Target Bringing Its Urban Store Concept to South Washington Street

June 28, 2017 by · 4 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
June 28, 2017

Ever since Fresh Market pulled out of Lincoln Property Company’s new development on South Washington Street, the question was what would replace it. Few retailers want or can afford more than 20,000 square feet of space, which left Lincoln, one retail analyst said, “between a rock and a hard place.”

Despite that predicament, Lincoln appears to have escaped with the help of Target. The Minneapolis-based chain, best known for its huge suburban department stores, announced Wednesday that it will open one of its new, smaller style stores in the ground floor of Lincoln’s building, which is tucked in between South Maple and South Washington and across from Pearson Square.

It’s a bit of a coup for the City, which gets one of the first of these smaller Target stores and the tax revenue that will come with it. There’s only one other in northern Virginia now, in Rosslyn, and not many more than 30 nationwide. The stores were called Target Express when the company launched the concept in 2014, but it recently dropped that name and now just calls them “Target,” despite the fact that they are perhaps one-fifth the size of their traditional stores.

However, Target is planning a rapid expansion of the small-store concept, and has announced a location in Ballston, as well as in close-in urban suburbs and college towns across the country.

It’s unclear exactly what the product mix will be, and a video tour of the concept on the Target web site doesn’t shed a lot of light. Clearly, the store will focus on smaller items and eliminate big ticket items such as appliances and furniture. The company also highlights the fact that items purchased on the Target web site will be available for pickup at these smaller stores.

It also remains to be seen how successful it will be. Target is attempting to personalize each store to its location, changing the product mix to respond to the demographics of each. That is a good strategy, but also one that is challenging to pull off.

Additionally, many suburban retailers are attempting to open these smaller urban stores, but haven’t always been successful; Wal-Mart shuttered all 102 of its similar Wal-Mart Express concept stores in early 2016.

But even if it is successful, the addition of Target is likely to be controversial in the Little City. While some residents will love and patronize it, others will lament the arrival of yet another national chain. Many residents have been concerned that all the redevelopment of recent years would lead to Falls Church City losing its unique vibe.

The chaining of the City took a couple of steps back in recent months, as Famous Dave’s and Smashburger closed their City locations. But the arrival of Target and German grocer Aldi suggests such closures were not the beginning of a trend.

The trend toward chains is likely to continue because retail landlords love the deep pockets and stability that they offer. Still, the City has done relatively well in attracting independent businesses, and another such independent is preparing to open in the Famous Dave’s space. It is another barbecue restaurant, but this one will be an original concept operated by the people behind Arlington’s popular Northside Social and Liberty Tavern. The same group also is planning on opening a place much like Northside at 205 Park Ave. Construction at that address has been underway for some time.

German Supermarket Aldi Bringing City Shoppers Another Option

June 28, 2017 by · 2 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
June 28, 2017

City shoppers may have missed out when Fresh Market decided against opening a new store on South Washington Street, but now a new grocer is poised to provide another option nearby.

Aldi, a big German company, is preparing to open a 20,000 square foot store in the Tower Square Shopping Center on Hillwood Avenue, replacing the long-standing ethnic market Halalco, a source familiar with the company’s plans said last week.

The grocer will also occupy several adjacent storefronts. One of those adjacent storefronts, Russian market Troika, will move to the other end of the plaza and occupy the long-vacant space formerly occupied by barbecue restaurant Red Hot and Blue, as well as the storefront to that space’s west, the source told the Times.

The impact of Aldi on the mid-century style strip mall could be significant. Combined with the redevelopment of the long-vacant strip mall across from The Falls Church, which sits directly behind the Aldi location, that part of the City will gain a new vibrancy.

And while Aldi is not an exact substitute for Fresh Market, City shoppers may prefer it. Fresh Market is a competitor to Whole Foods and has high prices to match, while Aldi caters to a more price sensitive shopper, and its decision to open more stores will only accelerate the price war going on in the grocery business nationally, with City residents poised to benefit.

