ANALYSIS: Split Council Nudges Mason Row Forward, But What Does it Mean?

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
October 20, 2015

A split Falls Church City Council voted 4-3 last month to send the big Mason Row proposal forward for review by City boards and commissions, disappointing vocal opponents of the project that were in attendance at the late evening meeting.

But it’s not clear what the significance of the vote will be. The project still is not approved, despite being in the pipeline since 2011 and also despite undergoing multiple changes at the request of City Councilors and other officials alike. And a vote the other way, against sending it forward for review, wouldn’t have killed it, either.

As a result, it appears the vote was mostly symbolic.

But it does keep the process rolling, rather than rewinding it, so in that sense it could be seen as a small victory for developer Spectrum Development and officials who favor the proposal.

Still, the close nature of the vote and the vigorous debate that preceded it also indicates that the project remains controversial in town, more than two years after it was officially unveiled.

Vice Mayor Dave Snyder was perhaps the most outspoken critic of the proposal, saying several times that it wasn’t clear “what this project is.” Mr. Snyder has been critical of the project from the outset. Former Mayor Nader Baroukh also was critical, and current Mayor Dave Tarter was the third vote against moving the project forward. Dan Sze, Phil Duncan, Marybeth Connelly, and Karen Oliver were the four votes in favor.

Mr. Snyder’s concern about the nature of the project may have been rooted in the fact that proposal has changed significantly over the last 18 months. That said, the changes made by the developer have been largely at the behest of City officials, who wanted more commercial and less residential in the proposal’s mix.

That has resulted in a movie theater complex being added to the project, providing a second commercial anchor, in addition to the extended-stay hotel, which now has been moved to the hard corner of Broad & West from its earlier location near West & Grove. That decision was based in part on concerns from Grove Avenue residents, who didn’t like the idea of a hotel looming over their single family home neighborhood, although it also seems to make more sense for hotel owner Hilton Corp., which almost certainly would prefer the new and more visible location.

A small office component also has been added, and an earlier idea of small retail stores has been removed from Park Avenue east of West Street to accommodate neighbors who wanted the 900 block of Park to remain exclusively residential.

The project thus remains in limbo as it continues to be evaluated by City boards and commissions, including the Planning Commission, which multiple sources say has serious concerns about it.

And correspondence from City residents continues to come into City Hall critical of the project, with one recent letter requesting that officials not approve anything that would be more than 55 feet high. The current proposal would be 85 feet in height.

While officials have approved multiple 85 foot projects before, Mason Row would be the first project of such height on the City’s west side. It would certainly change the look and feel of that part of the City, which may account for some of the controversy over it.

October 20, 2015 


11 Responses to “ANALYSIS: Split Council Nudges Mason Row Forward, But What Does it Mean?”

  1. grateful2binfc on October 21st, 2015 2:13 pm

    Thank you for writing about this, Stephen. Is there a timetable for these evaluations? Just wondering.

  2. Lisa V. – Falls Church on October 21st, 2015 3:06 pm

    @grateful2binfc – This project has been (and will continue to be until Second Reading) discussed at length in the regularly scheduled meetings of the Boards, Commission and Council. The various Boards, Planning Commission, and City Staff have been tasked with providing comments on the proposal to the City Council by October 30th. The Council will then have the month of November to mull over the comments received, as well as the most recent design (#6) submitted by the development company, before Second Reading, which is currently scheduled for the December 14th City Council meeting.
    Being a resident of the West End neighborhood (which includes Grove AVENUE, not Street) most affected by this, I have many concerns and have been very vocal – writing letters to the Council and Planning Commission and speaking at meetings. My concerns include: the requested zoning changes to convert commercial and residential properties to mixed use, the requested zoning change to allow the building to be 85 feet in height, the number of residential units (340) proposed, the additional traffic and parking on the surrounding residential streets by people living in, or doing business at the development… the list goes on and on.

  3. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 21st, 2015 4:06 pm

    The Planning Commission is scheduled to have a public meeting and vote on the project on November 2nd. People can come to the meeting and make a public comment. The meetings are in City Hall and usually start at 7:45pm but check the City’s Web site ahead of time – occasionally the meetings start earlier.

  4. Lisa V. – Falls Church on October 21st, 2015 5:03 pm

    Thanks, @Andy Rankin. I have attended most of the meetings (Architectural Advisory Board, City Council, Planning Commission, Economic Development Committee, Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation) where this project has been a topic of discussion and commented on the proposal in addition to sending comments to the boards and commission via email. I have missed a few lately but, as the time for a vote is drawing nigh, plan to be at the rest until a decision has been made.

  5. grateful2binfc on October 21st, 2015 7:50 pm

    @Lisa V. and @Andy Rankin, thank you for the comprehensive follow up to my inquiry!

  6. Dale Walton on October 22nd, 2015 12:42 am

    This project, despite the changes made, in my opinion, is a still misfit for the area in question. I am not sure what the right project is, but it is not this one in my opinion. The fact that the wrangling and effort to fit a square peg into a round hole has continued so long, while nobody still seems to understand what this project is and isn’t, further tells me it is the wrong project.

    The density and height are issues for me. Also, this is not the right location for a movie theater complex since it would be in the middle of town. I feel a better location would be either in the downtown area or near WFC Metro where you have better walkability from place to place, etc.. Another negative I see is the amusement tax that the developer requires from patrons to make the project financially viable.

    I am not a developer or planner but my gut feeling is this is not the right thing, not to mention what I think will be a parking and traffic mess. I fully understand the need for development and the positive consequences for the tax rate that this project affords. I have often been outspoken about the high tax rate. But on this project I am willing to lose whatever tax benefit I would receive, rather than see a project that is going to negatively impact the adjacent neighborhood permanently.

  7. Erik Ramsey, Falls Church on October 23rd, 2015 2:02 am

    Dale and others, it seems that such a controversial project should require a unanimous vote from the council, not something that squeaks by like this, in a 4 to 3 vote. I live on West St. and am concerned about the increased traffic, especially with a movie theater.

    I second all your well made points. Too big for where it is.

    Only choice now, it seems, is to vote for the moratorium candidates, the Falls Church FACTS candidates, Mabry and Barry. That may be the only signal for them to rethink this rush to develop in such huge manner.

  8. Dale walton on October 23rd, 2015 2:30 am

    Definitely do not vote for Ms. Hardi for city council because if you follow the discussion and comments she has made… she appears to be in the bag for this project. She could be a swing vote.

  9. Dale walton on October 23rd, 2015 2:34 am

    Forgot to say the next key event I believe is a vote by the planning commission. That is the group opponents need to keep voicing their opinions to and keep the pressure on.

  10. Bill Brew Falls Church on October 25th, 2015 2:37 pm

    Mr. Walton, with respect to your comments on Ms. Hardi’s views on Mason Row, this appears to be her perspective in her own words:

    Do you support the Mason Row project? Why or why not?

    I support smart, responsible development and I believe Mason Row can be a model of that – with a few caveats. It can diversify our tax base and keep residential taxes as low as possible. It will provide citizens more dining, retail, and entertainment choices, which helps residents spend locally and attracts disposable income from outside our borders. I remain concerned about (1) the overall size and number of apartments – it needs to be fully vetted and account for impact to traffic, parking, schools, services, and capital needs, (2) the number of affordable dwelling units should meet policy, (3) I’d like to see firm commitments for occupancy by the movie theater and destination retail and dining promised by developers.

  11. Dale walton on October 25th, 2015 5:59 pm

    I don’t trust her carefully worded written statement. I feel in the end she will align herself with the current council reps who have voted yes and have influence over her.

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