What’s Up With Mason Row?

December 17, 2016 by · 16 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
The Falls Church Times

December 17, 2016

The Mason Row mixed-use project was initially proposed to City officials more than five years ago, and made public three years ago. After much controversy and some significant changes, the City Council approved it in January. But there’s still few signs that anything is happening at the northeast corner of Broad and West streets, prompting some residents to ask if it’s still going to be built.

The short answer is: probably. Builder Spectrum Development, after months of further delays, submitted a site plan for the project in September, which is a necessary step to gaining permits to put a shovel in the ground, and they are scheduled for a meeting with the Planning Commission this Monday, December 19.

Several businesses at the site have left for, or have announced, new locations, including Bikenetic, which moved to West Jefferson Street, and Mike’s Deli, which is relocating to the old Long John Silver’s spot at Broad and Shreve. Brits on Broad has closed.

The 7-11 remains open at that spot and is still looking for another location nearby. The Falls Church Times has learned that the convenience store is seeking to move kitty corner to the long-vacant building at the southwest corner of Broad & West that previously housed Falls Church Cabinetry. It doesn’t appear that they will be successful in that attempt, however, a source familiar with the effort said.

But the 7-11 issue has to be resolved for Mason Row to move forward; the convenience store has lease rights that cannot be terminated, so as long as they keep their store open at Broad & West, Mason Row cannot proceed.

So the wheels are still grinding slowly, but inexorably, forward for the project, which covers more than four acres and will substantially change the look and feel of the entire area. It would include a hotel, a multi-screen movie theater, office space, retail, and more than 300 apartments, and would rise much higher than the current one-story buildings on the site.

Yet for those who opposed it, it’s still not yet a done deal: while the City Council approved it by a unanimous 6-0 count after the developer reduced the height on the north side of the project that faces a low-density residential neighborhood and modestly reduced the apartment count, the Council’s approval came with contingencies that the hotel and movie theater have leases in place in order to increase the likelihood that the commercial aspects of the project actually come to fruition.

And despite years of negotiations and discussions, that requirement still has not been met, the Times has learned. Apparently, Hilton has backed out of plans to build a Home 2 extended stay hotel at the site, and a deal with a large theater operator still has not been finalized. Those loose ends will need to be tied up before the project can go forward.

After spending millions of dollars, one would think that the developer would manage to break the tape at the finish line rather than drop out now, especially with Mosaic developer Mill Creek added to the development team. But after years of fits and starts, nothing can be ruled out.

If the project does get built, it could be 10 years from conception to completion.

Referendum on Library Expansion Set for Tuesday

November 7, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
The Falls Church Times
November 7, 2016

After years of study and political wrangling, Falls Church City voters will be empowered on Tuesday to decide if they want to spend as much as $8.7 million to renovate and expand the Mary Styles Riley Library.

On the ballot is a simple question: do you agree to authorize the City to sell the requisite amount of bonds to finance that renovation, along with a 6,600 square foot expansion? But the path that led the City and its residents to this point was anything but simple.

Discussions about improvements to the library have been ongoing for many years, and they gathered steam in 2013, when the Library Board of Trustees requested $18 million and suggested the current building be demolished and a brand new library be built on the same site.

There was some pushback against the idea, both because of the price tag and because of the possibility that the City would be without a library while the new one was built. In the end, the City Council addressed the concerns about both by authorizing in July the referendum before voters now, which cut the cost of the library board’s demolition proposal in half and eliminated demolition from the options.

The new proposals include options to expand the library in two different ways while renovating the existing structure. In either case, the building’s main entrance would be moved to Park Avenue from its current location on Virginia. The library will remain open and accessible during the renovation and expansion project.

The expansion would increase the size of study areas, meeting spaces, and bathrooms, among other improvements. The renovation would update mechanical systems, including heating and cooling; replace the elevator; and meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires improved handicapped access.

City estimates say the cost of the proposal, assuming it’s approved, would be between $599,000 and $641,000 per year; the exact amount would depend on the interest rate the City is able to get on the bonds. They say that will amount of an increase in the property tax rate of less than two cents, although that still may be more than some stressed taxpayers want to absorb.

