The Falls Church City Council was able to move beyond some apparently stubborn differences on what kind and extent of economic development should be on the 39-acre George Mason High School campus site when it voted unanimously Monday night to adopt a resolution to create a working group to explore the subject.
Mayor David Tarter was the most adamant among his colleagues in insisting that no artificial parameters be set around options for economic development if and when the new working group elicits ideas from the development community on the highest and best uses they can devise for the site.
He ran afoul of some colleagues by suggesting the 10 acres of the site not be limited to the conversations to date placing them at the intersection of W. Broad and Haycock Road.
“The question of location (of the economic development part) bears discussion,” he said, noting that developer interests would be the best to explore the question of “what is the most advantageous location.”
Others on the Council, such as Karen Oliver, protested, saying that insofar as all the deliberations to date on how to proceed on the site have assumed the W. Broad and Haycock corner for the development component, it should remain that way going forward.
But Tarter persisted, in the context of emphatic comments by Councilman Phil Duncan, who intoned, “It is absolutely essential that we tap the maximum potential from economic development, and we need experts to tell us.”
At the Falls Church School Board meeting the next night, Interim Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller reiterated his core point, that the success of the project, including the ability to win sufficient community support to pass a hefty bond referendum this November, depends on the effective balancing of three factors: the preponderance of support for a single-phase construction of a new school (deriving from the community meeting of Feb. 4), the role and extent of economic development on the site as a mitigating factor in the cost of that construction, and the price point for that construction the community will support.
The balancing of these three factors was due to be the main topic at another meeting of the Campus Process Working Group set for this morning, Feb. 16, at 9 a.m. in the school board offices.
In this context, Tom Johnson, president of the Mason High Athletic Boosters, spoke to the School Board Tuesday to address what he called the “sub-standard indoor athletic facilities” currently available, and the need for “a real high school competition gym” better than the 1,000 seating capacity new gym that was built at the lower level of the Henderson Middle School just a decade ago. The existing gym, he said, has a floor that provides for the minimum allowable length for a basketball court of 90 feet, compared to the optimum length of 94 feet.
This was in response to Schiller’s proposal from last week that by keeping the three existing gyms on the campus site, the cost of construction of a new high school facility could be reduced from $117 million to between $60 and $70 million.
At this Monday’s Council meeting, City Manager Wyatt Shields suggested the issue of economic development on the campus site be framed by the question of “What do 10 acres of development need to produce to best offset the cost of the new high school? The density required of development should be defined from that point of view.”
Shields had briefed the Council on the some 200 citizens who showed up for the Feb. 4 town hall meeting on how to proceed on the site, noting that a one-step build of a new high school was preferred by a “preponderance” of participants, with affordability being the other main concern.
So, the affordability component begged the question of the economic development of a portion of the site, up to 10 acres of it allowed under the terms of the deal with Fairfax County that swapped the City’s water system in exchange for the annexation of the 39 acres by the City and cash.
Despite his own misgivings about the merits of a working group on the economic development portion, Shields presented his draft of a resolution establishing one, and to better draw from outside expertise, a line affirming the group’s ability to issue a “request for information” from the development community was added into its wording.
The scope of the group in the resolution that passed unanimously is to “develop market based ranges of commercial uses and densities and a range of land values and tax yields for the site, as well as to “consider the relative merits of land sale versus land lease.”
The resolution established “the working group is not a decision making body but will prepare information to be used in the land use decision of the Planning Commission and City Council,” and established that the group be composed of two members each from the Planning Commission, the Economic Development Authority, the City Council and School Board.
The resolution language states that the Council and School Board “are interested in the potential of economic development on a portion of the existing George Mason High School site to generate revenue to help mitigate school facility costs and to create useful and attractive commercial uses that will interact safely and effectively with the campus.”
Implied in Mayor Tarter’s insistence that the location of the economic development portion not be predetermined was that some developers, rather than waiting five years for that spot to become available, might covet the immediate development of a portion of the site closer to the West Falls Church Metro station where an athletic field is currently located.