The Mason Row Merry Go Round Continues

December 26, 2017 by · 9 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
The Falls Church Times
December 26, 2017

It was nearly two years ago that the Falls Church City Council unanimously approved a special exception to the zoning code for Mason Row, the big mixed-use project proposed for the busy northeast corner of Broad and West streets.

The vote, after much controversy and opposition, came after the developer agreed to modestly reduce the height and density of the proposal. Yet the corner in question looks much like it has for some time.

The only changes since then that would suggest the project is going forward are the departures of several long-time businesses, including three to nearby locations. Longtime favorite Mike’s Deli is now open at Broad & Shreve; bike store Bikinetic is on West Jefferson, and Afghan restaurant Panjshir recently opened in the new Lily Building across from The Falls Church. A fourth business, Brits on Broad, has closed.

But other than that, there are no signs that Mason Row, which has been renamed Founder’s Row, is still going to be built. The 7-11 remains open, and it will need to be relocated before demolition or construction can begin because it has lease rights to the space. Many other businesses remain open on the site, and no demolition or construction permits have been filed at City Hall.

Given that the City Council approved it easily after the developers made some changes the City long had sought, one would be justified in wondering what is causing the delay.

And the answer to the question of what is causing the delay is that developer Mill Creek Residential still hasn’t been able to tie up the loose ends it had when the project was approved in January 2016.

Although there wasn’t a single vote against it, the 6-0 Council tally still came with contingencies. Mill Creek was required to nail down leases with a hotel and a movie theater company in order to gain final city approvals to build the project, which also was slated to include restaurants, retail, and about 300 apartments.

The company has for some time been deep in talks with a movie theater company that will provide a dinner theater experience. Mill Creek officials are declining to idenitfy the company until a lease is signed, although the Falls Church Times was able to learn who it is. However, the Times is not revealing it at the request of Mill Creek Mid-Atlantic Managing Director Amirali Nasserian, who cited the sensitive nature of the negotiations as the reason for the secrecy.

But while the movie theater seems well on its way to contract status, the same cannot be said about the required hotel. At one time, Hilton Corp. had signed a letter of intent to build a Home 2 extended stay hotel at the site, but it has since backed out of the deal. And Mill Creek has been unable to entice another hotel to the project, although it is not clear why.

It may because the hotel business is suffering somewhat from the rise of Air BnB or too much supply in other ways. An unscientific Falls Church Times analysis suggests there are plenty of hotel rooms available in different markets, even on holiday weekends.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the construction of the Hilton Garden Inn on Broad, nor has it stopped Inns of Virginia, Inc., from proposing to knock down its old hotel on the 400 block of West Broad and replace it with a new, larger one. Additionally, a prominent local developer has floated the idea of a new boutique hotel on the current site of the Stratford, in the 300 block of West Broad.

But regardless of the reason, Mill Creek has been stymied in its efforts to attract a hotel so severely that it now wants the City to eliminate the hotel requirement and allow it to be replaced with an age-restricted apartment building for adults 55 and over.

That idea has been met with some disdain at City Hall, which is probably why Mill Creek hasn’t even come back for additional Council hearings and approvals on the changes, despite suggesting them months ago. Or, it could be that they fear the wrath of the Council if come back to the City without their movie theater lease being signed.

If they do come back for approvals with the 55-and-over residential component instead of a hotel, they would have to start all over again with a First Reading because of this major change to the project, which means approval is far from guaranteed. For the neighbors and other residents who oppose it, this represents their best chance to kill the deal — years after they thought they had lost.

It would be shocking if Mill Creek were to just walk away from the project at this point; they have years and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested. But it seems as though that is a possibility now, almost two years after it was finally approved following an arduous, three-year process.

Mason Student Arrested After Allegedly Threatening Violence Against School

December 8, 2017 by · 3 Comments 

December 8, 2017

A George Mason High School student was arrested Friday, just days after another student reported that the student arrested had threatened violence against Mason teachers and students.

The suspect is a male 17-year-old and City resident. He was arrested near his family’s home, City officials say.

The incident began Tuesday, when a student came forward and warned about the threat. School principal Matt Hills called police and the student’s parents, who were told that their son would not be allowed to return to school until the investigation was complete.

Police conducted surveillance of the suspect and determined they had sufficient evidence to arrest him, although it’s not clear whether they have additional information beyond the initial student report. However, police say they are confident that there is no conspiracy — meaning that no one else is involved with any violent plans.

“The investigation to this point has revealed that this was a plan solely conceived by the suspect and there are no other individuals involved. There is no threat to the school or the community,” Communications Director Susan Finarelli said in a statement sent to the media.

“The City of Falls Church Police are grateful for the school administration and community members who came forward with credible, critical information,” said Chief Mary Gavin, also in a statement. “It allowed us to intervene in a timely manner. The courage of people coming forward is key in keeping our community and schools safe.”

Anyone with information should call the Detective Richardson with the City of Falls Church Police at 703-248-5327 (TTY 711).

School officials also released a statement Friday, reminding residents to remain alert, even though they believe there are no other individuals planning violence.

“While police believe this to have been a single threat made by a single student, we urge our students, staff, and community to remain vigilant – and yes, if you see or hear something, say something. We applaud the courage of the student who came forward and helped take care of the community we are in every day.”

There, of course, have been many school shootings in recent years, including one just Thursday in Aztec, N.M. Two students at that school, located near the Colorado border, were killed.

