Police Say Red Light Cameras Working Correctly

February 10, 2011 by Stephen Siegel · 4 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 10, 2011

Some area residents have expressed concern that Falls Church City’s new red-light cameras are incorrectly ticketing drivers who are actually operating their vehicles legally.

But a police official in charge of the program says that’s not the case, and that the cameras are functioning as intended.

The controversy grew when Arlington resident William Derosiers wrote to the Falls Church Times to inquire whether the cameras were inappropriately flashing and ticketing drivers who made legal right turns on red. Mr. Desrosiers said he received a warning in the mail for just such a situation, and The Times published Mr. Derosiers’ assertion and concern as a letter to the editor on Feb. 3. A total of 17 comments were posted by readers within one day.

Some of the comments challenged the Times to get to the bottom of the matter. Ask, and ye shall receive.

Police officials say the camera is designed to not only catch traditional red-light runners, but also those drivers who fail to first come to a complete stop, as required by law, before making a legal right on red.

“A vehicle that comes to a complete stop before entering the intersection to turn right on red will not generate a recorded violation,” said Sgt. P. M. Uelmen, who directs the city police’s Intersection Safety Program.

“Our automated enforcement system is designed to record all red light violations, including those in which the vehicle fails to come to a complete stop before turning right.”

Mr. Derosiers contended in his letter that he did stop first, and without seeing the video, it would be impossible for anyone else to determine. If motorists believe they have been wrongly ticketed, they can contest the ticket in court, as they can for any other driving infraction.

The red light cameras are operating in the city at Broad and Annandale streets and Broad and Cherry streets. City Manager Wyatt Shields recently said infractions are running above projections at those intersections, but that driving behavior also is improving.

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Cabinet Factory Building Still Seeking a New Tenant

January 24, 2011 by Stephen Siegel · 22 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

January 24, 2011

Whenever a new business is slated to come to Falls Church City, a lively debate about the desirability of the business ensues. Likewise, an energetic debate about the best use for a vacant commercial building occurs with regularity.

For those so inclined, now is your time.

It’s been a year since the owners of the building that formerly housed Falls Church Cabinetry, at 1001 West Broad Street, have had a tenant. Frustrated by the situation, they are asking for input.

“What does the neighborhood want?” asked Kayvan Mehrbakhsh, a broker with Sperry Van Ness in Tyson’s Corner.

It’s not like the building hasn’t had suitors. Located at the busy and highly visible corner of Broad and West streets, there has been a steady stream of interest. But a variety of things have conspired to get in the way, leaving the building vacant since January 2010.

“I’ve had a lot of traffic on this building. A lot of people want it,” Mr. Mehrbakhsh said.

The parking situation — the building has space for only a handful of vehicles — has been the biggest issue. City officials also nixed a new construction bank because the bank wanted two entrances, which the city refused, Mr. Mehrbakhsh said.

Despite those issues, two companies are looking strongly at the site now: a children’s gym facility and an automotive parts and service retailer. The Falls Church Times agreed not to name the companies involved because leases have not been signed.

Upscale restaurants also have expressed interest, including a major steak and seafood chain and a popular Italian restaurant. But once again, the issue is parking, causing the the brokers to think about a valet service. “But a valet service to where?” Mr. Mehrbakhsh wondered.

The adjacent Rite Aid parking lot is a possibility, and a reporter wondered if the owners could strike a deal with the cash-strapped Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to use their parking garage at the West Falls Church station on Haycock, less than a mile away. The garage would seem to be largely empty at night when a restaurant would be busiest. Mr. Mehrbakhsh thought the idea was worth investigating.

The 11,000 square foot building was built in 1950 and has had many uses. Years ago it was a Buick dealership, and it was a carpet store before the cabinet factory opened in 2007. Caught in the housing market’s downturn, that business filed for bankruptcy and closed early last year.

The site also suffered when the Commonwealth of Virginia took some of its land by eminent domain to widen Broad Street, which also is Virginia Rte. 7. The current owners bought it in the 1980s, and are willing to sell, but are asking $2,900,000, a figure other industry veterans suggested is not realistic. The city has assessed the site at $1,319,800, down from over $1.6 million last year.

