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West End Project Pushes Forward Amidst Pandemic

A DIGITAL RENDERING of what the team of EYA, Hoffman & Associates and Regency envision for the completed West End development that will stretch nearly 10 acres from the new site of the rebuilt high school to the West Falls Church Metro Station. (Screenshot: News-Press)

With the Falls Church City Council’s first in-depth public look at the detailed special exception site plan for the 9.77-acre mega-West End development project Monday night, an undertone arising from the Covid-19 pandemic’s “unbelievable headwinds” suddenly facing it in these extraordinary times was in the background for the three-hour discussion. As Robin Bettarel of Hoffman & Associates, a lead member of the development team, said, the concerns are particularly strong for the future of retail and hotels in all development plans globally going forward.

But when Bettaral and EYA’s Evan Goldman aired their concerns in a follow-on presentation to the City’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) Tuesday, the EDA chair Bob Young exclaimed, “I believe that if anyone can get this project done, it will be this team.”

Young cited the extensive process that the City engaged in to retain the development team, and Goldman followed Young’s remarks with words of confidence that the effort would go forward and succeed according to plan.

The two presentations of the project followed the official submission of its detailed Special Exception Site Plan, available now in full on the City’s website, that include some changes introduced since the team’s last submission earlier this year, none of which are major.

The Council is slated to vote to accept the site plan at its meeting this coming Monday. The EDA will not weigh in formally until its next meeting in August, but the Planning Commission and other City boards and commissions will be taking positions in the coming weeks, as well.

Meanwhile, the team leaders are meeting weekly now with Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields to remain as current as possible on what impact the new “headwinds” might have, even as work on the project, by far the biggest in the history of Falls Church, is not slated to commence until January 2021 at the earliest. The work then would involve the demolition of the existing George Mason High School footprint, where the new project will go, as the new high school will be completed for occupancy this December.

The developers have decided to call the project “West Falls,” saying among other things the name will work best for integrating with adjacent development plans, as they hope and are planning it will.

Putting their best foot forward in a overview of the project and how it will be positioned in the development-exploding Northern Virginia landscape, Goldman and Bettarel talked about how the centerpiece of the project, a boulevard that will cut through the center of the project from the south at Route 7 with a wide public commons area in the middle, will be extended into adjacent projects — now in active planning stages by Virginia Tech and Metro — all the way to the West Falls Church Metro station.

The boulevard will grow to almost three times its length through the West Falls project as it will extend up to the Metro station, and as such will be a major new regional landmark. Goldman said the West Falls portion will be highlighted by retail on either side, while it will undergo as far more academic look as it proceeds through the Virginia Tech property, for example.

Goldman said he hopes the West Falls will also become integrated with whatever plans Federal Realty (owners of the current Giant and Staples strip shopping malls) and Beyer Automotive may develop. Federal Realty has been recently showing interest in how the West Falls may enable it to develop its property, and Beyer Automotive recently announced it had completed the consolidation of over 20 lots on the other side of Route 7 from the West Falls that are now susceptible to dense development.

One of the recent changes in the West Falls special exception site plan (SESP) involves how the central boulevard will line up with Chestnut Street on the other side of Route 7. Earlier, opposition from Chestnut Street neighborhood residents led to a plan for no alignment at all, and a new version sought by VDOT did align the two, although at a disadvantage to the West Falls plans.

Now, a new plan allows for crosswalks and signal lights linking the two but a slightly unorthodox reconfiguration on the Chestnut Street side that will deter cut through traffic there and allow left turns both in and out of the West Falls boulevard.

Some of the other changes were made last December when the development team dug deeper into the rising construction costs of elements of the plan. “Given what’s happened since, we’re mighty pleased we did that then,” Goldman said.

They consolidated the originally planned two apartment buildings down to one that will combine regular and “micro” units. The condominium building is now on Block C of the plan, closer to the high school but with an extraordinary architectural design that includes a ratcheting down on its height on the school side of it to allow more overall sunlight.

What had been called “Street A” connecting Haycock Road with the boulevard has been broken into two segments in the new design to better accommodate the 20 feet elevation differential between the lower Haycock point of entry and the boulevard above. There will now be a stairway connecting the two portions, both of which will feed into a structured parking garage there.

There is now a “civic space” planned along Route 7 under one of the two office buildings there, and one of those office buildings will face more squarely onto Route 7, imposing somewhat on the surface parking lot that is intended to be shared with the schools.

Retail space along Haycock will be dedicated to a 10,000 square foot daycare center and overall architectural designs for the project have been significantly modified since an original presentation to the community last December was met with a lukewarm response.

The new architectural designs are much more modern, Goldman said, though tending to be more traditional.

A redesign of the senior housing building is now underway, including less of a central meeting space in favor of smaller spaces on each floor for a better deterring of the virus spread.

Becky Witsman of the City’s Office of Economic Development said that an updated fiscal impact study is expected to be completed by the end of this week in time for next Monday’s City Council vote.