Developers Keenly Interested in F.C.’s 34.6-Acre School & Commercial Site

Bob Jones of ARCADIS and Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields field questions at a briefing on George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson campus redevelopment Tuesday morning. (Photo: courtesy Marybeth Connelly)
Bob Jones of ARCADIS and Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields field questions at a briefing on George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson campus redevelopment Tuesday morning. (Photo: courtesy Marybeth Connelly)

An informational meeting for anyone considering responding to the “request for proposal” from the City of Falls Church to develop the 34.6 acres recently ceded to the City as part of the deal to sell the City’s water system to Fairfax County was held at the George Mason High School cafeteria Tuesday morning, and it was a proverbial “standing room only” crowd.

“It’s always good when you have a meeting and have to go find more chairs,” F.C. Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones exclaimed to the News-Press after the event, whose attendees filled the better part of four sign-in sheets.

Fifty-eight persons, representing development and construction entities from throughout the region, provided their contact information upon arrival, and the City has already posted PDFs of the lists on its website.

The format of the meeting was straightforward, a welcoming by Mayor David Tarter and presentations by Dr. Jones on the school component – either the renovation or construction of a new high school with a 1,500 student capacity and expansion of the middle school – and City Manager Wyatt Shields on the 10.38 acres that can be commercially developed.

“There was obviously a very high level of curiosity and interest from the development community,” Ed Novak, who has been involved for 15 years in development in Falls Church, said about the meeting. It was well-attended and the participants wanted to see if you can fit all the sardines into the can and still get $100 million in value from the project.”

Shields told the group that a study was done showing that the enhanced two schools, all their athletic fields, 500 parking spaces and ample bus parking spaces for school use, and 10.38 acres of commercial development can, indeed, fit on the site, on the proviso that the high school’s footprint is much smaller than it now is (implying a new school of four or more stories in height).

While there were many questions at the meeting, developers have until September 23 to submit questions in writing, and the deadline for submission of a formal conceptual proposal will be October 30. A shortlist of finalists will be announced in December and the deadline for a detailed response will be next March. Public hearings on the detailed proposals will occur next April and the selection of a preferred proposer will be announced next June.
A finalized comprehensive agreement is scheduled to occur in November 2016, combined with a public referendum, and a bond sale and a notice to proceed will occur in December 2016.

Jones suggested that developer partnerships may be formed to get all the work done, as there are specialists in school construction and specialists in commercial development, but often they are not the same.

Two representatives from Clark Construction, the mega-developers who made an unsolicited proposal to the City earlier this year that the City and schools decided to pass on, were present Tuesday, as well as Stefan Gassner from Rushmark Properties, a major component of the Harris Teeter-anchored large mixed use building going up in the 300 block of W. Broad St. However, other familiar names in Falls Church development projects, with the exception of Novak, were not present.

In the scope of work for the school construction, Jones emphasized “attention to the academic wing” over athletic fields and other amenities, including learning spaces, the schools’ STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs, learning pods, connections to the outside community, community spaces, green spaces, collaborative learning, hands-on involvement, student-teacher interaction and tecnology savvy.

The athletic spaces, she said, should be for both community and school use, and should include an indoor practice facility.

In presenting the scope of work for the 10.38 acres of commercial, Shields said the RFP does not stipulate where the commercial component should go onto the site, whether up by the West Falls Church Metro station or down closest to the intersection of Haycock and W. Broad.

He said the proposals should maximize the financial value of the property to the City and School Board, including maximizing the net fiscal impact to the City through high-quality commercial uses. They should feature outstanding design, exemplary architecture, pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets with effective transportation improvements for access to, from and through the site, lively public and commercial spaces with a “sense of place,” and environmentally sustainable buildings and infrastructure.

Most developers seemed to prefer the Haycock-Broad end of the site for its visibility on the Route 7 corridor and the possibility of a link-up with Federal Realty which owns the outdated strip mall on the other side of the street.

The project is proceeding under the terms of the Public-Private Educational Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002.

A walking tour of the site concluded Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted for two hours.