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Amid Complaints of Creativity Lack, Council Defers Campus Site Plan

THE FALLS CHURCH City Council welcomed the George Mason High School's regional champion robotics team that will now go to the world championships in St. Louis later this month. (Photo: News-Press)
THE FALLS CHURCH City Council welcomed the George Mason High School’s regional champion robotics team that will now go to the world championships in St. Louis later this month. (Photo: News-Press)

As deliberations on the item did not even begin until well after 10 p.m. Monday night and quickly went to some critical issues and unanswered questions, the Falls Church City Council voted 6-1 to defer approving an action to move a second more detailed “request for proposal” to the two prospective developers of the City-owned 36 acres of land adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station.

Since most of the deliberations on the subject have been held behind closed doors, due to alleged confidentiality considerations, the public and even the Council has had almost no details on the plans as they’ve been developed to move forward. Council members complained Monday that they’d had “less than one business day” to assess this latest proposal, for example.

Meanwhile, the joint, mostly-confidential deliberations between the City Council and School Board have produced a predictable, bare-bones concept for a $112 million high school construction/middle school expansion project, with no amenities such as a swimming pool, and development on 10 acres allowed for commercial use of a mix of a minimum of 40 percent commercial and 60 percent residential use, and that’s it.

The Phase II “request for proposal,” or RFP, once approved by both the F.C. City Council and School Board, will go to the two entities who responded last fall to the Phase I RFP, Edgemore Infrastructure of Bethesda, whose leading contractor is Clark Construction, and Mason Greens Joint Venture, whose major component is Republic Properties of Washington, D.C.

In the Phase II RFP draft, ideas such as phasing in a more modular approach to building the high school, such as Council member Letty Hardi introduced, had no place in the plan, and when Council member Marybeth Connelly noted that the 40-60 ratio of commercial to residential on the economic development portion of the land would be by far the highest in the City, as the market has consistently rejected such levels, there was no answer.

The time-line for the plan presented Monday night pushed a public referendum from this November to May 2017. Yet with Monday’s deferral until after the Fiscal Year 2017 budget is expected to be approved (on April 25), it was suggested that the item be removed from this year’s Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) line item in the budget and pushed ahead.

School Board chair Justin Castillo complained about the “constraints” presented by the site impacting the decision to rule out a pool, but City Councilman Phil Duncan said that immediate constraints should be measured against the benefits of 65 years of productive use, There was also no mention of the possible revenue generating potential of an Olympic-sized pool.

Hardi said she was concerned that this project would fail to win the approval of voters in a referendum and suggested a “smaller price tag for the school.” She said, “This is the most strategic piece of land in the City and we want to make sure we don’t miss out on this opportunity.”

City Councilman David Snyder also suggested “we need to see something more imaginative,” and Councilman Dan Sze concurred, saying, “What can we do, a modular approach, a larger high school, 40 percent non-residential, an ice rink surrounded by a medical research center? This is a generational project” that, he complained, has been “one business day in the public and we’re being asked to approve after 11 p.m. tonight.”
Sze’s references were perhaps a not too subtle reference to the Reston Town Center as a model for development of the site.

The second-stage draft RFP includes the option for a developer to either purchase or acquire the economic development portion of the land through a long-term lease. Either way, the stipulation is that 25 percent or more of the purchase or lease price be provided by the developer up front, and that portion would be used to mitigate the cost of the construction of a new high school for the first few years before revenues from the economic development kick in to contribute.

The matter is expected to not come back to the Council until it completes its deliberations on the FY17 budget (see story, elsewhere this issue). But City Attorney Carol McCoskrie reminded the Council that any serious deliberations would probably have to go back into closed sessions and any changes would have to be agreed upon by the School Board.