasn’t much the commission needed to change.

In conjunction with the proposed building itself, bump outs will be added along E. Fairfax St. and the adjacent Douglass Avenue at crosswalks to shorten the distance families have to traverse the streets as well as serve as traffic calming measures. Waivers for the project covered removing some of the parking spaces in the rear of the building to replace them with landscaping as a part of the bioretention system and creating a car-accessible entrance along Douglass Avenue near the front of the site.

The parking lost by the church will be spread across two neighboring lots, including the Lily-motif strip mall immediately next to the site and the Tower Square shopping center behind the planned structure with the new Aldi grocery store.

Young also said that, per his agreement with the church, from 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Sundays the establishment can only be used by parishioners.

A review of Capital Improvement Projects by Deputy City Manager Cindy Mester followed the work session on 130 E. Fairfax project.

In her report presented to the commission, a bulk of the budget for CIP programs that span from FY 2021-26 will focus largely on transportation — 80 percent in FY 2021 and for the years that follow. That includes local funding for traffic calming as well as infrastructure improvements to bridges, pavement, traffic signals and multimodal connectivity and accessibility.

Furthermore, besides the shutdown of the Orange line in Falls Church this summer, the pressure for reinvestment from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority on the City budget is still increasing. Originally, the net increase was nearly $800,000, but with the help of Northern Virginia Transportation Authority regional money and debt service in the out years, the City was able to drop down to $550,000.

Weiss raised some concerns that the City doesn’t have a green infrastructure plan in place to handle stormwater. She noted how green infrastructure can help avoid grey infrastructure costs, and then cited how Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s green plan avoided capital costs of up to $120 million. Weiss wondered if there’s any consideration for green infrastructure plans for public and private projects, especially with their benefits to overall costs.

Mester said that, while the recently-formed Stormwater Task Force is focused on specific projects, the City is looking into ways to partner developers where they can look into capital costs. For example, that included talking with the faith-based community with a lot of parking available and how their drainage is handled.

Commissioner Melissa Teates also wanted an update the usage rates for the Capital BikeShare program the City kicked off last May.