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Tysons senior living towers win initial approval, despite concerns from Fairfax staff

By Alex Koma  – Staff Reporter, Washington Business JournalJun 14, 2019, 10:17am EDT Updated Jun 14, 2019, 12:42pm EDT

Fairfax planning commissioners have given the thumbs up to a towering senior living campus in Tysons, despite gripes raised by county staff about the project’s height, massive and open space.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend approval of The Mather, a two-tower assisted living center within the Arbor Row development. Cityline Partners is entitling the project, located just behind the Tysons Galleria, on behalf of Evanston, Illinois-based Mather LifeWays.

The developer is pitching 300 independent, age-restricted units on the 4-acre site, in addition to 78 assisted living beds, 13,286 square feet of retail, and a 2,750-square-foot community space. Perhaps most notably, the height of the towers — set to stand 27 and 18 stories tall — could well make the Mather the tallest senior center in the region.

However, questions around its height had threatened to sink the project. County staff cited the proposed 285-foot tower as a prime reason in recommending denial of the project. The maximum allowable height in that area is 225 feet under current zoning.

But commissioners opted to back the project anyway, reasoning The Mather will still fit into the community and can adequately justify the extra height.

“I believe it will be an asset, a true asset for Tysons,” said Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, planning commissioner for the Providence District, which includes Tysons. “It certainly meets a need the community has. … These are policy calls I think it’s appropriate for the Planning Commission to make, though I respect the staff’s position.”

Niedzielski-Eichner said during the meeting that the commission was chiefly convinced by Cityline’s work to refine the project since it was first submitted in 2017, and the developer’s rationale for the increased height. Namely, Cityline’s representatives say they’re not adding height above the limits in order to increase the project’s density. Instead, they want to shorten the hallways on each floor to make life easier on the buildings’ future occupants, necessitating a few additional floors.

“The floor plates shrunk, therefore the density stays the same but the heights go up,” said John McGranahan, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP who is representing Cityline. “And walkability is important for seniors.”

McGranahan also cited the proximity of other large buildings in Arbor Row — set to include millions of square feet of office and residential space as well — and the Tysons Galleria just behind it as proof that it will fit into the neighborhood.

Stephen Gardner, a senior planner with the county, also raised concerns about the massing of the buildings and their potential to wall off a public park proposed for the center of the development. He argued it would require something akin to a “switchback trail” just for pedestrians to access it, defeating some of the purpose of the open space.

“We think they’ve designed the space to the best that they can and with constraints that they have, but there’s almost a fundamental flaw within the configuration of that space,” Gardner said.

But McGranahan stressed that its design had “substantially improved” since planners first scrutinized it, and the commission agreed. Niedzielski-Eichner was also eager to see the construction of the park move ahead with an earlier phase of the project than originally intended, giving the community more green space “sooner rather than later.”

Mather LifeWays is tentatively projecting that the project will be completed by 2022. The company plans to buy the site from Cityline, which has been slowly selling off its Arbor Row pad sites after entitling them years ago.