It’s been a month since the decision was made to decouple the school and economic development components of the 36-acre West End Campus Redevelopment Project. But with the clock ticking for needed action on a new or renovated high school and the necessity of a public referendum to OK it, there has been no substantial action taken by either the F.C. City Council or School Board, and these two main players cannot yet figure out how to meet together until well into next month.
At its meeting this Monday night, the Council and City Manager Wyatt Shields agreed that the first step of the new decoupled process will need to be a joint meeting of the Council and School Board, but in now the dog days of summer, available dates are slim. Shields announced that the School Board will not be available for a meeting between July 23 and August 7, and with its important meeting with the Fairfax Planning Commission on the fate of the Mt. Daniel School renovation coming on July 21, it was, he said, unlikely they could meet until after August 7.
The School Board had nothing new to suggest at its meeting Tuesday, and the date of a joint meeting still has yet to be set.
But as Council member David Snyder pointed out Monday, “until there can be some serious economic development rain-making that we’ve not been able to get so far, we’re not going to have an idea of what we can get out of the property to offset the cost of a new or renovated school.”
He added that serious efforts to get the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Northern Virginia Graduate Center into the conversation are also key to that. WMATA owns 36 acres that butts up against the City-owned land that it has considered developing, and the Grad Center is also contiguous and could play a critical role in the timing of the high school construction or renovation if its classrooms could be brought into play.
But on this score, a spokesman for WMATA told the News-Press this week that nothing has been submitted to them from the City and could offer no clear indication that there have been any conversations between the two entities in the past year.
Instead, in a statement forwarded to the News-Press, WMATA spokesman Richard Jordan said, “WMATA consistently seeks market opportunities for advancing transit-oriented development at its Metro stations. WMATA does not currently have active plans to issue a solicitation to develop the West Falls Church Metro Station.”
Jordan told the News-Press that although it is most common for WMATA to take the initiative to solicit proposals for development of its real estate, it is open to receiving unsolicited proposals in accordance with guidelines that are spelled out on its website.
He said nothing precludes a developer with a big idea from walking through the door with a proposal. So far, nothing has come WMATA’s way.
At Monday’s meeting, F.C. Councilman Dan Sze said he concurred with Snyder, saying development at the parcel “can’t be episodic.” He noted that of the best efforts of the best people at arranging mergers and acquisitions in the business world, they are lucky to succeed four or five times out of 100, so it is not an easy job. “It is immensely complex,” he said.
Councilman Karen Oliver also underscored that point. “The schools can’t go forward with what they want before we determine if we can afford it. We need to know what that number is.”
Snyder reiterated, “The fundamental question is what the land is worth, what it will yield.”
Shields said earlier that the yield from the commercial component of the property could have a huge impact on what City taxpayers may or may not have to pay for a new or renovated school, and that they’d need to authorize through a bond referendum some time next year.
If that is put off too much longer, the deteriorating conditions at the George Mason High School now, especially in the face of continuing enrollment growth, will only be exacerbated.
Shields recommended retaining an outside consulting group to take over the management of the project, taking it out of the hands of F.C. School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones and himself as the effective project managers now. Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly agreed, saying, “Looking at this overall project, it is overwhelming. We need help with this.”
Shields said that “a team (of consultants) from outside the City can bring fresh ideas and concentrate for longer periods.” He said that one big advantage of ending the earlier process, which involved two developer entities competing for the job, is that the issues of financing, including options for tax abatements and so forth, can now be discussed openly with the public, and not kept secret behind closed doors.