Grocery prices nationally have been heading down due to lower commodity prices but also because of new entrants into the grocery business, such as Wal-Mart, which now has the largest share of the market. The price war has been good for consumers but hurt grocery companies, including Harris Teeter parent Kroger, whose stock price has tumbled from $40 to $23 in the last 18 months.

It’s not inconceivable that the City could gain still more grocery stores as well. City officials love supermarkets, because they bring in a lot of tax revenue due to their high volume of sales. And the Tinner Hill project, where Fresh Market was slated to go, still could attract a grocer to its 20,000 square foot space. Multiple sources tell the Times that a deal could be announced shortly for a new tenant there, but it’s unknown if that new tenant is a grocer. It seems likely, because there are few other businesses that would want or could afford a large retail space, but we will all find out soon enough.

Fresh Market and Lincoln Property Co., which owns the building, are both anxious to get a new tenant in there. Fresh Market continues to make lease payments on the site despite their decision to forego a store and would like to stop, and Lincoln would like a tenant because it would help them attract other businesses to their other still-vacant retail spaces. That, of course, would in turn help the City.

Middle School Teacher Pleads Guilty to Assaulting Students

May 25, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
May 25, 2017

Update: This story now includes a response from the Falls Church City Schools and the Manassas Park Police.

Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School math teacher Jose Estrada has pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated sexual battery involving two female students.

The 36-year-old Clifton resident pleaded guilty Wednesday and is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 4. A teacher at MEH since 2015, he was removed from the classroom in January, following accusations of inappropriate conduct by two sixth grade girls.

Those accusations led to an investigation by the Falls Church City Police, who subsequently arrested Mr. Estrada in February.

It’s not clear exactly when the offenses occurred, but court documents say the date or dates were sometime between Nov. 1, 2016, and Jan. 17, 2017. It was on the latter date that the first girl came forward, which then led to the investigation.

Mr. Estrada, who taught sixth-grade math, was placed on paid leave after the girls came forward. The decision to offer paid leave rather than to fire him was because he is innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, and school officials wanted police to be able to investigate the situation objectively, spokesman John Brett said at the time.

“This action enabled the Falls Church City Public Schools to ensure the safety of its students while also reserving judgment on the employee,” Schools Spokesman John Brett said in a press release in February. “As a result, at the time of the arrest, the employee was not at the school, nor in contact with students.”

Despite offering that consideration, the school board voted in February not to renew Mr. Estrada’s contract for the 2017-18 school year, and his decision to plead guilty to both counts against him would appear to end any doubt about the veracity of the accusations.

Under state law, Mr. Estrada could be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail, although the court documents say they have an agreement that the sentence is not to exceed 10 years.

When students who had classes with Mr. Estrada suddenly had a new teacher in January, rumors began sweeping the school, with some students suggesting, or questioning if, he was fired.

Questions about why he was removed from the classroom circulated among students as well, and students quickly learned that he was removed for allegations of inappropriate physical contact.

Mr. Estrada began his employment with the Falls Church City schools in July 2015 and previously taught in Manassas Park. Police there announced in March that they are investigating the possibility of other similar incidents. The Falls Church Times inquired with the Manassas Park Police about the status of that investigation, and they report that the investigation is ongoing.

Following Wednesday’s guilty plea, school officials are now moving to reclaim the portion of Mr. Estrada’s pay that has by law been held in escrow since his arrest. “We are filing a petition with the State Board of Education requesting Mr. Estrada’s teaching license be revoked, to eliminate the possibility of his return to the classroom in another school division,” Mr. Brett said.

Henderson Middle School Teacher Arrested, Charged with Sexual Battery of Students

February 17, 2017 by · 2 Comments 

February 17, 2017

A sixth-grade math teacher at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School was arrested Friday and charged with the aggravated sexual battery of two female students.

Jose Daniel Estrada, a 36-year-old Clifton, Va., resident, was placed on administrative leave by school officials the day the first accusation was made on Jan. 17. Students who had classes with Mr. Estrada suddenly had a new teacher, and rumors began sweeping the school, with some students suggesting, or questioning if, he was fired.

