For Falls Church, A Makeover Like None in Its History

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Falls Church is poised to allow a developer to rip up nearly nine acres in the city center and put in a complex of dwellings, offices and shops that backers say will fatten the city's tax base and make the town more of a destination for the thousands of commuters who only pass through now.

After many years of debate, the City Center project would redraw the heart of a city whose total area covers about two square miles. An eight-story hotel would rise near the historic church that gave this city of 11,000 its name.

Across the street, a new bowling alley would replace the Bowl America that closed after an ice storm in February 2007. A major intersection would become a New England-style roundabout, and a Harris Teeter grocery store would serve thousands of residents in two new apartment complexes, including a 115-foot-high, age-restricted building for older residents.

The new homes and offices would sit side by side with shops in an area designed to let people stroll.

"A key element is vibrancy and walkability," said Mayor Robin S. Gardner. "If you were to drive through city center now, we are a group of parking lots and a bowling alley not functioning right now. There's no real draw."

After a public hearing last month, the seven-member City Council gave unanimous preliminary approval to a $317 million plan by Atlantic Realty Companies to revamp the center of Falls Church. If the City Council gives its blessing at a scheduled Feb. 25 meeting, construction could begin as early as this summer after the project's site-planning details are hashed out between the developer and city staff. The work would take place in two phases, wrapping up by 2013, city officials said.

Gardner said that the net revenue from the project, estimated by city staff at $2.7 million a year, would be a boon to a city that relies heavily on residential property taxes and commits about half that revenue to its schools. Richard Goff, economic development director for Falls Church, said the city's contribution to the redevelopment plan would be about $6 million.

Opponents, though, say that the project as planned is too much and that Falls Church is getting too little.

They worry that the buildings would be too tall and would pack in too many people, intensifying traffic and parking problems and threatening to overwhelm the city's schools, the very thing that led to its incorporation as a city, and whose funding has been used to justify the project. They argue that Falls Church should focus more on commercial development and less on residential, and that the project does not set aside enough open space.

They also say the city has consistently promised more than it has delivered: No hotel chain has committed to the site, and Harris Teeter has signed only a letter of intent, not a contract.

"The other bait-and-switch is [that] the council said it would be a city center, and there would be a version of Old Town in Alexandria, where there was true pedestrian traffic and a true variety of retail, and that people would be drawn there just like in Old Town," former vice mayor Sam Mabry said. "I think City Center has now become a fiction. They're trying to say a hotel, a bowling alley and grocery store are going to become a city center."

Others fault the city for pursuing the project so aggressively that it has threatened some property owners with eminent domain, an unpopular tactic in a property-rights state such as Virginia. Even some business owners who welcome the plan, believing that it will drive new customers to their doors and boost property values, worry that the project will raise rents for small, family-owned enterprises and drive them out of business.

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