The Mason Row Merry Go Round Continues

By Stephen Siegel
The Falls Church Times
December 26, 2017

It was nearly two years ago that the Falls Church City Council unanimously approved a special exception to the zoning code for Mason Row, the big mixed-use project proposed for the busy northeast corner of Broad and West streets.

The vote, after much controversy and opposition, came after the developer agreed to modestly reduce the height and density of the proposal. Yet the corner in question looks much like it has for some time.

The only changes since then that would suggest the project is going forward are the departures of several long-time businesses, including three to nearby locations. Longtime favorite Mike’s Deli is now open at Broad & Shreve; bike store Bikinetic is on West Jefferson, and Afghan restaurant Panjshir recently opened in the new Lily Building across from The Falls Church. A fourth business, Brits on Broad, has closed.

But other than that, there are no signs that Mason Row, which has been renamed Founder’s Row, is still going to be built. The 7-11 remains open, and it will need to be relocated before demolition or construction can begin because it has lease rights to the space. Many other businesses remain open on the site, and no demolition or construction permits have been filed at City Hall.

Given that the City Council approved it easily after the developers made some changes the City long had sought, one would be justified in wondering what is causing the delay.

And the answer to the question of what is causing the delay is that developer Mill Creek Residential still hasn’t been able to tie up the loose ends it had when the project was approved in January 2016.

Although there wasn’t a single vote against it, the 6-0 Council tally still came with contingencies. Mill Creek was required to nail down leases with a hotel and a movie theater company in order to gain final city approvals to build the project, which also was slated to include restaurants, retail, and about 300 apartments.

The company has for some time been deep in talks with a movie theater company that will provide a dinner theater experience. Mill Creek officials are declining to idenitfy the company until a lease is signed, although the Falls Church Times was able to learn who it is. However, the Times is not revealing it at the request of Mill Creek Mid-Atlantic Managing Director Amirali Nasserian, who cited the sensitive nature of the negotiations as the reason for the secrecy.

But while the movie theater seems well on its way to contract status, the same cannot be said about the required hotel. At one time, Hilton Corp. had signed a letter of intent to build a Home 2 extended stay hotel at the site, but it has since backed out of the deal. And Mill Creek has been unable to entice another hotel to the project, although it is not clear why.

It may because the hotel business is suffering somewhat from the rise of Air BnB or too much supply in other ways. An unscientific Falls Church Times analysis suggests there are plenty of hotel rooms available in different markets, even on holiday weekends.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the construction of the Hilton Garden Inn on Broad, nor has it stopped Inns of Virginia, Inc., from proposing to knock down its old hotel on the 400 block of West Broad and replace it with a new, larger one. Additionally, a prominent local developer has floated the idea of a new boutique hotel on the current site of the Stratford, in the 300 block of West Broad.

But regardless of the reason, Mill Creek has been stymied in its efforts to attract a hotel so severely that it now wants the City to eliminate the hotel requirement and allow it to be replaced with an age-restricted apartment building for adults 55 and over.

That idea has been met with some disdain at City Hall, which is probably why Mill Creek hasn’t even come back for additional Council hearings and approvals on the changes, despite suggesting them months ago. Or, it could be that they fear the wrath of the Council if come back to the City without their movie theater lease being signed.

If they do come back for approvals with the 55-and-over residential component instead of a hotel, they would have to start all over again with a First Reading because of this major change to the project, which means approval is far from guaranteed. For the neighbors and other residents who oppose it, this represents their best chance to kill the deal — years after they thought they had lost.

It would be shocking if Mill Creek were to just walk away from the project at this point; they have years and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested. But it seems as though that is a possibility now, almost two years after it was finally approved following an arduous, three-year process.

By
December 26, 2017 

Comments

8 Responses to “The Mason Row Merry Go Round Continues”

  1. Anne Hajduk on December 27th, 2017 12:41 pm

    I for one would love to see senior apartments, given my age. One can only hope that at least 10% will be for moderate income, not the measly 1% of all the other developments over the past 5-10 years. For a municipality that constantly trumpets its embrace of diversity, that doesn’t seem to include economic diversity. (Keep in mind, seniors aren’t going to add to the school population, so the more of us the City can hold on to or attract, the less pressure on the schools.)

  2. grateful2binfc on December 27th, 2017 5:04 pm

    Stephen, thank you for reporting on the status of this project. I was wondering where things stood. Appreciate your reporting, and this piece!

  3. Chris Falls Church on December 27th, 2017 5:33 pm

    And don’t forget that pushing Mike’s Deli out of their location also pushed them out of the City of Falls Church (they’re just over the line). That tax revenue is now going to Fairfax County. Let’s try to include existing business in new construction, rather than push people out.

  4. Lou Mauro on December 27th, 2017 10:13 pm

    My grief is bottomless. I am inconsolable. Sob. Delays like this stall the march to our Tysonsville/Ballstown/Clarendale/Shirlingtown (with no municipal parking) elitist dream. Ah, but yet there is hope………with no height limitation on the campus development, we can have Quadruple Towers that would dwarf the former Twin Towers!

  5. Dale Walton on December 28th, 2017 8:08 pm

    I am no expert on the hotel and movie theater business models But, if I was a hotel operator and I see a Hilton Garden Inn 2 blocks way that does not appear to have a consistently high occupancy rate, I might not get too excited about this tight location that is more in the middle of town There are also market forces that were working against a movie theater when you have other nearby locations and other forms of movie watching. The developer should have been savvy enough to know some of this from the start with this project…. in sheer size, in what could be delivered, neighbor resistance, residential impact of much more traffic. City officials share in the blame. They were involved right from the start, right there with the developer, and should have seen the pitfalls early on. Instead, City officials have let this drag on and on to the point now where they should admit the mistakes and the faulty assumptions made to the adjacent neighborhood especially those who sold their property or moved elsewhere. Something needs to happen at this location. Start over or significantly modify, and present something to the neighborhood and public at large that is more realistic and suitable to this location.

  6. Stephen Siegel on December 31st, 2017 11:12 pm

    You’re welcome, grateful!

  7. Stephen Siegel on January 3rd, 2018 5:16 pm

    Dale,

    Do you have information that suggests the Hilton Garden Inn is not doing well?

  8. Liz Hume on February 4th, 2018 9:27 pm

    Thanks so much Steve! As always great reporting. The problem now is that the businesses have moved out and it looks horrible. Either they need to build it or get new businesses in the buildings so it doesn’t look so run down.

Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.