Mr. Mehrbakhsh said one option is to tear down part of the building’s rear to create more parking, but that would require the owners to comply with new zoning regulations from which they currently are exempt.

“The problem is, if we touch the building everything has to comply to the new code,” he said, citing setbacks as one issue that makes that option unappealing. The building’s 11,000 square feet could be forced down to just 3,000 square feet of usable space unless the City grants a waiver, he said, an assertion confirmed by another commercial broker not involved with the building or the same firm.

A furniture retailer also made an inquiry this week, and an ethnic grocery has kicked the tires. So there’s plenty of interest. But even if a lease is signed, the City may not approve the use, so Mr. Mehrbakhsh is seeking help from area residents and consumers.

“The owners are looking for ideas,” he said.

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Another Pizza Option on the Way for City Diners

January 22, 2011 by Stephen Siegel · 2 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

January 22, 2011

The pizza wars already are well underway, but another entrant would like to join the fray.

Paisano’s, a Fairfax-based chain that also serves sandwiches, salads, and a variety of other choices, has signed a lease to move into the former K.H. Art & Framing shop at 244 W. Broad Street, said Phil Young of The Winfield Group.

The store will join Domino’s, Papa John’s, Z Pizza, Flippin’ Pizza, Pie-Tanza, and Anthony’s, all on Broad Street, and Pizzeria Orso on Maple as restaurants offering a heavy pizza focus from within the City limits. A taste test between all of those restaurants was the subject of a Falls Church Times story last year.

That glut led the owner of the 244 West Broad space to discourage any sort of pizza place from expressing interest in the site a few years ago, Mr. Young said, but he added that they view Paisano’s as a little bit different than the others.

“The thing I like about this particular one is that they offered more than just pizza,” he said, citing pasta, chicken wings, and beer, among other items.

Additionally, the company, whose first location opened in Fairfax’s Fair Lakes area in 1997, describes itself as a “gourmet” pizza store that uses “the finest, most expensive ingredients available,” which could help differentiate it as well if consumers agree.

Paisano’s currently has six locations, all in western Fairfax County. Four more locations, including a Tysons Corner site, are planned, in addition to the Broad Street store.

It will be a while before the City store opens. Plans are being drawn up now, with an expected opening sometime around mid-year, Mr. Young said.

Even though the lease is signed, Mr. Young remains cautious about the plans coming to fruition.

“We have a signed lease, but I’m really superstitious,” he said. “I don’t talk about anything until my check clears.”

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Housing Corp. Attempting to Sell Wilden Site at Large Loss

January 21, 2011 by Stephen Siegel · 2 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

January 21, 2011

Bruised from its unsuccessful efforts to build a senior housing facility in Falls Church City, the Falls Church Housing Corporation is now laying low, doing some strategic planning, and attempting to sell the building it hoped would be at the center of its new development.

The building, at 350 South Washington Street, is for sale for a now-reduced price of $2.7 million, down from $2.95 million last fall. The non-profit has had some nibbles, but no deals, said Carol Jackson, the executive director.

Unfortunately for the housing corporation, the price of $2.7 million is well below what they paid for the building in 2008, before the commercial property market collapsed. City records show they paid $3.25 million for the 14,000 square foot property. It was assessed by the City at $3,014,000 in 2007, but that has been reduced to $2,234,700, well below the current asking price.

The decision to sell the building at a large loss is based on the need to improve the company’s balance sheet and because of a belief that the political climate in the City does not favor the building of affordable housing.

“It’s pretty clear nothing is going to happen in terms of our mission,” Ms. Jackson said. “We’re bruised but not stupid.”

The housing corporation arrived at this moment after planning for a senior housing building on Washington Street for nearly three years. When it found itself needing some additional help from the City — after already having received some — in order to leverage some government subsidies, the new City Council declined, effectively ending their proposal to build a facility called The Wilden, after the late affordable housing advocate Bob Wilden.

