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Fairfax planners give thumbs up to another piece of WFC puzzle

'Converge' slated to bring mixed-use development to 7.5-acre parcel
This rendering shows a proposed multi-family residential building with up to 440 dwelling units, which is part of a mixed-use rezoning application by Converge West Falls LLC near the West Falls Church Metrorail station.

A small, but significant, piece of the development puzzle near the West Falls Church Metrorail station received a unanimous support July 12 from the Fairfax County Planning Commission.

The commission recommended the Board of Supervisors approve a proposed rezoning by Converge West Falls LLC to build a mixed-use development on 7.53 acres south of the transit station and immediately north of the city of Falls Church. The land, consisting of two parcels owned by the city of Falls Church and Virginia Tech, now is home to the four-story, 101,000-square-foot Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Center, plus surface parking and a stormwater-detention pond.

Under the proposed rezoning, the applicant would build a two-block redevelopment. Block A would have an up-to-120-foot-tall building with 230,000 square feet of space for HITT Contracting’s headquarters and a 40,000-square-foot educational facility that would house Virginia Tech’s future Coalition for Smart Construction.

“Converge”  refers to the synergy between business, education and research, said Andrew Painter, the applicant’s attorney. The Virginia Tech facility will be the university’s second-largest in Northern Virginia and serve as a regional innovation hub for the construction industry, he said.

“The idea is to forge collaboration on innovative ideas in the built environment and in the construction industry and push them out as quickly as possible,” Painter said.

Building A’s canopy would have a solar array capable of generating between 1,100 and 1,400 megawatts of electricity. The building is “intended to be a defining architectural statement for Northern Virginia,” Painter said.

Block B would have a 550,000-square-foot, up to 145-foot-tall residential tower with as many as 440 multi-family units and a maximum of 18,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. Ten percent of the housing would be workforce dwelling units.

Because of the potential for Building B to overshadow nearby residences, county staff recommended that parts of the structure directly across Falls Church Drive from The Villages condominiums reach a maximum height of 85 feet.

The applicant has set the building back from the street at that corner and introduced an architectural step-back to reduce the visual impact of transitions between the structure’s different heights.

Between those buildings, the applicant would build an extension of West Falls Station Boulevard to the city of Falls Church and offer a publicly accessible median with both landscape and hardscape elements.

The project would have 29 percent open space and include pollinator gardens, a “Veterans Grove” and these three parks:

• A 7,419-square-foot “Sustainability Pocket Park” would be situated between Building A and Falls Church Drive and built above a bio-retention feature. It would have an elevated boardwalk, interpretive signage, native plantings and play elements.

• A 42,668-square-foot “Innovation Civic Plaza” would be in the green median space between Buildings A and B. The section in front of Building A would have a plaza space, gardens, paths, lighting, public art, interpretive signage, seating elements, an open-air structure and gathering space.

A “Cloud Pavilion” there would feature “floating electronic fabric” with built-in LED lighting that can display colors, patterns and imagery, Painter said.

• A 7,908-square-foot “Pocket Play Park” would be at the southwestern corner of Haycock Road and Falls Church Drive and have play and structural elements, plus way-finding signage.

The Planning Commission also recommended approval of a comprehensive-plan amendment to permit the requested 243,000 square feet of office space and 40,000 square feet of institutional use, versus the respective totals of 181,000 and 160,000 square feet as originally proposed. Officials predicted the reduced amount of institutional use would result in fewer daily and peak-hour vehicular trips.

The proposed redevelopment would be a vital link between FCGP-Metro Development LLC’s mixed-use project at the transit station and another project being built to the south on 10 acres owned by the city of Falls Church.  “This is the critical site in terms of pedestrian mobility, place-making and more,” Painter said.

Planning Commission member John Ulfelder (Dranesville District) pressed Painter about Building B’s potential shadow impacts on The Villages. Painter said a 45-foot wide portion of the building’s 145-foot-tall section would cast a shadow over some of the condominiums during the winter solstice. The nearest part of that section of the building is about 250 feet away from the closest Villages condominium, he said.

The applicant has offered to provide a partial, 27-foot setback where that part of the building exceeds 85 feet and employ a series of increasingly smaller balconies leading toward the top, Painter said. The Villages will be in shade during the late afternoon on the winter solstice anyway, because of the185-foot-tall buildings are being constructed at the city of Falls Church site to the south, he said.

Mostafa El-Nahass, who lives nearby, backed the project for its affordable housing. “Northern Virginia is facing soaring rents and we are in dire need of more homes, especially affordable ones,” he said.

Neighborhood resident Aaron Wilkowitz, the Fairfax lead for YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, favored replacing lower-density buildings by the Metro station with ones having much higher density.

“Fundamentally, we need to build up and not out, and we need to build up around Metros,” he said.

Sonya Breehey, Northern Virginia advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the application would benefit the environment and commercial sector.

“Businesses are prioritizing transit-oriented locations with good place-making and amenities,” she said. “Overall, the applicant is proposing a good mix of uses that complement the surrounding community.”

But Holly Wade of The Village Homeowners Association said the county’s comprehensive plan calls for Building B to be limited to 85 feet tall near those condominiums so its shadow would not negatively affect nearby residents.

“The city of Falls Church has once again taken advantage of Fairfax County,” said another critic of the project, Paul Rothstein. “If you agree to the HITT-Converge proposal in its current form, you are prioritizing solar panels at Meridian High School over your constituents in Fairfax County.”

Ulfelder agreed that the application was a key piece of the development puzzle around the transit station, calling it the “cream in the Oreo” between the two adjacent projects.

“It’s critical and it’s consistent with those two other pieces and it’s going to result in, I think, a fantastic new community,” he said.