City Council Incumbents Win And Are Joined By Newcomer Litkenhous

November 7, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
November 7, 2017

The popular Marybeth Connelly remains popular. And so does the longest-serving City Councilor, Dave Snyder. The two candidates easily won re-election to the Falls Church City Council Tuesday, with Ms. Connelly easily receiving the highest number of votes with Mr. Snyder finishing a strong second.

It’s the second overall win in two tries for Ms. Connelly, who also received the largest share of the vote when she initially ran for the Council in 2013. She clearly is doing something right. Incumbent Dan Sze also won re-election, and newcomer Ross Litkenhous topped former city councilor Dan Maller and newcomer Spencer Parsons to claim the final spot.

Ms. Connelly gained 3,707 votes to Mr. Snyder’s 3,254, a huge margin of victory. But it also was an impressive result for Mr. Snyder, who continues to demonstrate that longevity doesn’t have to be a four-letter word in politics. Mr. Sze was third with 2,889 votes, while Mr. Litkenhous, who presented himself as a knowledgeable yet fresh face, earned 2,695. Messrs. Maller and Parsons were far behind with 1,796 and 782 votes, respectively.

Mr. Litkenhous, who will replace the retiring Karen Oliver, suggested he has a valuable background to help manage the George Mason High School construction project, which was approved today. He works at Altus Group as a real estate consultant, advising on state and local taxes and economic development projects, and he said during the campaign he thought City property taxes could ultimately be reduced.

That would be music to ears of City residents, who have endured the double whammy of repeated tax rate increases along with increased property assessments in recent years.

Anderson, Litton, and Russell Join Webb As Winners in World’s Tightest School Board Race

November 7, 2017 by · 7 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
November 7, 2017

There may be a continuing desire by voters for political newcomers nationwide, but school board member Lawrence Webb may have the secret elixir that other incumbent officeholders want.

Mr. Webb won re-election to the board and also garnered the highest number of votes Tuesday; he was the only board member whose term was up who sought re-election. Joining him on the board are newcomers Greg Anderson, Shannon Litton, and Shawna Russell. Political outsider Alison Kutchma fell just short for the second election cycle in a row, and Richard Crespin finished sixth.

The most notable feature of the race was how tightly bunched the candidates were. Unlike in previous years, when one candidate was the clear favorite, this race came down to the final precinct to be counted. In the end, Mr. Webb led with 2,714 votes. He was followed closely by Mr. Anderson (2,674), Ms. Litton (2,629), and Ms. Russell (2,614), which means that the top four candidates were all within 100 votes of each other.

Ms. Kutchma, who stood out as the only candidate to oppose the bond referendum for a new George Mason High School, finished with 2,514, and for the second cycle in a row was the top finisher among those falling short. She has long been an advocate for special education, and has been a frequent critic of school budget and management practices. Mr. Crespin brought up the rear with 2,491.

It’s unclear what impact the results will have on the school board and the schools more generally. All the winning candidates supported the school bond, and Mr. Anderson, who racked up the largest number of votes among the newcomers, ran on a very conciliatory platform, promising to work well with others and support the schools while spending taxpayer money wisely.

Perhaps most notable is the dramatic change on the school board. Five of the seven board members will be new since 2015: tonight’s victors, along with Erin Gill and Phil Reitinger, who both were elected in the previous cycle. That’s massive turnover for any board or body, but especially unusual for the normally staid school board races, which frequently have had little or no competition.

What it means precisely may be difficult to determine, but it does seem likely that voters wanted fresh voices.

Bond for New High School Construction Passes Easily

November 7, 2017 by · 4 Comments 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
November 7, 2017

It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of Falls Church City was decided by voters today. That future now appears to include a brand new George Mason High School after voters handily approved a bond referendum authorizing city officials to borrow and spend up to $120 million for the school’s construction.

This does not mean one has to agree with the majority’s decision. But it would be difficult to argue that there has been a more significant day in the City’s history. By voting yes, the 63 percent of residents who voted said they want — and are willing to pay for — a new high school, even though many risks and uncertainties about the project abound.

Without question, it’s a big number, especially for a city the size of Falls Church. Officials are aware of this, but pointed out that by approving the project, it would allow for the demolition of the existing school, which in turn would allow for large scale development at the busy northeast corner of Broad Street and Haycock Road. A sale or lease of the City-owned land at that corner for office, retail, and residential construction could bring in as much as $40 million, according to the City’s consultants. If that plays out as they expect and hope, it would offset one-third of the anticipated construction costs, and that’s before factoring in increased property and sales taxes from whatever is built there.

But what if it doesn’t workout as planned? That was the argument proffered by the bond’s opponents, who noted that City homeowners could be on the hook for much higher taxes if the City can’t sell or lease the land for the numbers they envision. Taxpayers could also be jolted by much higher taxes even if the City is right about the number but wrong about how quickly they can get it or how quickly the new development could get built.

Opponents also worried that City officials aren’t up to the task of managing such a big project. They cited the issues with the much smaller Mt. Daniel School referendum, in which bonds were sold before the City received permits from Fairfax County, where the school is located, and then had to scramble when Fairfax officials objected to the Mt. Daniel expansion plans.

Those are legitimate concerns, but voters agreed to accept those risks tonight. Planning for the new school will likely begin almost immediately. There are many new officials now on the school board — and in the superintendent’s office — who weren’t there when the Mt. Daniel project was conceived and approved. It will be a big test for City officials to manage and get it right. Residents will find out if they can handle it.

Target Bringing Its Urban Store Concept to South Washington Street

June 28, 2017 by · 2 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.

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