News

F.C. Council Unanimously Backs Downtown Project Site

AN OVERLAY of the Broad & Washington project site shows what will become of the three-plus acres of land used for the development. (Photo: Courtesy Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc.)

Six years in the making, a major mixed use development project at the City of Falls Church’s central intersection of Washington and Broad Streets (Rts. 29 and 7) to feature a massive 50,000-square foot new Whole Foods grocery was approved unanimously by the F.C. City Council Monday night.

The 6-0 vote included its major critic, Councilman David Snyder, and a recusal by Councilman Ross Litkenhous to avoid conflict of interest issues since his employer currently works with the project’s lead developer Insight Property Group. It marked the final hurdle to the Insight’s long-suffering and arduous pilgrimage to get a huge redevelopment of the 3.18 acres underway at last.

The noisiest online bells and whistles first arose from advocates of the City’s brilliant non-profit Creative Cauldron Theatre troupe, which celebrated the now assured new home it will occupy in the new project, one of the developer proffers that will include a subsidized long-term 5,000 square foot home for the group right on the major E. Broad (Rt. 7) thoroughfare.
A provision of the plan also included the addition to the Insight property of a .47 acre City owned parking lot whose sale for $1.4 million the Council also approved unanimously Monday.

Now the plan is projected to add a whopping $2.3 million per year into the City’s coffers. In addition to providing a new standard of affordable housing — including setting up to 10 percent of its residential units as “affordable” in arrangements to be decided later next month — the plan also includes a novel grassy plaza right at the City’s central intersection, which will be called the “Unity and Justice Plaza” with public outdoor seating and educational signage on the City’s struggle for civil rights and inclusion.

After the overall project had first won approval in 2016, it had to undergo major changes, removing its Class A office space component, when one of the original partners, Todd Hitt, was arrested and convicted of investor fraud in 2018. When it came back under Insight’s direction a year ago without the commercial office space component, it was received with considerable skepticism and a flurry of negative reactions from neighbors to the site,

But the developers persisted in their efforts to address the concerns one by one, and a major breakthrough came in the fall when they’d won the support of two key neighbors, the Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Thompson Italian Cafe. Prior to that support, both businesses were major opponents to the project because of the impact on their restaurants’ parking.

That changed everything, as the Insight people bent over backwards to guarantee a minimal period, as little as three months, when the parking lot it acquired would be out of commission for those users and adjacent alternative parking was arranged for. Even though they did not come to a formal agreement on the parking with the adjacent State Theater as of this week’s vote (the State’s Tom Carter submitting a letter to this effect at Monday’s meeting), they affirmed their commitment to continue negotiating.

They also made peace with the residences on Lawton Street behind the project, eventually lopping an entire story off their building at the Lawton end of the project and providing multiple other amenities.

MEMBERS OF INSIGHT PROPERTY GROUP go over the affordable housing specs that will be a part of the new Broad & Washington project. (Screenshot: News-Press)

The major new development the Council OK’d this week was the provision for providing up to 10 percent of the project’s residential units to be designated as “affordable.” This groundbreaking new achievement, a first for the City, will not be finalized until later next month, when the Council will tackle a resolution on the subject with various options included.

It was in early February 2015 that the News-Press first reported that a team assembled by Insight Property Group had purchased the 2.64 acres at the City’s central intersection at N. Washington and E. Broad for purposes of building a major mixed use development that would be anchored by a big Whole Foods. The main driver at the time was disgraced developer Todd Hitt, who in the fall of 2018 was arrested on eight counts of investment and securities fraud and is now serving a six year prison sentence.

But it came out in the context of all that Insight had been the principal controller of the project from the beginning and was prepared to continue its push ahead on its plans minus Hitt’s participation as the promised occupant of a significant amount of Class A office space there.

Its aspects include a subsidized 5,000 square feet for the City’s premiere theatrical operation, the non-profit Creative Cauldron, a grassy, public “Unity and Justice” plaza right at the corner, 339 residential units, ground floor retail and an expansion of free public parking, other parking that will also benefit adjacent businesses and an option for voluntary concessions that include up to 10 percent affordable housing.

The Council will make decisions about the affordable housing options at a meeting next month after consulting with the School Board and other City bodies.

Insight will build out the Creative Cauldron space which will enjoy a major exposure to traffic flows along E. Broad Street, and Insight’s Scott Adams and Maury Stern confirmed that Whole Foods, which signed a formal 20-year lease for the 50,000 square feet last fall, is as solid as ever to go onto the site.

They agreed to a request from the City to include a promise that if, for some reason, Whole Foods would pull out, that a major alternative “regional or national grocer with an organic component” would be found to replace it. (The News-Press erroneously reported last week that this initiative came from Insight. It didn’t and we apologize for the error.)

“This is a home run for the City,” said Insight’s Adams. “This will create a strong sense of place at the heart of the City.”

The plaza at the corner will be the “front door” for the City, he said, and will be a tribute to “the best of what we were, are and can be.”

This has come a long way,” said Council member Letty Hardi. She hailed its “inclusive and welcoming” orientation and prospects for the “high bar” of a new 10 percent affordable housing standard. Councilman Snyder said he was unhappy the developer would not open its books to the Council.

But Mayor David Tarter said, “There is an awful lot to like about this project. It will invigorate our downtown, bringing people here to spend money, as nationally people are moving back to cities away from malls. It will represent a critical mass for our bike share and is fitting for our city.”

Insight’s Stern told the News-Press Wednesday, “We are very excited to be moving forward. It will transform downtown Falls Church, and we greatly appreciate the support of all the neighbors, City staff and citizens.”

He said that actual construction will await the design plans, site plan approvals and permits of a large and complex project that will take most of a full year to complete.

It will not be until the spring or early summer of 2022 before actual construction begins, he said.