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F.C. in Long Term: Will Police Station Be Moved?

Anticipating the need for some big changes over the next half-dozen years, both City Hall and the School Board in Falls Church are looking to set aside generous funds for future studies in the next fiscal year budget. But, as City Manager Wyatt Shields said this week, a “blue skies” approach to planning will work best.

 “Blue skies” means no advanced presumptions. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to the direction new upgrades and development of city and school facilities can take, not the least of which is the aggressive city center makeover that is now in the works.

At Monday’s City Council work session, members threw around some of the options, including relocating the police station out of City Hall, and maybe putting it in the current location of the Mary Riley Styles public library.

Another option cited at the meeting was the use of “condemnation,” of forcing private property owners to sell at a fair market price, to locate a public building on the north side of W. Broad Street where the city center redevelopment is slated to take place.

That option would not only provide the city with the expanded space it may need, but could break the impasse that currently exists in those blocks resulting from landowners who are insisting on selling prices way above market value.

While funds are included in the next budget to study a redesign of City Hall, including prospects for its expansion and reconfiguration, Shields said that would begin with a “blue sky” process that would not assume ahead of time that an expansion and renovation of City Hall would be the best way to proceed.

The same goes with the City schools, he noted. There is $500,000 in the coming fiscal year budget for a study of school facility needs in the coming years, but that will come ahead, and not after, a study slated for next year on enrollment expectations.

Some Council members questioned Monday why a facilities study would come ahead of an enrollment projection study since, clearly, the facilities’ needs would be predicated by expected school student enrollment numbers.

However, Shields explained that the facilities study would “wrap around” the enrollment study. The $500,000 won’t all be spent in the first year, he explained, but its first phase will be focused on needs of maintaining and improving the existing structures in the system.

There is $50 million for the schools in the City’s Capital Improvement Project budget for 2012 that is there as a “placeholder” in the event enrollment growth will require the construction or thorough renovation and expansion of yet another school.

That has been there from the days of the so-called Greer Study, the last crack the City took at enrollment projection in the late 1990s. That study came at a time when enrollment was growing by double-digit numbers annually and it projected that by the year 2010, the Falls Church system would be coping with 2,500 students.

However, the growth rate has leveled off dramatically the last few years, and no one now expects that projection to come anywhere close to reality.

Nonetheless, with the continued residential growth expectations in Falls Church, especially with the new condos and residential apartments slated to come on line, it is not clear at this moment which period marked a deviation from the norm over the long term, the period of rapid enrollment in the late 1990s, or the relative enrollment growth stagnation of the last few years.