F.C. Council, School Board Tilt To Phased Plan for New High School

TUESDAY NIGHT'S joint meeting of the F.C. City Council and School Board mulled further the right approach to the renovation and development of the George Mason High School. (Photo: News-Press)
TUESDAY NIGHT’S joint meeting of the F.C. City Council and School Board mulled further the right approach to the renovation and development of the George Mason High School. (Photo: News-Press)

Tuesday’s latest joint meeting of the Falls Church City Council and School Board saw a demonstrable tilt in sentiments toward a phased renovation and construction of the City’s George Mason High School.

This approach would enable immediate needs to be met quicker and provide enough new renovation and development activity to carry the school through the next 10 years, plus an upfront cost to taxpayers of less than half what a full new project would cost.

With more data now being sought for this option, the two bodies are expected to meet together again before the end of this month to begin making key decisions that will allow the lead times necessary for a referendum to be prepared for the November ballot.

While most members of the two bodies wanted to keep the option for construction of a completely new high school on the table for the time being, at a rising cost now at $117 million, there was a lot of attention paid to the phased approach.

School Board member Phil Reitinger stated that he doubted there is enough of an appetite for the tax impact of an all-new high school this year, but that a phased approach that would see to the school’s expected rising enrollment up to 1,200 students (with stretching, its capacity is 876 now) carry it through 2025 at a cost of $53 million. This would optimize flexibility and enable the City to retire two major debt obligations in 2022 and 2026, meaning that taking on the new debt for the school might be done with far less of a tax rate increase, if any.

Among the issues still seeking resolution is the impact that allowing high density economic development on a portion of the site will have in terms of revenues offsetting the cost of the school construction.

“There is a lot of value associated with economic development on this site,” said Mayor David Tarter, which if done right, he said, could also contribute to the City’s “sense of place.”

The City’s Chief Planner Jim Snyder, who will be launching a visionary “small area plan” for the economic development on the site next month, said that a mixed use approach with a dense 2.5 or higher floor-to-area ratio (FAR) would be possible being as the location is “transit oriented,” located by the West Falls Church Metro station. Councilman Phil Duncan suggested developing a minimum of seven acres at a 3.0 FAR.

Getting the economic development planning process going will be key to the potential involvement of adjacent properties controlled by the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech Graduate Center and the acreage controlled by WMATA, said City Manager Wyatt Shields.

Consultant Bob Jones of Arcata, who has been involved in other school projects in the City, said a phased approach would probably involve construction of a new high school wing on the opposite side of the Henderson Middle School from the current GMHS building first, then the renovation of half the existing building.

He suggested that architectural consultants be brought in to draw up what that might look like, noting that a phased approach would be very complicated.

Extensive and lengthy meetings of the Campus Process Working Group, a subgroup of both the Council and School Board, led by Michael Akin and Tim Wisniewski of the Link Strategic Partners, produced a complicated set of options that the two bodies were urged to pare down in their joint meeting Tuesday.

The 10 options included only fixing critical issues now (such as the leaking roof and HVAC system) and adding more temporary trailers, a total of 36 through 2029 at a cost of $19.8 million. It was an option quickly dismissed by everyone.

Another option, the one most board members gravitated toward, called for phased additions at an initial cost of $43 million in 2021, $10 million in 2025 and $58 million in 2029, for a total of $111 million over 12 years. It would deliver an 80,000 square foot addition by 2021, an expansion of the Henderson Middle School by 2025 and a final 125,000 square foot addition by 2029.

Three more options, at estimated costs of $65 million to $103 million, involved minimal renovations and additions to the current high school footprint, but leaving no space for commercial development to help deter the cost. These options were dismissed Tuesday night.

Two final options involved partial demolition of the existing building and renovation of the other half at costs of $105 million to $114 million, respectively, and there were three options for an all new school in one swoop with costs ranging from $107 million to $117 million. These options remained on the table Tuesday night.