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

February 17, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

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 · 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.

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