They hope to sell the building and have their balance sheet re-liquified by the end of their fiscal year in June. “Tell the world we need a buyer,” Ms. Jackson said.

Meanwhile, the office building next door at 360 South Washington, which was going to be part of the Wilden development as well, also is for sale. The subject of a controversial $2 million loan from the city that has since been repaid, the building is available for $2,900,000.

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City Rejects Initial Woodland House Subdivision Plan

January 8, 2011 by Stephen Siegel · 9 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

January 8, 2011

Falls Church City officials have rejected a developer’s proposal to subdivide the one-acre site of the storied Woodland House at Fulton Avenue and North Lee Street, but the fate of the property and of a giant tulip poplar tree remain uncertain.

The property, which was purchased at an auction by ASR Designer Homes, includes a much-loved former school house that 70 residents petitioned to save last year. The petition asked the city to prevent any subdivision.

The initial proposal by ASR included plans to save and restore the home, but it also would have added four new houses to the site, including one “pipestem” lot that would sit behind a house fronting the street.

The proposal was rejected because setbacks did not meet the zoning requirements, said property owner Deep Randhawa of Randhawa Architects & Builders, which is affiliated with ASR. As of Friday, a city zoning map showed the property to be designated as R1-B, which mandates 25-foot front, 10-foot side, and 30-foot rear setbacks from the property lines.

“We did apply for the subdivision of that property,” Randhawa said. “What we submitted was incorrect, as per the standards for setbacks in the city. They revised the setbacks of that particular zoning which applied to us.”

A city-owned “paper street,” which is largely undeveloped but identified on maps, has further complicated matters, Randhawa said. Although the paper street, known as Cedar Street, was littered and overgrown, he said the city told him he would need to maintain “a rather large setback” from it.

Randhawa said Friday he still intends to restore the historic home, and he will submit a revised subdivision plan to the city soon.

But the tree may or may not be saved. “Our situation is very clear and very simple,” Randhawa said. “If it is on one of the lots where a house goes, the tree has to go. If it is away from the house and doesn’t affect the building, we have no interest in getting it down.”

Beginning last week, area neighbors have witnessed a dramatic cleanup of the Woodland House site, which includes two adjoining properties on North Lee Street and on Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to removing brush and undergrowth, Randhawa’s crew removed multiple refuse carts.

At one point, Randhawa said, a man from the neighborhood accosted the cleanup crew. “He was yelling and screaming to our workers … These guys are out there in winter … trying to clean up that mess in bad weather, and we were paying for it, and they were upset.”

But he added that another neighbor stopped by to applaud his plans for restoring the house.

The Woodland House dates to the 1890s, and had been in the Shefer family since the 1960s. It may have been built by the grandfather of Jickie Styles Crocker, whose mother lived there until the Great Depression. Crocker reported to the Village Preservation and Improvement Society last March that the home had served as a school at one point. The most recent owner, Anton Shefer, died in February 2010, and the house and lot were sold for $2,150,000. It is said to include six bedrooms and three bathrooms, encompassing a total of ten rooms and 4,393 square feet.

The Falls Church Tree Commission passed a motion October 27 urging the City Council “to investigate all options” for saving the huge poplar. Taking up nearly a quarter of the more than one-acre lot, the tree measures 70- to 74 inches in diameter and may be up to 150 years old.

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Famous Dave’s Barbecue May Locate Next to Chipotle

January 2, 2011 by Stephen Siegel · 3 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

January 2, 2011

In something of a coup, the Broaddale Center appears likely to welcome national barbecue chain Famous Dave’s to the spot vacated by the Original Pancake House last fall.

It’s a coup for the Broaddale owners, who add another deep-pocketed national chain to their bustling strip mall at 370 West Broad Street, which already houses Starbucks and Chipotle.

It’s also a boon to the city, which will once again start seeing revenue from one of the larger restaurant venues in town, and to area diners, who will get a well-regarded restaurant company that serves everything from ribs and pulled pork to chicken and catfish.

The Minneapolis-based company currently has five locations in Virginia, with the closest in Oakton and Chantilly.