Long-delayed Rare Bird Opens, Adds to City’s Growing Coffee Scene

October 6, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
The Falls Church Times

October 6, 2016

Rare Bird Coffee Roasters, a new specialty coffee house that roasts beans right at its store, quietly opened its doors Tuesday in a move that adds to Falls Church City’s growing premium coffee options.

The bar and roastery, located in the former Tutti Frutti space at 230 W. Broad Street, is the brainchild of Bryan Becker and Lara Berenji, who originally operated the shop in a location well off the beaten path in Northeast Washington. They had originally targeted a July opening, but finishing the space and getting the necessary permits took longer than they planned.

The Broad Street location is not a second one for the couple; they opted to close their Washington store and relocate to Falls Church. They appear to have a real passion for coffee, not only because they roast their own beans, but because they carefully measured and weighed the amount of ground coffee that went into a reporter’s cappuccino on Wednesday.

“We want to make really good coffee,” Mr. Becker said, “but we don’t want to be snobs about it. We want to be inclusive. We like what the coffee community is about.”

That can be a difficult balance to navigate, especially when one has a lot of knowledge of any specialty area. And, as high-end coffee bars have proliferated in Washington and elsewhere, some have become perceived as a bit off putting because of their exotic lingo and approach that in some cases seems to rival that of wine connoisseurs.

But judging by the early response, Rare Bird seems to be doing well; customers streamed in during the early afternoon hours on the store’s second day, even though 1:30 pm wouldn’t seem to be the highest demand time for caffeine. An official grand opening is planned for Oct. 13.
Rare Bird follows Cafe Kindred on North Washington Street, the Happy Tart on South Maple, and Guns and Coffee on West Broad into the City’s burgeoning premium coffee segment. In addition, South Block Coffee Company is located just steps from the City limits on Westmoreland Street. All have opened in just the last few years. Prior to that, local coffee lovers only had two Starbucks locations to fuel their passion.

Both Cafe Kindred and Happy Tart also offer very good espresso drinks, but the Times has yet to sample the unusually named Guns and Coffee. However, a new fan of Rare Bird on Wednesday said he liked that store as well.

Rare Bird also is offering a variety of teas and baked goods from Arlington’s Village Sweet Bakery, as well as baked goods from Natalia’s, which previously had a cafe at the same location.

After Natalia’s closed, Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt moved in, becoming the fourth fro-yo place in the Little City. At the time, it seemed difficult to imagine that all four could survive in such close proximity, and Tutti Frutti and the West Side’s Orange Monkey already are gone, leaving Zinga, which is popular with George Mason High School students, and Sweet Frog as Falls Church’s two fro-yo survivors.

It’s an open question whether the City can support so many premium coffee houses as well, but coffee is certainly more widely consumed than frozen yogurt, and the Starbucks at the Broaddale Center is frequently packed, even during weekday afternoons, which suggests there is demand here for more quality coffee.

Unlike Fresh Market, Harris Teeter is Poised to Deliver

July 26, 2016 by · 7 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
July 26, 2016

The Fresh Market may have declined to follow through on its letter of intent to locate in the new Reserve at Tinner Hill project on South Washington Street, but another upscale grocery just a few blocks away is expected to open its doors Wednesday.

That upscale grocery is the Harris Teeter, which has leased most of the ground floor at developer Rushmark’s new West Broad building, located at 301 W. Broad Street, on the site of the old post office and Anthony’s Italian restaurant.

The new supermarket will bring yet another grocer to the Falls Church City market, which currently boasts just Giant Foods inside the City limits, but Safeway, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Shoppers Food Warehouse just beyond.

It also will create a new amenity for the residents of the West Broad building, who have been moving in floor by floor since the winter. There is underground parking in the building for the store’s customers.

The complex is the first new mixed-use project completed since Northgate on North Washington Street, and also is one of the biggest. Reaching close to 90 feet tall, it features about 290 one and two bedroom units with sizes ranging from 747 to 1,274 square feet.

The project was controversial from the beginning, both because of its size and its location: it was very close to some of the Winter Hill townhouses, especially those that sit on the east side of Annandale Road, and residents there were concerned about having the building towering over them, as well as noise from the loading docks, among other issues.

