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The troubled saga of Founders Row’s movie theater

Founders Row concept rendering (image via City of Falls Church)

The theater at the Founders Row mixed-use project could be scaled down from earlier plans, but the tradeoff is that Falls Church could be getting a new arcade and bowling alley.

At a meeting of the Falls Church City Council on Monday, the Council reviewed requested changes for Founders Row. The development was approved for 59,493 square feet of ground floor retail, 4,946 square feet of office space, 394 apartments and a 32,079 square foot, 2-story movie theater. That theater, though, has become something of a sticking point.

Along the way, developer Mill Creek Residential Trust has asked for concessions that the City Council said they’ve been reticent to give. One condition of approval was a cap on residential occupancies at 50% until the movie theater was opened.

The theater was originally slated to be a Studio Movie Grill, but the dine-in movie chain filed for bankruptcy due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[The] Applicant had previously entered a lease agreement with a theater operator, but the operator declared bankruptcy stemming from economic challenges due to the COVID pandemic,” the staff report said.

The report noted that Mill Creek wanted to be able to fully open the residential side of the project even if they were unable to secure another movie theater.

“With the bankruptcy and loss of the original theater and the current marketplace the ability to secure a replacement theater was delayed, while the Founders Row project construction and apartment occupancies were continuing,” the report said. “In order to release the second half of the project residential apartment for occupancies, Mill Creek agreed to add additional guarantees in support of the theater by escrowing $3.6 million in funds for commercial tenant improvements and with at least 50 percent of the total commercial retail having tenant improvements underway prior to the issuance of a certificate of occupancies for the last twenty (20) residential units.”

Now, Mill Creek is asking to reduce the minimum number of seats from 750 to 550.

The report said Mill Creek is now in the stages of securing a lease with Paragon Theaters.

“[The] Applicant is in the final stages of securing a lease with Paragon Theaters,” the report said. “Paragon 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 approximately 150 fewer seats than previously agreed to in the [voluntary concessions], which necessities the current application.”

Another change to the theater space is the addition of a new full-service restaurant and bar in the lobby along with a small arcade, featuring games and bowling.

Falls Church, however, has “arcades” listed under prohibited uses, alongside gun stores and porn shops. According to the report prohibited uses include:

  • Disco
  • Gun stores or firearm dealers, or shooting ranges
  • Roller rink
  • Amusement arcade
  • Adult pornographic book store

The applicant is hoping to add “except as an accessory use to another permitted use” as a corollary to Falls Church’s Music Man-esque fear of arcades.

City Manager Wyatt Shields said the developer is asking for additional months to meet some of the project milestones and is asking for the incentive payments from the Economic Development Authority to be prorated with the theater opening rather than commencing after the first full year of operation as originally agreed.

The topic was briefly discussed at a City Council meeting earlier this week, but it was ultimately deferred to the Tuesday, Sept.  27, meeting.

“I like the concept of milestones,” said City Council member Letty Hardi. “I understand that due to market conditions things have had to move out, but I would still like to make sure there is forward progress.”

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