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Creative Cauldron Speaks Up For Downtown Project

AN ORIGINAL RENDERING of the Downtown project along Broad and Washington Street showing the now-defunct Kiddar Capital as its anchor tenant. Whole Foods has replaced it, but that addition has brought a larger footprint, which has threatened neighboring businesses and elevated tensions among those banking on the development’s approval. (Rendering courtesy Insight Property Group)

As the Falls Church City Council prepares to reconsider modified plans for the Whole Foods development project at the City’s central intersection of Broad and Washington Streets, a major beneficiary of the project has begun vocalizing its support for its completion in the past week.

The Creative Cauldron, a home-grown theater with some of the more successful performance and educational programs in the Little City’s history, has been promised 5,000 square feet for an expanded venue as a part of the Broad and Washington project. It may even rival the 50,000 square foot mega-Whole Foods store as a principal benefit to the community and wider public draw of the 2.46 acre new development.

Buoyed by the news that the female lead in its 2019 homegrown and world premiere production of “On Air” won a D.C. region-wide Helen Hayes award Monday (see story, elsewhere this edition), volunteer board members of the Creative Cauldron non-profit have mobilized a letter writing campaign urging the City Council’s approval of the overall project. That includes a long list of some of the most prominent members of the community, such as former Vice Mayor Marty Meserve.

If the Council agrees to move ahead with the project during its virtual work session Tuesday night, it will set up a preliminary decision to be made at its next business meeting on Sept. 14, tentatively followed by a town hall presentation on Oct.7 and a final council vote later next month.
The major mixed use proposal was given unanimous approval earlier by the Council in April 2018, but got sidetracked when a major partner in the project, Todd Hitt, was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to a stiff prison term for running a ponzi-like scheme in the region.

The Insight Group, major developers in the region, retained ownership of the 2.46 acres but had to resubmit a new plan without the Hitt component, which was mostly for Class A office space that Hitt’s company itself would occupy. Its new submission last November did not sit well with the Council for its lack of office space but now, if anything, one big impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been to crush demand for office space throughout the region.

To make the project work financially, Insight increased the number of residential rental units to 350 with 613 total parking spaces. The plan involves the acquisition of the City-owned space adjacent to the Insight property that is currently relied upon for customer parking among three adjacent businesses — Thompson Italian, Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and the State Theatre.

This has also been a major point of contention raised by concerned Council members this spring.

In a report to the Council’s Economic Development Committee’s virtual meeting last Friday, Scott Adams of Insight said that discussions with Clare and Don’s and the State Theatre have progressed substantially in terms of reaching an agreement on the interim period when the project will be under construction and have the greatest impact on the parking.

He said he hoped to have some news to report on that front by next Tuesday, although he said he’s been unable to meet with Thompson’s Italian people.

Falls Church’s James Snyder, chief of the City’s Department of Development Services, reported he’d done physical surveys of a number of the major Whole Foods stores in the region at the meeting. From his observations of new stores in Tysons Corner and Alexandria, he found them to be “very active” in terms of community outreach, with bar service on a mezzanine and density far greater than the current Harris-Teeter in the City.

Factors impacting the fiscal benefit to the City of the project included the projection that the new project’s residential component will draw roughly the same number of students in the City schools as the earlier plan (41 to 51 in the earlier plan, 42 to 63 in the latest one).

Becky Witsman of the City’s Development office noted that the new 301 West Broad residences above the Harris-Teeter were projected to bring 35 new students; there are 17 as of now.

Another major amenity included in the proposal is for an open public park space directly in front of the Whole Foods between its front door and the street intersection that would be akin to Mr. Brown’s Park the City has recently upgraded a block away.

This outdoor space will be “very valuable to the City,” Adams said, replacing the earlier plan’s public space provision that was elevated off the street in a mezzanine area. Another park-like space off Lawton Street has been reconfigured to “also better service the broader community,” he said.

While there is no office space contemplated in the new plan, there will also be retail space for a restaurant and some smaller stores.

As for the Creative Cauldron space, it is for a 5,000 square foot black box theatre configuration at affordable 20-year lease terms. For the Cauldron, “it is nothing short of a dream come true,” a letter from Laura Hull, founder of the Creative Cauldron and its producing director, read to the Council this week.

Founded in 2003, the theatre has produced 29 Helen Hayes Award recommendations, 24 nominations and three awards.

With the proposed new space, Hull wrote, the surrounding area, “with the nearby restaurants and the State Theatre, will be poised to become a dedicated Arts and Entertainment District that will draw visitors from around the region.”

“We feel solidarity with the small businesses in Falls Church and understand how vulnerable they are, and want to commit to helping be part of the solution during the transition,” Hull wrote. “When we hopefully return to normalcy after the pandemic, we will have a loyal patron base that drives to Falls Church from all around the metropolitan region. We can encourage our patrons and even incentivize them to patronize these restaurants during the construction period. And once the project is completed, we know that Creative Cauldron patrons will become frequent patrons of these restaurants.”