While it’s not an actual ballot question, many Falls Church residents will base their votes today on whether or not candidates support building Mason Row, a mixed-use project that would replace underdeveloped lots in the west part of the city. The election results will set the tone for future growth in Falls Church.

A rendering of Mason Row. All images from the developer.

A mile southeast of where I-66 intersects with Leesburg Pike, Mason Row would house a movie theater, 52,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, a 145-room hotel, and 340 apartments, along with an open-air community gathering place. The project would sit along Broad Street, the main road that connects Falls Church to Tysons Corner, Seven Corners, and Alexandria.

The developer, Spectrum Development Company, wants to incorporate the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail, build a new bus stop for the bus line connecting the site to Alexandria and Tysons Corner, and offer a shuttle to the West Falls Church Metro less than a mile away. It’s also anticipating features like car sharing and bikeshare (which Falls Church is considering for 2018).

Though Mason Row itself isn’t on the ballot, candidates for City Council (and even some for School Board) are weighing in on the project, which has been under review for more than a year. The debate is turning the election into a litmus test for whether candidates support new development within the 2.2 square miles of the community that calls itself Northern Virginia’s “Little City.”

A map of the proposed development. Red = Mason Row property line, Brown = the W&OD Trail, White Circles = bus stops.

Mason Row would replace aging buildings and put money in Falls Church coffers

Right now, the proposed site hosts a number of aging buildings. There’s a popular deli and bike shop, but also a partially abandoned strip mall and an empty real estate office.

The proposed Mason Row site today.

The proposed Mason Row site today.

Aside from new buildings, there are economic projections that suggest Mason Row would mean an increase in tax revenue for the city in the millions of dollars annually. That’d be a key benefit for a small jurisdiction that already struggles with a real estate tax rate that’s higher than most.

Mason Row embodies Falls Church’s debate over growth

Falls Church officials raised concerns in the early stages of the proposal. For example, one edge of the site adjoins single-family homes, and city planners pushed back on building heights on that side of the project. Spectrum responded to the criticism by cutting the height to four-story townhouse-style units.

Falls Church has also pressed the Spectrum to increase affordable housing to the city’s mandated 6% of the apartment units and to support better bike and pedestrian connections to the site. Members of the City Council are asking for clearer commitments about the Spectrum’s retail plan.

But much of the criticism is more fundamental, focusing less on the specifics of Mason Row and more on the merits of development in general. Sam Mabry, for example, criticized Mason Row because it would “add more apartments and more population, further ‘densing’ the city” and called for a “moratorium” on further development. Some worry that adding more dense residential uses could overburden schools — although other mixed-use developments haven’t had that effect — and claim the City’s economic estimates are too optimistic.

The proposed Mason Row site today.

In all, the City Council debate has evolved to focus on what one candidate called a decision between “momentum and moratorium” — whether Falls Church should continue to support mixed-use developments or stop building in the near term. In a series of editorials in the Falls Church News-Press and other local websites, community members have argued about whether mixed-use projects like Mason Row would provide important revenue for Falls Church, enrich the community and the environment, or just generate new congestion. There’s a new website that promotes candidates who oppose new development.

This is far from Falls Church’s last new development proposal

Over the next year, Falls Church will consider plans to redevelop the 34.6-acre campus next to the West Falls Church Metro that houses its middle and high schools. The Urban Land Institute called that project a “unique development opportunity” to integrate educational and commercial uses into an innovative mixed-use focal point for Falls Church’s west end.

With several important planning opportunities coming up, the results of today’s election will help decide whether Falls Church will become a local model of urbanism at its best, a haven for uncoordinated overdevelopment, or just another example of suburban sprawl.

It’s important for everyone to think carefully about the community they want to build, and this election is a pivotal decision point. If you live in Falls Church, today is a key opportunity to make your voice heard.

Rob Sherman believes in building smart communities that are safe for people to walk, bike, and live.  He lives with his wife and two daughters in Falls Church.