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Falls Church mixed-use development pitch runs into city council backlash

A bid to convert a parking lot in Falls Church into a mixed-use development may be in jeopardy after local officials raised concerns about housing affordability, walkability, sustainability and a lack of green space.

“I’ve gone through pretty much all the policy arguments the council has made for granting special exceptions, and this project doesn’t meet any of them,” Falls Church City Council member David Snyder said during a work session earlier this month. “So, I think frankly it’s a waste of resources until the proposer comes back with a development that truly is special and meets our special exception ordinance from a technical standpoint and policy standpoint.”

Maryland-based developers Cascade Realty and Stewart Investment Partners are seeking to transform the parking lot at S. Maple Avenue and W. Annandale Road — adjacent to the Harris Teeter at 301 W Broad Street — into a seven-story, 196-unit multifamily residential building, per a city staff report.

Submitted in December, the plan also proposes 11,930 square feet of commercial space, including a co-working space and child care center, and a parking garage with 259 spaces.

Stewart Investment acquired a portion of the land at 419 W. Annandale Road in 2022, and intends to purchase the remaining land from the city and Burke & Herbert Bank, with which the firm has entered into a “conceptual agreement.”

However, for the project to move forward, developers must first obtain a special exception to change the property’s zoning to a residential use.

At the March 4 work session, multiple council members contended that the project, in its present form, failed to meet the criteria necessary to earn a special exception.

The developer has suggested that 6% of the total units, amounting to 12 units, be priced at 60% of the area median income. It also plans to collaborate with CRi, a Chantilly-based nonprofit that offers supports, including housing, for individuals with developmental disabilities.

The residential building would also include ground-floor commercial space and a parking garage (via Cascade Realty and Stewart Investment Partners/Falls Church City)

However, council members voiced concern that this percentage was too low and might not cater to a wide-enough range of individuals.

“If you’re partnering with CRi, 60% is $63,000 in annual income,” Councilmember Caroline Lin said. “You might have to step that down for individuals in the population that you’re trying to serve. So, I just want to make sure, if you partner with the CRi, you don’t over-set an income to not serve the population that they’re serving.”

Members also raised concerns about the lack of green space and electric vehicle chargers in the site plan. They questioned why the developers aim to achieve LEED Silver certification, not LEED Gold — the second-highest rating for green buildings, following Platinum.

Additionally, several members took issue with the development’s current design, arguing it could cause traffic congestion and pedestrian safety issues.

Councilmember Erin Flynn specifically highlighted the lengthy walk parents with children would have to make from the garage to the child care center that would involve navigating through traffic.

“So, what you do with kids who are toddlers and preschool age, or the little buggy cart they bring the infants out in?” she asked. “How you’re going to get them out of a commercial corner past a loading dock, past a traffic circle to a park, is concerning in terms of just the flow of that whole area.”

In their statement of justification for the application, the developers said they “will provide wide sidewalks and well designed streetscape along the entire S. Maple frontage,” along with on-site publicly accessible park spaces.

While the concept of redeveloping a parking lot is appealing, Flynn argued the city shouldn’t have to do “a lot of twists and turns” to accomodate a project that doesn’t align with its comprehensive plan, generate significant tax revenue or add value to the community through commercial real estate.

“I mean, yes, we would like to see a surface parking lot redeveloped into something that brings the city more, but I don’t think that should be taken for granted by the development team in terms of wanting to get those increased revenues,” she said.

The Falls Church City Planning Commission conducted a town hall on March 6, during which representatives provided feedback on the proposal. Subsequent meetings on the project have not yet been scheduled.

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