by Frank Dillow
From one end of Falls Church to the other, big construction projects are changing the face of “The Little City” and the 2.2 square miles of land it covers.
“The success of the city comes down to having a strong and vibrant downtown that attracts people to live and shop here,” Falls Church Mayor P. David Tarter explained, “We want to create a stronger streetscape.... more inviting, accessible and walkable.”
“More than a million cars every month drive through Falls Church, and we want to make our city a destination for them to join our residents to shop, enjoy dining at our restaurants, attend our many active cultural events, and play in our parks,” Tarter continued.
Tarter, born and raised in Northern Virginia, has had a lifelong interest in real estate and economic development, getting his real estate license when he turned 18. After building a successful practice as a real estate lawyer, he headed the Falls Church economic development commission before becoming mayor.
A good place to start a tour of the new construction sites is at the city’s main intersection of Leesburg Pike, or Broad Street as it is named in Falls Church, and Washington Street, or Lee Highway as it was formerly known outside the city. Two projects catty-corner from each other are creating bigger and more prominent structures replacing long standing commercial buildings.
On the northeast corner construction is underway for a new seven-story mixed-use building to be anchored by a street level Whole Foods. The building will also provide a new home for the Creative Cauldron theater, plus 339 rental apartments, and four levels of parking. Two longtime office buildings and a stand-alone restaurant have been demolished and heavy excavation equipment is currently preparing the 2.5-acre site for the new construction.
Diagonally across the intersection, a new development named One City Center will incorporate the existing George Mason Center building and an adjoining building at 150 S Washington Street. Both existing buildings will be given new facades and included in a new ten-story mixed-use building providing more than 100,000 square feet of commercial space along with nearly 250 rental apartments, and a five-level parking garage. Several existing stand-alone retail buildings in the block will be demolished to make room, but the Ireland’s Four Provinces restaurant will retain its current street level location, including its popular covered outdoor dining area along W. Broad Street.
Heading a few blocks north towards Arlington on N. Washington Street, construction equipment marks the site of the expanding facilities of the Columbia Baptist Church. Originally founded by abolitionists in what was then “rural Virginia” prior to the Civil War, the landmark church will soon feature a sanctuary seating 4,400 parishioners, by far the largest auditorium in Falls Church. Among other additions included in the project are educational facilities for a new Child Development Center and increased parking
Returning to Broad Street and heading west toward Tysons, construction is nearing completion on the new five-story Founder’s Row development at the intersection with S. West Street. Founder’s Row will provide 322 residential units, including 72 age restricted apartments, and a five-level parking garage along with ground floor restaurants, retail and an 800-seat movie theater. Until recently the property around the intersection was occupied by two gas stations, several separate retail properties and three single family homes.
A few blocks further west, the former Falls Plaza shopping center has recently been updated and rebranded as Birch & Broad with improved landscaping and non-automotive pedestrian and handicap access, as well as enhancing shopper's outdoor areas.
A massive new mixed-use development is now getting underway off Broad Street on the far west end of Falls Church just before the Fairfax County boundary, called The West End. The 40-acre project includes renovations to the existing West Falls Church Metro station and the adjoining campus of Virginia Tech. The former George Mason High School next door was demolished and replaced last school year with the new state of the art Meridian High School.
According to project developers Hoffman & Associates, the new neighborhood is designed as a western “Gateway” to Falls Church with new streets and sidewalks, public parking, green spaces, bicycle paths, new streets and sidewalks and a new one-acre park, to be called “The Commons.”
The first phase, a 10 acre 1.4 million square foot project, is now underway and will include a 15 story, 212-unit senior living facility, which will become the tallest building in Falls Church, and an additional 125,00 square feet of medical office space. Also included are 123,000 square feet of ground floor retail and an 146-room hotel.
The second phase of construction beginning next year will transform nearly nine and a half acres of the West Falls Church Metro station into more walkable mixed-use destinations with new streets and sidewalks providing access to offices, retail and residential properties surrounding a redeveloped Metro facility. Construction is expected to begin next year.
The final part of the project will repurpose the current Virginia Tech site into an innovation center for the university’s applied research for “smart city” technologies in addition to a new corporate headquarters for the Falls Church based Hitt Contracting, Inc.
Under the guidance of the Falls Church City Council, the recent developments have increased City property tax receipts to fund such civic projects as constructing the new Meridian High School, renovating and expanding the Mary Riley Styles Library and updating and expanding City Hall, all while reducing the city’s property tax rate by roughly nine cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, according to Tarter.
“City officials seek input from our business community,” emphasized Elise Bengston, executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, “it’s important to keep the community all together as we move through the changes and the disruptions caused by the construction,” The Chamber works closely with city officials and tries to balance the interests of the new businesses attracted by the developments with the continued success of existing businesses, she added.
The city, recently named “the second healthiest city in America,” in the U.S. News and World Report annual ranking, has also recently expanded its city parks and made “walkability” a priority in its development plans.
Even with the extensive development currently underway in the city, Tarter expects construction projects to continue as Falls Church “fills in the gaps” to upgrade its real estate offerings.