City of F.C. Leaders Predict Biggest Issue in 2017 is School Campus Site

How the George Mason High School campus development project proceeds in 2017, with the prospect of as much as a $120 million price tag and a public referendum in the fall, is at the front of the minds of a wide cross-section of leaders in the City of Falls Church, according to a News-Press survey this week.

The News-Press issued an invitation to respond to a query concerning “thoughts on what are the most important challenges and opportunities you think face the City of Falls Church in the coming year.”

Most of the respondents, representative of the government, education and development components of the Little City, will probably be meandering around the New Year’s Eve Watch Night festivities this Saturday night, in case anyone wants to press them further on their views presented here. The weather is supposed to be mild enough as to deter no one.

The first to respond was Falls Church’s Congressman, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer with deep ties to the Falls Church community, who set the tone for other responses. He wrote that both the most important challenge and opportunity for the Little City is “to become ever stronger and more visible as a community that is welcoming, inclusive, disciplined, compassionate, with high expectations of each other (and our children), responsible, honest and hard working – not just in our jobs and families, but in building the texture of the place we call home. Let’s show the communities around us that we can be hopeful and expectant, while not sublimating our righteous anger when our values and freedoms are threatened.”

Echoing a similar theme of civility and concord, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly wrote, “My wish for 2017 is that the wonderful people of Falls Church will be a model of American community spirit, welcoming all with kindness and mercy, treating others as we would like to be treated, whether in person or online, sharing our talents generously for the good of the local, national and global community.”

This will be a tough challenge this coming year, however, as not only the daunting decisions about the campus property, but annual operating budget decisions need to be made in the spring in the context of another big spurt in school enrollment and the funds needed for a thorough renovation of City Hall and the Mary Riley Styles Public Library. Then in the wake of that, there are the fall elections, when four of the seven seats on the Falls Church City Council and School Board, alike, will be contested, likely an expensive school bond referendum, and statewide offices for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, along with local Commonwealth officers, the sheriff, commissioner of the revenue and treasurer will be on the ballot.

Doing all this while “finding the right balance,” as “Falls Church is both ‘little’ and a ‘city,” Connelly wrote, involves making it both “walkable and drivable, both residential and commercial, encompassing parks, schools and development, and many people” and her determination to “getting the Campus Redevelopment Project right.”

Connelly’s Council colleague Letty Hardi sounded a similar theme, writing, “I see the biggest challenge ahead as striking a balance between the short and long term needs of the City…all the while keeping our City as affordable as possible so we truly can be a diverse community for all ages and backgrounds.” It is, she added, “a great responsibility and opportunity to continue growing Falls Church into a vibrant, sustainable and independent City for the next generations.”

Mayor David Tarter wrote that “development of a new or renovated high school and the potential 10 acres of commercial redevelopment is both the City’s biggest challenge and greatest opportunity.” He added, “The 10 acres of potential commercial development present the City with an opportunity to create a special sense of place in the region, especially when coupled with possible participation of the West Falls Church Metro site and UVA and Virginia Tech. The right development can enhance our City, provide expanded shopping and entertainment opportunities, be a catalyst for redevelopment of neighboring properties, and help pay for the school facilities.”

Council member Karen Oliver wrote, “In 2017 I hope the City of Falls Church will find an affordable way to ensure the following: deliberate development, excellence in education and investment in infrastructure,” although she cautioned that “I worry when other thought leaders suggest that if we quickly build to the sky, all our financial constraints will be solved…We are a land-locked City with limited land for economic development…I believe that thoughtful, deliberate development is critically important in 2017.”

Developer Bob Young chimed in differently, saying that “without question, the challenges and opportunities that the City faces next year are an inextricably interwoven combination of how the school property is developed, how the high school is to be rebuilt and how the financial structure will be used to finance several infrastructure projects proposed as it relates to the tax rate.”

Planning Commissioner Brian Williams opined that “The most important challenge and opportunity for the City of Falls Church in 2017 will be deciding the future of the high school campus,” adding, “I’m confident our City leaders will finally present a compelling vision for building a new high school and developing a reasonable portion of the campus for a variety of non-school uses. These new developments will generate strong revenue for the City, effectively offsetting some portion of the cost of our new school and reducing the residential tax burden. I believe the majority of our residents will support such a plan.”

School Board member Erin Gill wrote that the City’s daunting needs in 2017 represent “an opportunity to redefine Falls Church City and set a vision for the future I am confident that, working together, we can build a truly innovative new high school with commercial development that feeds into that larger vision for the City,” noting that “It will not be easy and it will not be painless.”

Falls Church’s community volunteer par excellence, Barbara Cram, responsible for organizing this Saturday night’s downtown Watch Night event, wrote that “the persisting challenge is keeping our priorities straight and matching them to funds available, portioning the taxpayer dollars for City services and public security and to our schools with the same scrutiny as individuals use their own funds.”

She called for “lower taxes, or areas of tax relief for retirees” and “Citywide events and smaller geographic events where there are more citizens involved,” and put a heavy emphasis on City Hall’s communication and engagement with the public. “The City should have a full time booth at the Farmer’s Market.” She proposed that developers impacting the community should pay annually into an earmarked fund to improve community development through the arts, theater, culture and history.

“We need to grow the arts, and as demand for it grows there needs to be a source for public funding,” she added.

There was much more. But this is enough for now to show that we’ll all have our hands very full in the coming 12 months.