The building does tower over them; that much cannot be disputed. One can see down to the Winter Hill rooftops and into their yards from West Broad’s second floor community lounge. But while the decision to build the project may have been, and may still be, controversial, what is probably not controversial is that the building is very high quality and quite beautiful inside.

The lobby is ornate, features a large fireplace, and has a very contemporary appearance. The model apartments continue the theme, with stainless appliances and dark, espresso cabinetry and flooring.

The one bedroom model is small, offering 747 square feet, and is offered for a price that may seem shocking to Falls Church City residents. The rent is $1,985, plus an annual $450 fee that pays for the common amenities, which include indoor and outdoor entertaining spaces on the second floor. Utilities also are extra, as is the underground parking. So a one bedroom in the building will run a tenant well over $2,000 per month if they sign up for the parking.

The two bedroom model was 1,237 square feet (although some other units are slightly larger) and is a far more functional floorplan than the one bedroom. And its rental rate reflects that. The cost to move in to such a unit is $3,120, plus the annual fee, utilities, and parking.
The first residents began moving into the building Jan. 20. It also will feature a Starbucks Coffee, even though there is a Starbucks a block away. That may make more sense than it appears, because the existing Starbucks is frequently quite crowded.

There’s one other retail space in the building, for which the developers are seeking a restaurant. But the space has not been leased yet.

Fresh Market Leaves, and Leaves City and Developer in the Lurch

July 23, 2016 by · 11 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
July 23, 2016

The Fresh Market, an upscale natural food grocer similar to Whole Foods, has changed its mind and will not open in the new Reserve at Tinner Hill project nearing completion on the old International Motors site on South Washington Street, the Falls Church Times has confirmed.

Rumors about the departure have been circulating for several weeks, but nothing official was released from City Hall, apparently because officials were hoping the chain would change its mind again and come back. But that does not appear to be in the cards.

A City official told the Times Friday that developer Lincoln Property Company is “actively marketing the space” which suggests they believe they no longer have a tenant for the largest space in their new building, a 20,000 square foot ground floor that already has been built out to Fresh Market’s wishes.

That’s a big blow to the developer, who stood to gain substantial cash from a lease with the store. It also hurts their efforts to attract other retailers to the complex; stores like to be near supermarkets because of the traffic they draw. And it’s also a major blow to the City, which was looking forward to a large influx of sales tax revenue from the highly-regarded grocer.

Additionally, it removes some of the rationale for the project. One of the reasons the City Council approved the large building, with its 224 apartments, in 2013 was because of the presence of The Fresh Market, which had signed a letter of intent in late 2012 to locate in the project.

The Council required that letter of intent before approving the mixed-use plan, which required a Special Exception to the zoning code. But the chain’s decision to pull out anyway shows the limits of such a letter. It’s not an iron-clad guarantee, and even the existence of a signed lease prior to Council approval wouldn’t guarantee they would open, either. Leases are broken all the time, and it appears that occurred in this case.

Business conditions can change quickly, and it’s not clear why the chain reconsidered. They already were aware they were locating near a new Harris Teeter supermarket, which is scheduled to open next week in the new West Broad building at 301 W. Broad Street.

But they didn’t know, when they signed their letter, that they’d also be competing with their arch rival Whole Foods, which is now expected to open in a few years in the new project slated for the northeast corner of Broad & Washington streets. That project had not been announced back in 2012.

However, it may not be a reconsideration of the competitive landscape, but instead internal policy changes that made the decision. The Fresh Market recently was purchased by private equity group Apollo Global Management, and such investors may be seeking higher profits than were projected at the proposed Falls Church location.

The chain recently pulled out of the state of Texas entirely, closing eight stores, and also shuttered two in Iowa, one in Missouri and two in Kansas. The North Carolina company still has 175 stores nationwide.

But regardless of the reasons, it’s a loss for City coffers and for the emerging retail corridor of South Washington and South Maple, which now features Pizzeria Orso, and Elevation Burger, among a number of other businesses.

It also may be a challenge for Lincoln to find a new tenant. Many businesses interested in the area cannot afford and do not need 20,000 square feet. So the ideal situation for them would be to find a replacement grocery, such as a Trader Joe’s or Mom’s Organic Market.

