Whither the West End Development Project, the ambitious effort to densely develop the 9.7 acres upon which the soon-to-be-replaced George Mason High School footprint stands? With all else going on, where does this plan stand?
With the impressive new $120 million Mason High construction proceeding apace adjacent where this is supposed to go, and still on time for completion and occupancy by this December, the plan to demolish the old school next January and to clear the space for the big new economic development project is continuing apace, as it turns out.
It will only be a couple of weeks before City Hall will be treated to a completed, revised and submitted “special exception site plan,” the document that details the whole project, including its two phases, with specifics on building designs and public space amenities.
An initial effort at previewing the warehouse-like building design plans being unveiled before a joint meeting of the Falls Church City Council, Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority last December was met with mixed reviews at best.
The quasi-dystopian look did not, a number of participants suggested, jibe with the inherent optimism and renaissance feel of being part of a wider educational campus that will not only have the new high school next to it, but also an expanded Virginia Tech property, also being planned now, as well.
In an interview with the News-Press last week, Evan Goldman of EYA and Robin Bettarel of Hoffman, representatives of two of the three entities working together on the plan (Regency being the third), said that the architecture on the site has been revised to be “quite different,” as the new site plan will reveal when it is submitted in a couple of weeks.
But the big questions surround the viability of the project in the face of the extraordinary events that have occurred since December, the Covid-19 pandemic and the shutdown of the economy starting in early March.
Given the dependency on revenues from the project to pay for the new high school being built, its viability in this new environment is a matter of no small concern for City officials, much less the developers themselves.
But Goldman and Bettarel expressed confidence in their News-Press interview that everything will be OK, since it is going to be four years before their project is completed and open for business.
There is less concern for the residential components of the project than for the retail and especially the office space component.
Perhaps with this in mind, the developers want in their new site plan to move the office building in Phase 1 closer to Route 7 to face more directly onto that corridor.
They’ve presented the idea to some City staff, which is how it got before the City Council for some discussion two weeks ago. The problem is that adjusting the position of the building will impact the parking space that was planned to be shared with the high school.
“This project is like a puzzle in that if you move one piece and you then have to move all the others to get everything to fit right,” Goldman said.
He said he is confident that the minor change to their plan will meet with approval from the City Council, which, of course, is concerned that the project performs well.
One impact of the building position change is that the wide, open commons space that will run the width of the project from Route 7 with the idea of coming through the Virginia Tech site to lead directly to the West Falls Church Metro station will be moved 20 feet east.
“There will still be a lot of demand for our space,” Betterel said, noting that whatever else, “the housing shortage crisis will not be going away.”
Goldman added that “we fully intend to hold up to our end of the bargain” for the ambitious project — it will include a hotel, a performance space, a senior housing building, residential condos, rentals and micro-units, retail, restaurants, a major grocery store and open space — despite the interruption that the current pandemic has caused.
If need be, he said, “This is far enough off that we will be able to take stock and figure out how to adapt to take advantage of the market. It will happen.”
The developers have asked City Hall to assemble a small group of influential leaders to preview the site plan before its formal submission and to offer suggestions on some of its elements sometime in the next couple of weeks.