Questions about why he was removed from the classroom circulated among students as well, with some students suggesting he had slapped a girl on her rear end, but it’s not clear if the charges allege that specific behavior or something else. Documents that would detail the allegations against Mr. Estrada were not available in either the Arlington County or Falls Church courthouses Friday afternoon, and he is, of course, innocent until proven guilty.

Mr. Estrada began his employment with the Falls Church City schools in July 2015. He is being held in the Arlington County Jail.

After the two girls came to school officials with their allegations, the two incidents were immediately reported to police and child protective services. Mr. Estrada was quickly removed from the classroom and placed on paid leave. Officials said the decision to place him on leave rather than terminate him was made in order to allow police to investigate the situation objectively first.

“This action enabled the Falls Church City Public Schools to ensure the safety of its students while also reserving judgment on the employee,” Schools Spokesman John Brett said in a press release. “As a result, at the time of the arrest, the employee was not at the school, nor in contact with students.”

With his arrest, Mr. Estrada’s pay is now being placed in an escrow account pending the disposition of the case in accordance with state law. If he is acquitted or the state declines to prosecute him, he will receive that pay. If he is found guilty, the money will be kept by the schools.

Paving of 7-11 Parking Lot Raises Questions About Mason Row

January 3, 2017 by · 7 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
The Falls Church Times
January 3, 2017

Sharp-eyed Times reader Mark Sparkman was the first to notice, or at least the first to go public: in a comment on the Falls Church Times, Mr. Sharpman noted that the parking lot at the 7-11 was being re-paved. This seemed odd, because the entire site appeared likely to be demolished and excavated as part of the mixed-use Mason Row project slated for that corner.

Other readers quickly chimed in, and some suggested this was an indication that the controversial project was dead, or at least on life support.

But opponents shouldn’t get too excited. Both the City and the developer have known all along that 7-11 has lease rights that the developer needs to address before 7-11 will move out. The paving of the parking lot seems wasteful to be sure, but it may simply be part of a pre-existing contract that calls for such work to be done at prescribed intervals.

One can’t be sure without seeing their contract, but a similar situation unfolded at the Burger King on Broad Street a few years ago, when landscaping and repaving of their much larger parking lot occurred just days before the restaurant closed to make way for the Kensington, the new assisted living facility now nearing completion on that site.

In addition, a variety of other things suggest that Mason Row continues to march slowly but inexorably forward. Another business has made plans to leave the site — the oldest business at the site, in fact: Panjshir, the Afghan restaurant, which has been there for 25 years or more. It is moving to the new strip mall being renovated on East Fairfax Street across from The Falls Church.

And the Mason Row developers won a zoning variance this fall from the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals to allow the proposed movie theater complex to encroach closer to the St. James Church property, but only above grade and not at ground level. That request was required because the theater companies with whom the developers are negotiating asked for more square footage than was previously planned. Focus on such a small detail suggests that the theater negotiations are at a very advanced state.

Still, Mason Row cannot go forward without 7-11 agreeing to a move. The developers have known that since the start of this process in 2011, and they have spent thousands of dollars on architects renderings and other pre-construction processes since then, which suggests they are quite confident they can get the deal done. While it’s always possible that 7-11 could say they’re not going to move, odds are that some kind of agreement will be reached that will close their existing location and move Mason Row ever closer to their elusive finish line.

As the Times previously reported, 7-11 has been calling the owners of the Falls Church Cabinetry building on the southwest corner of Broad & West regularly, asking to move over there. That building has been mostly vacant for the last seven years, ever since the cabinetry company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. The lengthy vacancy was interrupted only by the owners opening a carpet and cabinet store of their own a few years ago, which they promptly shuttered after a few months.

That would seem to make the 7-11 advances attractive to them, but the Times has learned that the cabinetry building’s owners have continued to reject 7-11’s proposals. It is not known what they plan to do with their site, which is plagued by a lack of parking that has made it difficult for them to find another lessee. It might, however, have enough parking for a 7-11.

But regardless of the cabinetry building owners’ decisions, the fact that 7-11 has been aggressively courting them suggests that the company is not going to put its foot down and attempt to stay at its current location indefinitely.

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 · 3 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.

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