A 20-page “request for proposal” document that is scheduled for a final fine tuning and release to prospective developers of the City of Falls Church’s newly-annexed near 40 acre site that currently houses its high and middle schools will be the subject of a town hall meeting this Saturday, July 11, from 10 – 11:30 a.m. at the Council chambers of the Falls Church City Hall, 300 Park Avenue.
That town hall meeting, to which the public is invited and urged to raise questions or make comments, will be followed by a regular business meeting of the Falls Church City Council on Monday night at 7:30 p.m., and those will be the final chances for the public to provide input into the final version of the request for proposal, or RFP, that will hit all the places where serious developers go to look for new business next week.
Ever since the Council and Schools voted to reject an unsolicited proposal from Clark Construction to develop the site in May, the City-Schools team hired a consulting firm to begin extracting public opinions about how to develop the site. Under the terms of its annexation into the City as part of the sale of the City’s water system to Fairfax County, 75 percent of the acreage must be dedicated to an educational use, and 25 percent, or 10.38 acres, can be put to any use, commercial or otherwise.
The Cooper Carey consulting firm organized a June 6 public meeting at the Henderson Middle School and then conducted a series of small “stakeholder’ meetings held at the School Board offices on June 23 and 23. It also monitored and quantified a substantial amount of online responses.
It is the highly fluid nature of the project, despite its predetermined proportions, that challenged the consultants to go after common threads and prospects for general consensus in their interviews, and three representatives tried to present their results to a joint City Council-School Board work session Tuesday night.
That presentation, and a review of a draft RFP took over three hours Tuesday night, and the final version of the RFP awaits more deliberations this Saturday morning and Monday night.
Among the findings of the consultants in their interviews and the emails they received, some interesting themes emerged, such as the willingness of citizens to bring a more “urban” as opposed to suburban look to the schools, with a general willingness to have them go from four to six stories in height.
There was also a general interest in a multi-use auditorium or performing arts facility that could be used by both the high school and middle school and the general public. There was considerable interest in a competitive-configured swimming pool, although there were caveats concerning the cost. Citizens felt the high and middle schools could share some spaces – like an auditorium or pool – but otherwise not be too integrated.
Another area where costs came into play was on the subject of whether or not George Mason High School should be completely demolished and rebuilt from the ground up, or whether an extensive renovation along the lines of what was done with Marshall High School up the road in Fairfax County would suffice. Despite the lack of consensus on that point, the draft RFP that was circulated Tuesday night explicitly called for the demolition of the existing high school and the construction of a new school with a capacity to accommodate 1,500 students and to be ready by September 4, 2018.
Veteran School Board member Kieran Sharpe floated the idea of building a school of only half that capacity at first, since the school currently serves only half that many students. But School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said that it would not be cost effective to do it that way.
The nature of the 10.38 acres susceptible to commercial development was also discussed. Vice Mayor David Snyder said he was uncomfortable with the idea that that portion be dedicated solely to a use that extracts the maximum yield for the City’s tax coffers. There was also a discussion of where the commercial component would go, either off the intersection of Haycock and Route 7, as the Urban Land Institute experts suggested, or nearest the West Falls Church Metro station, roughly on the site of the current football field.
City Manager Wyatt Shields said that the commercial component could not be developed prior to the school construction because of the need for the schools to continue teaching students during construction. But he modified his remarks in comments to the News-Press after the meeting, conceding that if the commercial component was at the football field, all the schools would have to do is find a temporary location for its football and soccer games.
School Board chair Justin Castillo said he is worried that the RFP should not “tie the hands” of prospective developers too much. “It is a tradeoff between the need for clarity and not being too restrictive,” he said.
Following the issuing of the RFP next week, the Council-Schools team will hold an informational meeting for interested developers on August 15, and October 30 will be the deadline for submissions.
From that, the team will pare the submissions down to a short list by December, and have next March be the deadline for detailed submissions from those making the final cut. There will be more public input solicited by April 2016, and the selection of the winner will be in June. There will subsequently be a negotiation for the next month, and by July a bond referendum will be authorized.
The referendum will be held in November 2016, and if it passes, the notification to begin work will follow that in the next month.