Students at Pearson Square Nearly Double City’s Projection
By GEORGE SOUTHERN
Falls Church Times Staff
When City Council voted to rezone the largest remaining available commercial tract in Falls Church to allow construction of a high-rise residential condominium called Pearson Square, they believed that only 35 new students would be attending City schools.
Assuming education costs of roughly $20,000 per student, the annual expense to the City would be $700,000. That seemed OK, since City Council was told to expect some $1.4 million annual tax revenue from Pearson Square.
But the condo boom fizzled out, Pearson Square was sold to a real estate investment trust, the 230 condos became rental apartments, and anticipated tax revenue plummeted to some $500,000.
With the conversion to rental, parents of school-age children flocked to Pearson Square. By February 2009 there were 44 students – 25 percent more than expected.
As word spread, more parents moved in, and by the time student numbers were official for the 2009-2010 school year, the figure stood at 64 students – nearly double the projection.
At $20,000 per head, 64 students cost the City schools $1.28 million, or some $750,000 more than the tax revenue generated from the project.
City officials long seemed unaware of how badly skewed the Pearson Square projection would turn out to be. Dan Maller, who along with Hal Lippman represents City Council at the “Gang of 8” meetings with City Schools officials, wrote last March: “All considered, this report [of the projections] is a remarkable validation of the statistical prediction. . . .”
Maller was referring to last February’s report by the City’s Economic Development Office, which also provided data on the Byron and Spectrum condominiums, both on West Broad Street. All three properties originally were projected to house .15 students per condo unit.
The Byron has 90 condos, so the projection was for 13.5 new students. The actual number last February was 11, and as of October it was 10.
The Spectrum has 189 units, but most remain unoccupied. When fully occupied, the City projected that 28 students would live there. As of last February, with 27 units occupied, there were 6 students. The number as of October is 11 students.
The City did not supply projections for The Broadway, the other new condo on West Broad, but the figure of .15 students per unit can be assumed to apply there as well. The Broadway contains 80 units, and as of October only 6 students were resident – only half an estimated projection of 12.
As of October, there are a total of 91 students resident in the four new condominiums. This compares with a projection (at full occupancy) of 90.
School Superintendent Lois Berlin previewed the student numbers at an Oct. 8 “Gang of 8” meeting with City officials. “There are more students in Pearson Square than we thought there would be,” she said, but defended the projections by noting that there are less students than expected in some of the other new condominiums, such that it “balances out.”
Dr. Berlin did not disclose the occupancy rate of the Spectrum, which at 189 units is the second-largest new condominium. But the City’s Economic Development Office has reported that while as of August, only 37 units had been sold, under the developer’s new “rent to own” plan, an additional 26 units were expected to be occupied by the end of September.
If that number was reached, it means there were approximately 63 occupied units on October 1. Since there are 11 students attending school with a Spectrum address, the rate per unit is .17, or 13 percent higher than the City’s .15 projection.
This means that while the City’s projection of 90 new students may on the surface appear to be dead accurate, it is actually far off the mark since so many units remain vacant.
The figures at Pearson Square suggest that rental apartments are far more popular among parents than are owner-occupied condominiums. They also suggest that when an apartment’s student population reaches a critical mass, it becomes increasingly desirable for more parents with children to move in. Finally, it may be that the more secluded Pearson Square on two-lane Maple Avenue is more inviting to parents than are the other three condominiums on Broad Street, the City’s major 4-lane artery.
City officials did anticipate that conversion from condos to rental would attract more children to Pearson Square, and changed the .15 projection figure to .167 (an 11 percent adjustment). Using the adjusted projection, they planned for 38 students instead of 35, which would amount to an additional $60,000 annual education cost. In exchange, developer Atlantic Realty donated $100,000 for improvements to the “ArtSpace” facility at Pearson Square.
By George Southern
November 1, 2009