Two Armed Robberies On West Broad

May 11, 2016 by · 5 Comments 

May 11, 2016

Falls Church City Police are looking for a suspect who robbed the Wells Fargo Bank at 1000 West Broad Street at about 3:50 p.m. Wednesday. The robber implied he had a weapon, but no injuries were reported from any employees or customers. The suspect is described as a middle eastern male with a beard, eyeglasses, red baseball hat, and brown trench coat, about 5′ 10″ tall, and approximately 25-30 years of age.

More information will be released as it becomes available.

There also was an armed robbery a few blocks away May 6. In that incident, a man staying at the Stratford Motor Lodge, 300 W. Broad St., was robbed of his wallet outside the motel by three masked men with handguns. They fled on foot, and the victim was not harmed.

All three suspects wore blue bandanas covering their faces, black t-shirts and jeans. One is described as a white or Hispanic male in his 20s, about 5’6” with dark hair; the second is described as a black male in his 20s, about 5’10”; the third is described as a black male in his 20s, about 5’11”.

Anyone with information on either case is asked to call Falls Church City Police at 703-248-5053.

ANALYSIS: Council Poised to Push Back on Schools’ Budget Request

April 25, 2016 by · 7 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
April 25, 2016

For many years, the song remained the same: Residents concerned about Falls Church City’s property tax rate complained that the City Council wasn’t pushing back enough against school funding requests, and instead gave school officials whatever they wanted.

But that appears poised to change tonight, when the Council is expected to approve a budget that gives the schools $912,000 less than they have asked for.

They aren’t doing that for fun, of course; they are doing it because a majority of the Council has decided they want to keep the property tax rate flat with last year and not raise it by any amount, not even the 2.5 cents proposed in City Manager Wyatt Shields’ initial budget proposal, which is required by law to include the schools’ request without any reductions.

The Council’s stiffer spine seems to have caught school officials by surprise. They are lamenting the impact they say it will have on the schools, and school advocates, including City Councilor Marybeth Connelly and School Board Chair Justin Castillo, have been making calls, sending out emails, and writing pieces encouraging the Council to reconsider.

It’s not a wholesale change. It appears that there are four votes for giving the schools less than they want, and either two or three for accepting the school budget proposal as requested. That could reflect a similar divide among City residents, although it’s difficult to say for sure.

Councilor Phil Duncan is one of the four poised to vote for the budget giving the schools less than they want. Mr. Duncan has never been shy about his desire to hold the tax rate as low as possible, but in the past he has advocated for using some of the City’s reserve fund as one way to hold the rate down. He seems more outspoken this year about the need for school officials to contribute to fiscal discipline.

In an interview ahead of tonight’s vote, Mr. Duncan said he wants school officials to really scrub their budget and see if they can find savings that don’t impact teacher pay or instructional quality. It’s his view that they have not tried hard enough to do so.

“I think the schools would benefit from increasing the public’s confidence…by really sitting down and going line by line through the budget,” he said.

He acknowledges that such an endeavor is hard work, but he thinks residents would like to see that the schools have made that effort.

He further says that if advocates believe there’s no way to maintain the quality of the schools, including the City’s signature small class sizes, in the budget as proposed, future school board candidates, as well as City Council candidates, should expressly run on a platform of increasing taxes in future elections. The school board doesn’t have any control over tax rates, but if board candidates advocating higher taxes were to win, it certainly could indicate that there is resident support for such a plan.

Mr. Duncan appears poised to be joined by councilors Letty Hardi, Mayor David Tarter, and Dan Sze in support of the budget that reduces the schools’ request.

The position of Ms. Hardi, who is in her first term on the Council, may also surprise some. She ran for Council last fall highlighting her commitment to the schools, and her campaign literature mentioned her three children, which gave the impression that she had a very personal interest in the issue.

But, she acknowledges that being on the Council, and representing the whole City, has had an impact on her views.

“However, after diving into both (City and School) budgets, the CIP (capital improvement projects), and future budget years wearing my new hat, my responsibility is to the entire City – not just schools – and for the long term. That means living within our means now, remembering that we are a little city, and challenging what we we can and cannot afford,” Ms. Hardi wrote on her blog.

It is possible that many residents agree. They may want excellent schools, but also fiscal restraint. Time will tell if the Council is striking the right balance.

