Local Commentary

Editorial: On ‘Thinking Outside the Box’

Though not carrying a lamp, Falls Church City Councilman Phil Duncan has been spending the lazy month of August Diogenes-style, meandering between an array of local meetings to see where he can find any interest in some “outside the box” thinking about future capital improvement projects. He’s brought the matter up at the City Council’s only meeting of the month, at the Library Board and this Monday was present when it was brought up briefly at the Planning Commission.

According to his reports, there has been a loud and emphatic opposition to the notion of some fresh approaches to the expansions and renovations of three important City buildings – Mt. Daniel Elementary, the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, and City Hall – in conjunction with the construction of a new high school to replace the current George Mason High structure.

Almost everyone seems to be locked in to treating each of these projects as discrete and separate, taking an uncreative “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach to muddling forward in each case in a manner defined and constrained by what’s already there.

But we are talking about expending almost $150 million in taxpayer dollars on these projects in the next few years. That’s a huge sum for the Little City, unlike anything that’s been done before. One would think that with such an enormous set of expenditures at stake, it would be wise for the City’s key decision makers to allow themselves an examination of a wider set of options than they’ve had so far.

After all, there is built into the Planning Department’s second Small Area Plan, the one for the S. Washington St. area, a considerable commitment to a large “municipal center” area that would encompass the current Tower Square Shopping Center and the Episcopal Church-owned now vacated strip mall along Fairfax St. Presumably, that would become home to a new municipal complex to include a new city hall, police headquarters and library.

It could be state-of-the-art and far less costly than the current approach, as it could, in ways done effectively in neighboring Arlington, for example, be developed in conjunction with private office and even residential spaces to significantly lower the cost of construction to the taxpayer.

The prospects of moving Mt. Daniel off its current site and selling that valuable seven acres of land, would also be opened up by a serious conversation of new options, including less costly ways of dealing with the high school’s need for new buildings.

Is it too late to begin considering such options by now? “Too late” is only when the taxpayer dollars are raised and the construction begun according to the current inertia. Fearing change and something new is a natural human tendency, but progress occurs only when they are suppressed in service to a higher good. There should at least be a “time out” for a serious look at new ideas.