Shoe-horned into a small conference room at the Falls Church School Board offices Wednesday morning, the West End Campus Process Steering Committee convened for its first meeting of a very aggressive schedule. Jammed into the room were City Manager Wyatt Shields, Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, three members of the City’s Planning Division, Link Strategic Partners’ Tim Wisniewski, the convener of the meeting, three members of the City Council – Marybeth Connelly, Letty Hardi and Karen Oliver – two members of the School Board – Erin Gill and John Lawrence – and a couple people hooked up by phone including School Board chair Justin Castillo.
The idea of the task force came out of last week’s joint Falls Church City Council and School Board meeting, all 14 members plus staff, when the group suffered through a second unwieldy and unproductive meeting. Given the pressure to design plans for the 39 acre site recently annexed into the City in time for a public referendum next fall, the decision was made to put the nitty-gritty work to a smaller group of two appointees each from each body with an alternate as well.
The smaller group will meeting every week, or more often if needed, to advance the complicated process of figuring out what kind of renovation or replacement of George Mason High School should go onto the site, including an expansion of the adjacent Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.
The “moving parts” of the planning involve how much money to task Falls Church taxpayers in a November 2017 referendum to spend on these projects, and how much commercial development to encourage on 10 acres of the land adjacent the West Falls Church Metro that can allow for that use.
Most of the last year, the City and Schools, co-owners of the land, worked with two developers who responded to a request for proposal a year ago. But working with two competing groups proved too unwieldy, among other things requiring an abundance of secret meetings required to prevent proprietary information from getting out into the public domain.
Last spring, the two groups voted to tank that process and go it alone with the help of a consultant, and in the early stages Link Strategic Partners aimed at facilitating the hoped-for resolution of strong differences among the two groups. Some want to limit the expenditure for the high school to a $40 million patchwork fix, and others want to spend $110 million on a new school with the most advanced classrooms and other facilities (such as a swimming pool or performing arts center).
Variables discussed yesterday morning included the projected size of the school, depending on enrollment projections in the next 20 years, and just touched lightly on the issue of how much economic development should be encouraged.
Falls Church Planning Director Jim Snyder said that allowing a 3.5 FAR (floor to area ratio) has been considered an upper limit for mixed use and other developments in Falls Church, but is absolutely not a hard limit.
Council member Hardi chimed in about the relationship between the development and the school construction, saying, “Hey Falls Church, you don’t want to pay for this (school)? Then will you accept the kind of development needed to pay for it?”
Snyder said this approach was used with the public in Arlington and Pentagon City. “It was difficult but it got good results,” he said.
The task force group will meet again at the School Board offices next Thursday morning, Nov. 17, to prepare for the next meeting with the entire Council and School Board on Nov. 21.
The School Board’s Lawrence commented about the meeting, “It was a good start today chipping away at the information needed to move ahead on the vital and very needed school projects. We have an aggressive schedule with a committed group from the schools and the city and I’m confident that we can build on the work already done, analyze new data, and move ahead quickly toward a high school that the community wants, the students deserve and the City can afford.”