Updates from Letty – August 12, 2022

Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council

Dear Friends,

Whew – it’s been an active summer of city business and nearly a month since my last post, so here’s a fair warning that this post will be long (but hopefully interesting and informative with some clear calls to action where you can engage). Grab some lemonade or iced coffee, and let’s dive in.

  • Founders Row – theater name, planned openings, and what’s the latest?
  • Park Ave “Great Streets” Project – what’s next?
  • City Council Work Plan adopted – what are we working on the next 2 years?
  • LED streetlights pilot underway – go check them out!
  • City Potpourri

We wrapped up our last meeting of the summer this week and started our annual summer recess. City Council will be back in session on September 12, so I’ll resume regular (and shorter) updates that week as well. While Covid-19 is still around, this week we signaled that we’ll be lifting our local state of emergency in September that has been in place since March 2020 – so more on implications of that below (note new CDC guidance that just came out yesterday). I also plan to resume one-on-one office hours this fall in addition to the monthly City Council “Meet the Council” sessions (schedule at the bottom of the post), so I hope to hear from you or see you in person soon.

Have a great end of summer –

Take care,

What Happened This Month:

(1) Founders Row – lots of news on the Founders Row front…

In our meeting this week, the Founders Row developer shared that they’re in the final stages of the lease process with Paragon Theaters, which will operate a 7-screen movie theater, including an IMAX-similar screen with a total capacity of approximately 600 seats. This is one less screen and about 150 fewer seats than previously agreed to in 2016 (the original theater operator went out of business during Covid). With a theater industry that still has not fully rebounded from the pandemic, the developer is seeking two changes a) an expansion to a tax sharing/incentive agreement and b) changes in the Voluntary Concessions that specified the seat and screen count and updated uses.

We voted to advance both of these changes to be further reviewed by the Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority. A final vote will be back in front of City Council at our September 12 meeting. If approved, the theater lease is expected to be signed in September, then will proceed to building plans and permits this fall, construction next year, with a targeted opening in early 2024, all subject to supply chain and construction timelines.

  • Tax Sharing Agreement – in 2016 when Founders Row was originally approved, we agreed to levy a 10% theater admissions tax where up to $340K of that tax would be shared with the developer per year, to make the project economically viable. The developer is now asking for up to $150K of meals tax from the theater to be shared and for the term of the agreement to be increased from 20 to 30 years. Note there are escalation caps and performance clauses in the agreement (ie, should the theater exceed performance expectations, the tax sharing terminates). The city secured two independent financial consultants who reviewed the developer’s books and confirmed the need for a subsidy.
  • Voluntary Concession changes – because of the change in theater operators, the developer is also proposing changes to the the original screen and seat estimation to accommodate Paragon’s “pod-style” seats and large format screen. They’re also seeking permission for an arcade on the ground floor lobby of the theater, which was previously listed as a prohibited use by the city. As leverage for the city, additional certificates of occupancy for residential units are proposed to be “held back” until we see further progress on the commercial.
  • Fiscal impact – despite the change in seat count and screens, staff estimates the fiscal impact of the new theater to be more or less neutral, except for the subtraction of the $150K in meals tax sharing requested. The annual net fiscal impact of Founders Row was projected to be $1.7M-2M per year, so those estimations would reduce by $150K if approved.

The developer also shared an update on the rest of the ground floor commercial lease status, build out, and opening timelines. The Broad and West corner restaurant spaces are furthest along, and we were told to expect glass storefronts this fall and openings by the end of the year.

(2) Park Ave Great Streets

Last week, we held a very well attended walking tour of the 30% design for the “Great Streets” project to redesign Park Ave from Virginia to N. Washington. The changes proposed include undergrounding utility poles to remove obstructions and improve accessibility on sidewalks, addition of street trees, raised intersections and bulbouts for pedestrian safety, realignment of the Maple/Park intersection. With the improvements to Park Ave, I’m most excited about the potential to expand the Farmers Market onto Park Ave where the street would be closed to auto traffic on Saturday mornings. The project website has a lot more information, and this is a good cliff notes version.

Staff is in the process of analyzing the feedback we received (including how to balance competing interests of bike, parking, street trees, and pedestrians in limited street space) as it proceeds to further design work, with the next major milestone at 60% design where securing right of way and other approvals will begin. Note the project is still many years away from construction – currently planned between 2028-2030 so there will be many more opportunities for community engagement. I’d welcome your thoughts as well.