It’s not clear if the company has signed a lease for the Broaddale location yet. Neither city nor Broaddale officials could be reached on the holiday, but the company has requested a zoning variance to allow a larger than normal sign at the proposed site. Presumably, they have at least signed a letter of intent.

The sign ordinance sets limits of ten square feet, and Famous Dave’s is asking to quadruple that limit in order to display a 44 square foot sign. That would make it four by 11 or perhaps about seven by six. The Board of Zoning Appeals is scheduled to hear the request Jan. 13.

At first glance, it would seem that the Broaddale space is too small for a Famous Dave’s. Many of their 177 locations nationwide are in more suburban, Fairfax County-like mall environments, frequently in freestanding buildings.

But the company says it also is interested in locations that are “end caps” — retail lingo for the end of a strip mall — that range from 4,000 to 6,000 square feet. The Broaddale space is 5,425 square feet, according to the city’s commercial space database, putting it right in the ballpark.

One issue may be parking. The Broaddale center already is crowded. Famous Dave’s says it seeks 110 dedicated parking spaces for its end cap locations. Broaddale has about 60 spots to the west side of the facility’s entrance, according to an informal count. It may have about 100 overall, but those obviously serve the other businesses at the plaza as well.

The Original Pancake House, which left the Broaddale Center in the fall, has moved just outside the city limits and is adjacent to the Safeway at 7395 Lee Hwy.

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West Broad Street Redevelopment Begins to Percolate

December 14, 2010 by Stephen Siegel · 9 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

December 14, 2010

The appearance of Falls Church City’s North Washington Street corridor is poised to change dramatically with the Gateway and Northgate projects in varying states of approval. West Broad Street hasn’t received the same interest yet, but redevelopment is starting to percolate there as well.

The building at 917 W. Broad may be sold and renovated soon.

No huge, two acre projects are in the pipeline. But 917 West Broad, currently the site of the El Zunzal restaurant, is expected to be under contract to be sold any day now, with the likelihood that the building on the one-half acre parcel could soon be either expanded and rehabbed or demolished.

A few doors away, at the northeast corner of Broad and West streets, which now house a Sunoco gas station and a mostly-empty strip mall to its east, a new construction Capital One bank branch could rise on the two parcels.

That deal is not set in stone; Capital One continues to negotiate both with the venerable Shreve family, which owns the land, and with the City, which has expressed concern about the creation of a drive-thru facility at the busy corner.

The El Zunzal site has been for sale for several years, and the price recently has been reduced to $1.6 million. The site is the largest on the 900 block of West Broad, but is much smaller than sites for other large buildings, such as the Flower Building or site of the proposed Hilton Hotel, at 706 Broad.

“We are working on something,” said Rob Meeks, an agent with Grubb & Ellis and a member of the city planning commission. “I hope we are under contract shortly, but we’re not.”

“Whenever it sells, there will be changes,” Mr. Meeks added. “The existing tenants would like to stay, but I don’t see them there five years from now. There’s a higher and better use.”

Capital One, which is headquartered in Tysons Corner, gained access to the City market when it bought Washington-area icon Chevy Chase Bank in 2009. Chevy Chase had a branch on West Broad just east of Falls Plaza, at 1100 West Broad, which now has been renamed with the Capital One brand.

The Sunoco gas station at Broad & West could give way to a new Capital One bank.

They’re apparently interested in moving one block in order to get a larger and newer facility at a more visible location, although it’s unclear if the cost of acquiring the land, building, and moving just one block would be worth the trouble. The company must think so, but the public relations office did not return a telephone call and employees at the branch hadn’t heard a thing about it. “We have no clue,” one employee said Saturday.

City officials have balked at Capital One’s idea of a drive-thru branch, concerned about added traffic at the already-congested intersection. For the same reason, city officials rejected plans by BB&T bank to relocate from its Falls Plaza location a few feet to the former Chicken Out site, which remains vacant years after a fire ousted the former restaurant from the building.

Also unclear is what would happen to the existing Capital One branch. Assessed at $1,053,000, the site is just a quarter-acre and has very limited parking, making it untenable for a restaurant or other store.

