At a special joint work session Thursday morning, the Falls Church City Council and School Board considered a significant departure from the process to develop the 36-acre parcel of land on which the George Mason High and Henderson Middle School now sits. Since annexing the land from Fairfax County as part of the deal to sell the Falls Church water system, the Council and School Board have proceeded on a path to develop the land to include a new high school and expanded middle school, and up to 10 acres of commercial development, with a public-private educational partnership (PPEA) approach that would seek the coordinated development of the schools and the commercial component.
However, at today’s meeting, as the two bodies face the need to decide to formally proceed further with two developers who’ve responded to initial overtures to take on the project, the prospect of a change of direction, namely, to decouple the school development from the commercial development components, became the subject of a lengthy discussion. No decision on this will be taken until the City Council meets at its next regular meeting on June 13, and the School Board meets at its next regular meeting on June 14. Formal votes will be taken at each meeting.
But whichever way the entities go, they are faced with a tight schedule, based on the needs for a new high school to be completed by September 2020, and the requirement for a public referendum to authorize the assumption of $112 million for the school construction.
While there is risk with either approach, the prospect of mitigating the risk and the burden of the new debt (assuming the voters of Falls Church approve a referendum now being proposed for March 2017) will enter into the decision to decouple the components of the project, or not. A major factor is what the 10 acres that would be set apart for commercial development would bring in the market place. Under the decoupling plan, the land would be delineated as a portion of the total land later this year, and put out for sale (or long term lease). Falls Church Planning Director Jim Snyder said that allowing considerable density on the land (from 2.5 to 4.5 “floor to area” ratios) and locating the commercial component closer to the Haycock Road and Route 7 intersection would probably be the preferred approach (although there are some who insist that placing that land closer to the West Falls Church Metro station would be preferable.)
Timing of the two decoupled components would also be key. For the school construction, Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said that the schools would be able to seek a developer with major qualifications and experience on building schools, instead of relying on one of the two current bidders on the project who will be responsible for both the school construction and the commercial development. She said that “instructional quality and student safety” are the two key requirements of school construction, adding that the schools’ HVAC systems are all already at their “end of life” stages.
The impact on taxpayers of the cost of the school construction and the mitigation of that cost by commercial development was the subject of much of this morning’s discussion. An important element of that is timing: when the bonds are sold and when funds from the commercial property sale come in. In other for the school to be built by September 2020, when Dr. Jones said it is absolutely required (although put back a year from earlier plans), the bonds would need to be sold to allow for construction to begin next year. Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields said that it would be possible for the sale price of the commercial component to be established by next February, prior to the bond referendum, so that citizens would have an idea of how much mitigation that price would relieve the cost of the debt.
Under ideal conditions, Shields suggested, the overall impact of the next debt could be held to five cents on the real estate tax rate, notwithstanding what the market value of the commercial land would be by next February. He said that would include the fact that the debt would be incurred in two major parts.