(3) City Council Work Plan

We also adopted our two year year work plan this week. This is my 4th work plan on City Council since 2016 and aside from the heavy capital project years we just wrapped up, this work plan is one of the most expansive and responsive work plans we’ve undertaken. The plan includes completion of projects long discussed and priorities we’ve heard from the community – such as pedestrian safety, traffic calming, bike infrastructure, automated speed enforcement, environment, housing, commercial vibrancy, public art. With good progress on the affordable housing front, it’s notable that we’ve included the addition of housing diversity, recognizing the lack of “missing middle” housing and consideration of policies like accessory dwellings to add housing stock of different sizes in a region with limited land.

As this plan will drive not only City Council’s focus for the coming two years, but also city staff and board and commission work – it’s worth your time to review the plan and share your feedback with us. City Council will continue our quarterly check ins on the work plan, so you can expect regular updates.

(4) LED Street Lights

As part of the project to update all of the city’s residential streetlights with more energy-efficient LED bulbs, there are 4 pilot locations with the new bulbs installed for community input. There are examples of 25 LED lights on Fulton Ave, James Court, Gordon Road, and Cherry Hill Park. We encourage the public to take a look and provide us comments specifically on brightness (wattage) and color (temperature) during the pilot period through the end of September. The poles are also marked with a pink band. (Note that the styles of the lights themselves already are set.) Most of our commercial streetlights already have been converted to LED, so this project will focus on all the remaining 1k residential lights. The conversion will be done in batches in the coming year after the pilot phase.

Look for more communication and an easy survey to provide your feedback – in the meantime, enjoy the new lights when you stroll the neighborhoods!

New LED bulbs in Cherry Hill Park

(5) City Potpourri

Covid Transition – while Covid is still very much with us, it’s clear we are in a different phase of the pandemic compared to March 2020 when we declared a local state of emergency. That declaration allowed us to continue public business in virtual meetings and relax zoning rules for outdoor dining. With vaccines and other mitigations, we have luckily not seen hospitalizations and death rates spike even as cases have risen with new variants, which are the new metrics the CDC and health departments monitor. As such – this week, we discussed that we’ll be lifting that declaration in September with an October 1 effective date, which will enable staff time to continue adjusting for the implications. Two main implications:

  • Due to state law, once the emergency is lifted, our public bodies (elected or appointed) will need to return to in person meetings (individual members can participate virtually up to 25% of the meetings and people with health issues have no cap). It’s been evident from the past 2 years that public bodies can be effective virtually and in fact, we saw increased engagement by giving people with jobs, caregiving responsibilities, or health issues the ability to participate. We also now have technology that the public and staff will still be able to participate remotely so expect that to continue. Bottom line – there is no reason the General Assembly shouldn’t allow public bodies to have virtual meetings outside of an emergency, so we’ll continue advocating and you can too.
  • As for the expansion of outdoor dining – that has been one of the silver linings from the pandemic. Many unproductive parking lots were transformed into vibrant outdoor dining and live music spaces, bolstering business revenue when they were severely impacted…and even on the other side of Covid, those parking spaces haven’t been missed. There was broad consensus from the City Council that we should allow those to continue in a post-Covid world, so staff will come back to us with a recommendation this fall.

Available Affordable Housing – with Founders Row mostly open, we added affordable dwelling units to the city’s stock (it’s notable that these units are the first in the city to be permanently affordable, with no expiration date, unlike units in previous mixed use developments). Spread the word – there are a handful of affordable units available, in both the conventional and 55+ age restricted buildings. More info here.

Economic Development Newsletter – as new business openings and development updates usually pique a lot of community interest, you can now sign up to get regular newsletters on those topics. The inaugural edition is here.

What’s Coming Up:

Monday, September 12 – 12 pm – Letty’s Office Hours (Mr Brown’s Park)

Monday, September 12 – City Council Meeting*

Monday, September 19 – City Council Work Session*

Wednesday, September 28 – 9 am – Meet the Council Office Hours (City Hall)

*every Monday (except 5th Mondays and holidays) at 7:30 pm. You can access the agenda and livestream here, including recordings of past meetings