Now a bank, 1100 W. Broad could be available for redevelopment.

The same problem continues to plague the site of the former Falls Church Cabinetry at 1001 W. Broad, which continues to languish empty and remains for lease. City officials say they’ve gotten many inquiries on the building, but the lack of parking has been an issue. The investors who lease the adjacent property to Rite Aid have expressed some interest, but it appears Broad Street Realty Trust is not interested in selling.

Rite Aid has ample parking, so a purchase of the parking-challenged adjacent site, or some kind of joint venture, would be a good fit.

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Three Choices Under a Million as Home Market Sizzles

December 6, 2010 by Stephen Siegel · Leave a Comment 

Falls Church Times Staff

December 6, 2010

While much of the country continues to struggle with a supply of too many homes and too few buyers, fortunate Falls Church City continues to have the opposite problem: Too many buyers, too few houses.

It’s certainly a high-class problem to have, but the lack of inventory of single family homes for sale has frustrated buyers and recently reached what by definition is near an all-time low.

There are currently eight single-families for sale in the City, a small number in its own right. But if your budget is under $1 million, as most people’s budgets are, your choices dwindle to just three.

Those three are at 118 Greenway, 401 North Oak, and 514 Anne, and are presumably getting most of the attention from buyers about now.

“We have been getting outstanding traffic,” confirmed Dick Coogan, agent for 514 Anne, which has been on the market for just a little under three months. “We’ve had over 100 showings.”

514 Anne Street has received over 100 showings.

Despite the interest, and what Mr. Coogan called the “meticulous” condition of the home, it remains for sale. The home doesn’t have a basement and is small, which has been the primary complaint among buyers, he said. The price has been reduced once, from $575,000 to $560,000. The sellers are moving because of a job transfer.

118 Greenway, priced at $865,000.

The North Oak home is adjacent to the Washington and Old Dominion Trail and is priced at $565,000. Listing agent Bethany Ellis says the home is a bit of a fixer-upper but features good “bones” — real estate lingo for a solid and functional structure. She said she’s had over 50 showings in the first month, but buyers have balked at doing the work required to update it.

The property at 118 Greenway is priced at $865,000. Agent Isabelle Williams did not return a phone call seeking comment.

401 N. Oak, priced at $565,000 needs updating

“It’s true — there’s hardly anything on the market,” said Stacy Hennessey, an agent at Fall Properties, which recently opened an office at West and Park streets. “People are clamoring to get in here.”

Ms. Hennessey added that while the schools are a key driver of demand for City homes, access to Metro, the W&OD Trail, and the farmer’s market also are big draws.

Additionally, she said, the schools are in demand not only because of their quality, but also because of their small size.

Meanwhile, there are only five homes over $1 million available. Make that four. As this article was being written, 101 Buxton Street, a 5,500 square foot home built in 2005, the most expensive home available in the City, went under contract, priced at $1,395,000.

Ironically, as the contract for Buxton was being finalized, Ms. Hennessey was saying it was a beautiful house, but that buyers she had shown the home to had turned it down because it’s at the corner of Buxton and busy East Broad Street. Still, someone decided that wasn’t a deal-breaker.

The market for high-end homes has improved since the depths of the mortgage mess in 2008, when jumbo loans were hard to come by. A new home on Highland recently closed for $1,345,000. But that market clearly remains slower than that for homes that are lower-priced. In 2010, 18 City houses have sold in five days or less, an incredible number, but all of those quick sales sold between $460,000 and $899,000.

Even the condo market, one of the banes of the City budget, may be improving. A foreclosed condo at The Byron, 513 W. Broad, recently went under contract after just 23 days. Priced at $429,900 for a 2 bedroom, the condo sold in 2006 for $569,500 but is only assessed at $347,000.

It probably sold for well beyond the current assessment, which means the assessment, and thus the City’s revenue from it, will likely be rising. That should be music to the City Council’s ears.

Update, Dec. 7: A fourth home under $1 million is now on the market: 801 Lincoln Ave., priced at $795,000.

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