In a move to revitalize downtown Falls Church, the city plans to sell within 120 days a city-owned, 1.68-acre tract of land in the historic triangle for development as a commercial complex. According to city officials, the government will help change the trend in which the city's residential property owners have absorbed the bulk of the increasing cost ocf city government.
The deal involves the sale of 73,250 square feet of land (1.68 acres), which the City Council purchased at the intersection of Washington Street (Route 29-211) and Broad Street (Route 7) in the city's business district. The land was purchased by the several years ago, according to city manager Harry Wells, to force commercial development and the increased tax revenues it brings.
"Because of the lack of development in the central business district, things have been stagnant. Houses are climbing (in value) but not bus inesses. To offset tax increases, we need new development , " Wells said.
"We needed to solve the problems of development in our central business district. it has deteriorated a great deal with the opening of Tyson's Corner and Seven Corners Shopping Centers," Falls Church Mayor Harold Miller said.
The council now believes it has found the right developer to buy it. Faifax County realtor-developer Ross Keith has offered the city $320,000, or about $4.20 a square foot, for its property, an offer the city has tentatively agreed to. Keith is considering placing a commercial colonnade there, with both retail and office space.
Miller explained that, in order to attract developers such as Keith, the city in 1975 began purchasing small lots and consolidating them. The council figured, added Wells, that consolidation would increase the amount of space available for rent-producing buildings by reducing the amount of land a developer would need to allot for setbacks form adjoining property lines.
The city first purchased four parcels totaling 32,175 square feet, or .68 acres, on the corner of East Broad and South Washington streets. That was followed in 1976 with the purchase of two more parcels of 43,568 square feet, or one acre. The two investments, financed through 10-year notes, cost the city approximately $38,000 annually.
To ensure a satisfactory combination of retail and office development, the council rezoned its land as well as all other properties located in the triangular area between South Washington, East Broad and East Fairfax streets as an historic zone. Now know in the city as "historic triangle," the property is dominated by The Falls Church, a 246-year-old Episcopal Church from which the city got its name. The present structure dates from 1769.
Miller said the historic zone imposes stricter controls over development, such as a maximum height of four stories, traditional style buildings and approval of building materials by the city's Architectural Advisory Board.
"The historic zone gives the city more clout (in controlling development)," Miller said.
Even with those conditions, the city found a willing buyer. Ross Keith will not say what he has in mind specifically on "the historic triangle," but said he has acquired one other parcel in the zone and has reasonable hopes of working out a lease with The Falls Church on a parcel it owns.
To complete the 4.30-acre area which the city would like to see developed, Keith would have to negotiate with four other landowners - two on South Washington Street and two with frontage on both East Broad and East Fairfax streets, the largest of Which is owned by a man who is asking more than three times per square foot what the city be paid.
Retired civil servant and flower shop proprietor Harry Meese, 76, owns 27,778 square feet of land which would give Keith's development access to all three sides of the triangle property. The problem, as far a Keith is concerned, is that meese is asking $400,000 or about $14 a square foot, for his property.
Meese said he and his wife set the price so much higher because , by selling they would give up their home as well as business.
"We wake up at 8 a.m. At 10 a.m., we walk 100 paces, we open the shop. From 12 to 1 p.m., we close it for a leisurely lunch, and at 4:30 p.m., we open." Meese said. "Why should I give it up if they dont want to compensate me for it?
"I consider that I am the kingpin of this whole thing because of the access (which his land provides to both East Broad and Fairfax streets)."
To that, Keith responds that he is studying what he can put on the property he now has and if it is feasible to purchase the Meese land.
"It would be senseless to buy a piece of property at a price that would make development uneconomical," he said of the Meese price.
Even without Meese, city officials estimate that the development of the city holdings, leased church property and a parcel Keith has purchased independently, would mean $30,000 to $40,000 a year in real estate taxes, as well as income from business licenses, utility taxes and water use.
Although the city has lost approximately $4,000 in real estate taxes while it has owned the land and although the proposed selling price to Keith is below city's original purchases price excluding interest, the council does not regret the move.
"We weren't in the real estate business to make a profit," Miller said. "The city will benefit on the tax revenue (generated by new development).
"We see the project as a revitalization of the downtown area, attracting small speciality shops which would be an example of what business can be in the city as a result of consolidation. I think there is a good market now for the small, independent business owner. A lot of people are avoiding the large shopping centers. It (the development) will attract more business for the surrounding community too."
"There has been criticism from several business people and citizens, but if it works, we will get all our money back, plus, in taxes and licenses," Wells said.
"If it goes through, it will be well worth it," he concluded.