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F.C. Council, School Board Struggle to Break Paralysis on School Land Project

MICHAEL AKIN (right) of the Link Strategies Partners, stressed a point to the joint F.C.-School Board meeting Tuesday. Members of the School Board are to his right, and members of the City Council are across the table from him, not shown in this picture. (Photo: News-Press)
MICHAEL AKIN (right) of the Link Strategies Partners, stressed a point to the joint F.C.-School Board meeting Tuesday. Members of the School Board are to his right, and members of the City Council are across the table from him, not shown. (Photo: News-Press)

A three-hour joint meeting of the Falls Church City Council and School Board Tuesday night was the first public meeting they’ve held together since they jointly decided to change course on how to develop the 38 acres ceded to the City by the sale of its water system to Fairfax County. Efforts by Michael Akin and his colleagues at the consulting firm Link Strategies Tuesday were aimed at breaking the paralysis in decision making that has ensued since that “decoupling” decision was made.

By the end of the meeting, the bodies reached a rough consensus to permit City Manager Wyatt Shields to draft a scope of work for the purpose of hiring (probably) the Link Strategies firm for three months at $15,000 per month to conduct a series of interviews with relevant public and private officials, and with other potential stakeholders in the project, such as Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, Federal Realty (owners of the strip mall adjacent the site) and to present a series of carefully crafted questions upon whose answers will be determinant for how the project moves forward this fall.

Among the “moving parts” in the project are the need to build and/or renovate the George Mason High School on the land, and to achieve economic development through the commercial use of up to 11 acres of the land to help offset whatever the cost of the new school might be, along with what interest neighboring land holding interests might have in partnering with that commercial use.

“The potential seems remarkable” at the site, Akin told the group, and he said his firm is working in many environments where the issues are not significantly different than here.

Among the key questions that need to be asked about the commercial component are “what is the ‘buzz’ in the development world about the site, and what will the market bear to optimize the value from the site. He said that, for example, Federal Realty, which owns a huge amount of real estate in the D.C. Metro area, is moving very aggressively on many of its holdings to redevelop, and if it’s not doing so in Falls Church, “We need to find out why not.”

The same holds for WMATA, with three dozen acres at the West Falls Church Metro station adjacent the campus property. It’s in terrible financial shape, and needs to find alternative sources of income. The question of its interest in partnering to do something big at that site should be important to them, he said.
Council member Letty Hardi echoed that theme, urging action on exploring what kind of economic development could work on the campus site. “Is there something more innovative out there?,” she asked. “A sports complex? A hotel?”

The cost of new or renovated school, they were reminded, is a function of how many economic development dollars can be derived from the site to help pay for it. As for the suggestion that $40 million be spent on only a renovation of the school, F.C. Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones reminded the group that the high school is currently as maximum capacity, so an expansion is essential. She also cited the cost savings from a new facility that could also house the school system’s administrative offices and a student body of up to 1,200 students (current enrollment and capacity are 800).

Councilman Phil Duncan said that the kinds of questions that need answers go to “What we need (including the veracity of enrollment projections), what we can afford, and what we can earn (through development, including the potential for partnerships with neighbors).

School Board chair Justin Castillo said that school surveys show 70 percent of the community have shown some level of support fixing the high school problem, and said he’s worried that any further delays will involve “hemorrhaging time.”

But Shields said he could produce a scope of work document for the Council’s and School Board’s consideration as early as tomorrow (Wednesday). As the meeting dragged on, a motion on whether or not to retain a consultant was withdrawn when it was ruled by City Attorney Carol McCoskrie that Shields did not need formal Council authorization, but just a consensus, to move in that direction, despite Councilman Dave Snyder’s objection that it is unclear whether a consultant could chart new ground beyond what the Council and School Board already know.