Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
After many years of debate, citizen comment, and eight iterations of the project, City Council last night approved the 2nd reading of the Mason Row project. This will bring a large mixed use development to the west end of town – including the largest commercial mix the City has had to date, including a movie theater, hotel, restaurants, public art/mural opportunity, a town square with green space, environmental improvements, transportation improvements, our first bike share and connection to the W&OD – really make Falls Church a destination – and ultimately, projected to deliver significant fiscal benefit to the City to keep our tax rates in check. It will be another year before groundbreaking will start and another 2-3 years of construction, so this will be a ways off, but I’m excited about the opportunity ahead.
Given the late hour the meeting went last night, I shared an abbreviated version of my thoughts on why I supported the project; below is the full version that outlines my original concerns, how they have since largely been addressed, and the specifics of the project will bring.
Much to the surprise of some, my thoughts on this proposal have been mixed. While it’s no surprise that I support smart, strategic development in the City – I’ve actually had a number of reservations over the course of the 2 years I followed this project. Those who had followed my campaign will recall that I outlined several significant, big picture concerns I wanted to see addressed before the project moved forward –
1) Density – ensuring that we develop responsibly next to residential neighborhoods, and the mass and height are reasonable and fit with the character of our city
2) Affordable housing – this is a value we espouse and we need to walk the talk more and ensure we maintain and create diverse, affordable housing options
3) Retail plan – because ultimately what should set this apart from other projects is the amount and quality of commercial, which we keep striving for in Falls Church.
Since then, I have seen significant effort on both the developer team and city staff to listen to the community needs and respond with positive changes, especially in the past 2 months and even since deferring the vote from 3 weeks ago:
1) The total number of apartments have decreased, the height and massing issues facing our residential streets have improved
2) The project now meets the city’s affordable housing policy with more ADU units than required and with all of the units using 60% of AMI and 3 additional units using 80% AMI – which hopefully will prevent a problem we are currently seeing at 301 Broad that we can’t fill up the ADUs because the income requirement is too high
3) And we have more concrete assurances around the commercial and retail plan; these represent much stronger commitments than we’ve seen to date with other development projects:
– An above grade movie theater with opportunities for outdoor art on the building instead of a parking deck facing Park and St. James, that can be a key anchor for other retail and dining to want to locate there
– Commitment that 20K square feet of commercial space will be for dining
– A restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel, minimum 2 table service restaurants
– A list of prohibited uses and conditional uses, primarily service oriented retail – that I’ve heard many in the community say we have enough of – must be below 15% of the commercial space
– The special exception would not be final until there is an executed lease with specific rent payments outlined for the theater and executed agreement for hotel construction and operation.
– Also, the final block of apt occupancy permits will not be issued until building permits and construction is underway for the theater and hotel.
4) There is also commitment to provide much needed transportation improvements which benefit the neighborhood and all those who use those streets:
– Re-aligns the dangerous Park and West intersections
– Improves connection to the W&OD trail
– Adds turn lanes on West
– Adds pedestrian crossings and new turn lanes from Broad
– Undergrounds utilities
With continued regional growth and traffic coming whether we grow the City or not – those intersections will continue to degrade and if we believe the traffic studies, the proposed improvements either maintains the current traffic situation or improves it. And with key location next to the W&OD and junction of key streets – it will be a pedestrian friendly development, shuttle running to the metro, and the first bikeshare in the City in this project will encourage more to use alternative modes of transportation.
5) Environment benefits – I also am glad to see our continued focus on improving the environment – reducing the large impervious surfaces that create runoff problems, stormwater mitigation plans, and a town square with green space that I’ve heard many folks desire such a gathering place.
6) Learning from the past – there have also clear learnings and improvements from past projects I have seen this Council push that we now have resolution- ensuring we have consistent 20′ setbacks and wider sidewalks, ensuring we don’t create light pollution with neighborhoods, strong construction management plans so we have neighborhoods as minimally impacted as possible.
I outline these details because I want you to know that we pay attention to these details, details are important here – and this is not a decision we’re taking lightly. Some have criticized that the project has had too many iterations. Clearly there are lessons learned here on the development process that we need to fix before moving on. While it’s been long and fatiguing, I want our City to send the message that we don’t rubber stamp everything. We expect developers to work with us, to bring forward their best proposals, to listen and respond to citizen concerns. We need to continue to learn from each project and make the next one better than the last, and I hope Mason Row will be an example of that.
I truly believe that the proposal we have in front of us tonight has been better because of past learnings and strong citizen engagement. So I want to take a moment to thank those citizens who have contributed to the process – whether it’s members of B&Cs, the surrounding neighbors, or just residents who never cared about City development in the past, but took the time to pay attention and provide feedback. I’ve read every single citizen comment and was especially glad to see new voices that were galvanized by the recent election to speak up. There have been more public meetings on this than any project. I know there are neighbors out there who have spent countless hours – this project is better because of all of you who engaged. Thank you, your voices do matter, and I hope we will continue to hear from you in healthy, constructive debate.
At the end of the day, no, this project is not perfect – yes traffic will change, some of our favorite businesses will have to relocate, this will be a big project that will change the landscape of the west end of town with a multi year construction period we’ll have to manage and work through.
That said, this project has the highest commercial mix we’ve ever achieved – and will provide a healthy $1.3-2MM annual net revenue to the city and the highest capital contributions we’ve seen to date, so we can continue to meet the demands of our city. We will have population growth in the city and increased enrollment in our schools and costs whether we develop or not – the most recent school enrollment data supports that. A few reservations remain and we’ll need to be focused to ensure we continue to focus on implementation details if we approve this tonight. However, in my mind – we’ve resolved the key threshold questions and we should not let an opportunity like this pass.
Change is hard, and the city WILL change. I’d like to see smart growth projects like this that assembles underutilized parcels into a destination that many will enjoy, creates more options to keep our city residents’ spending here, gets people out of their cars, and contributes long term, significant bottom line revenue, which ultimately keeps all of our tax rates in check so residents of all generations and backgrounds can continue to afford to live here.