F.C. Schools Hit ‘Reset’ Button on Campus Development Project, 4-2

 THE GEORGE MASON High School student representative to the F.C. School Board this year, senior Dorian Charpentier (second from left), was honored by the board at its meeting Tuesday night, including Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones (left), Board chair Justin Castillo (second from right) and Vice Chair John Lawrence (right). (Photo: News-Press)
THE GEORGE MASON High School student representative to the F.C. School Board this year, senior Dorian Charpentier (second from left), was honored by the board at its meeting Tuesday night, including Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones (left), Board chair Justin Castillo (second from right) and Vice Chair John Lawrence (right). (Photo: News-Press)

At last breaking a logjam of indecisive votes by the School Board and City Council, the Falls Church School Board provided a 4-2 majority Tuesday night to the motion to end the effort at developing the 36-acre high school and middle school campus site with a complicated and frustrating so-called “public private educational development” process.

The process had two bidders competing to develop a plan that includes a new or renovated high school and 10 acres of commercial development by the site located next to the West Falls Church Metro station.

Last week, the School Board was unable to make such a decision with a 3-3 tie vote, and then this Monday night the City Council voted 4-3 to delay making a final decision for still two more weeks.

But in Tuesday’s decisive vote, the winning majority was provided by School Board member Michael Ankuma, who cast his lot with the three who’d voted the week before for terminating the current process, Erin Gill, Phil Reitinger and Lawrence Webb.

According to News-Press sources, the regional commercial development community has not wasted any time perking up to Tuesday’s move, eager to focus on how to turn the 10.3 undeveloped acres by the West Falls Church Metro into a windfall for the City, its schools and, of course, themselves.
Eager to jump in with plans for a “highest and best use” of the 10 prime acres, it is not known if some unsolicited proposals will be on the Falls Church City Hall doorstep before the end of this week. In the past, the pristine acreage adjacent the West Falls Church Metro has been characterized as the “the most valuable real estate on the Eastern Seaboard.”

This could prove out to be especially true if a heavyweight developer can score an agreement or partnership with two other major entities that also hold development susceptible property by the location, WMATA which owns 24 acres there, and the Northern Virginia Graduate Center.
But according to News-Press sources, the two entities that had bid for the public private educational development contract with the City and School Board offered unambitious commercial development plans, and Tuesday night, School Board’s Gill hinted that news coming to the Board in a closed session this week was even more underwhelming than previously thought.

As for the prospect of getting a new or renovated high school built, the School Board is now free to issue a “request for proposal” to those developer interests who specialize in such things, without tying them to the requirement for commercial development, as well.

It opens the option for more creativity on that side of the equation, as well. For example, there is the potentially decisive role that the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s educational building adjacent George Mason High School could play with the benefit of some talented negotiations.
That, in turn, could help establish just how far a renovation, or construction of a totally new high school could play out, either in a phased or full-bore-ahead fashion.

Then there is the issue of including in the school construction some features that would be educational in use but would provide an opportunity for substantial revenues to the schools. This could be provided for by public rentals of such as an aquatic facility, a multi-use athletic stadium, or an auditorium with features that would make it a potential home for regional theater or musical groups.

Thus, in addition to the benefits of such first-rate facilities to the students in the Falls Church School System, it would serve to bring arts, culture and talent to the City to everyone’s benefit, along with supplementary revenues to help pay for the schools.

Timing is a key for moving forward now, which would start with the solicitation of proposals for both the commercial and school developments, not predetermining things such as the location of components until a number of offers are made and evaluated.

The worst move, for example, would be to try to draw the boundaries between the school and commercial property components before actual offers, in some form, have been received and evaluated.

However, moving ahead with due urgency is also required (or as Reitinger wrote in a social media post yesterday, “make haste slowly”), as the briefing provided to the School Board by Seve Padilla, director of Facilities and Security for the school system Tuesday night presented a stark image of a high school almost literally falling apart at the seams.

The high school was last renovated with a 15-20 year life expectancy in 1994 and has two boilers, one built in 1951 which may be better constructed than the one built in 1971. There is leaking in the roof and demonstrable deterioration of modular classrooms. Board member Webb decried a scenario he came upon last year of students having to stay warm with blankets in the classrooms.

The fact that Padilla said maintenance conditions in other schools in Fairfax and Loudoun counties is not that much better represented little consolation.

The Public Private process that was voted down Tuesday, terminated the relationships with the two bidders, Edgemoor LLC and Mason Greens LLC. The two being the only respondents to the first request for proposal last October, the process quickly evolved to bind the City and its schools to a highly secretive process, since there were competitive bidders.

But now the process has been released from all that, allowing the entire Falls Church community to become much more engaged in public discussions on how to proceed with the high school project, and at what price, in a way that will make far more likely the passage of a bond referendum for its development, probably not before the end of next year.