Fundraiser for Annual GMHS Graduation Party Set for Saturday

April 20, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Special to the Falls Church Times
April 20, 2016

For the 27th year, the George Mason High School All Night Grad Celebration is being planned for this year’s seniors. To help defray the cost, organizers are holding a fundraiser Saturday from 3 to 6 pm at Clare & Don’s Beach Shack on North Washington Street.

Called the Byrd Feeder after Mason Principal Ty Byrd, the fundraiser will feature a silent auction hosted by Mr. Byrd. It’s an event for the entire GMHS parent community, featuring auction items donated by GMHS families, local organizations, and other businesses. The Byrd Feeder netted more than $6,000 last year.

The all-night party, known as the ANGC, had its start 27 years ago, when GMHS parents, concerned about the risks of alcohol, drugs, and unsafe driving at traditional “grad night” celebrations, decided to offer new graduates a fun, safe alternative.

Now a cherished tradition with participation rates averaging more than 90 percent over the last several years, ANGC boasts a certain mystique that keeps the kids engaged and eager to sign up year after year. Outgoing seniors share stories of the activities and entertainment with underclass students but are asked to keep mum on certain aspects in order for each class to enjoy some surprises.

For virtually all GMHS grads, the ANGC is exactly how they want to celebrate the milestone of high school graduation. And in the 27 years ANGC has been held, the Falls Church City community has not experienced a single accident or fatality on graduation night.

Upon their return to GMHS after the graduation ceremony at DAR Constitution Hall on June 22, at 11:15 p.m. the new graduates will reconvene inside GMHS to party the night (and morning) away with their classmates. While some schools that host all-night grad parties allow non-graduate guests, at GMHS the focus for the new grads is enjoying their last hours together as a unified class.

This year’s ANGC will feature entertainment by an illusionist, casino games and unique attractions, plus many chances to collect raffle tickets toward fabulous door prizes, many of which have been donated by the local business community. At 5 a.m. on June 23, the graduates will leave GMHS for the very last time as a class – and most will head right home for a well-deserved nap. (GMHS opens as usual shortly afterward for the arrival of faculty, staff and underclass students.)

An event of ANGC’s scale comes at a high price. Despite an all-volunteer team of parent organizers contributing their time and talent, significant cash outlays are required in order to secure quality entertainment, keep hundreds of active grads nourished and hydrated for six hours of partying, and to ensure top-notch safety and security from start to finish. To that end, ANGC aggressively fundraisers throughout the school year, starting with a letter mailed to GMHS families in the fall. Committee members reach out to local business for corporate sponsorships and prize donations, publicize restaurant fundraisers, host at-home special events, and keep up the buzz on social media and FCCPS communications.

For almost a year, George Mason High School parent Julie Donnelly has been in charge of planning this year’s event. It requires coordination of food, entertainment and prizes, as well as the less-glamorous but vital elements of security, insurance and fire safety. Donnelly supports and cheerleads dozens of team members tasked with securing cash donations and items to be auctioned off in support of the event, dedicated fundraising events, prize collection, publicity, decorating, volunteer coordination and bookkeeping.

But here’s the kicker: Mrs. Donnelly’s own kids can’t attend this event – at least not this year. Her kids, Maeve and Erik Donnelly, will have their chances to attend the ANGC in 2017 and 2020, but their mom has devoted hundreds of hours, and counting, to planning the event of a lifetime for this year’s seniors only. Due to the massive scope of the event as well as the flurry of activities parents of graduates must manage, the chair of ANGC is traditionally the parent of an underclass student, and it’s a role Donnelly has performed with efficiency, grace, good humor and endless patience.

“The ANGC is an all-year commitment, but after having been involved as a committee member last year and seeing the result of our work, I was happy to take on the chair position and work with parents who feel as strongly as I do about the importance of providing this kind of event,” Donnelly says. “It’s exciting and rewarding to work with the talented ANGC team to organize a fun, memorable and safe ANGC – one that we hope all of our seniors will always remember.”

GMHS parents are encouraged to volunteer, and anyone may donate to the cause. For more information, click here: http://www.georgemasonhighptsa.org/all-night-grad.html

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