From a number of standpoints, we see both the inevitability and the benefit of hitting the “restart” button on the West End Campus Development Project in Falls Church. The proposal to abandon the current approach and to treat the two component parts – the educational and commercial – of the 36-acre parcel separately comes none too soon and we hope the F.C. City Council will vote to do just this Monday night.
The current “Public Private Educational Partnership” approach seemed almost doomed from the start when, after an informational meeting heavily attended by developers last August, only two bidders responded to the initial “request for proposal” to compete for the building contract last October. Since then, almost all of the meetings by the City Council and School Board, working jointly on the project, have been behind closed doors to avoid revealing information that could compromise the negotiations process.
It was a good idea to start, but it has proven to not work, especially in a process that will require a public bond referendum that all voters in Falls Church will be asked to weigh in on. Citizens of Falls Church have approved virtually every bond referendum associated with the school system in the past, but only with a lot of transparency, study and deliberation. The same is needed desperately for the prospect of a new high school that could cost $112 million.
Then on the commercial development component, parts of the current deliberation that did become public exhibited a breathtaking lack of creativity or, for that matter, proper gravitas. By gravitas we mean a sensuous appreciation of just how important and enormous, in terms of potential, 10 acres adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station, the land is. The thinking so far has been woefully small about this. The City and Schools have total control over this land, and there is no significant residential neighborhood that would be impacted by traffic or other factors to worry about. Come on, people, think big, even grandiose!
One idea that has begun to gain traction, it seems, is to use a portion of the project designated for educational use (by the terms of the land sale) for such purposes that will have a wider potential appeal and profitable application, such as a sports complex that could attract regional tournaments and a larger musical and theater arts venue that currently contemplated. This would involve compressing the footprint of the high school to make room, or to build some sports facilities, for example, above others.
If ever there was the right time to invite the Falls Church public to weigh in on all this, it is now. There is so much expertise in our well-educated community that is capable of thinking “outside the box” on plans such as these.
The right approach is to view these 36 acres as game-changers for the entire region that will pay for the best education around.