Some Council Members Want Czar for School Campus Project

MEMBERS OF THE FALLS CHURCH City Council checked out their new digs for the coming year at the Community Center Tuesday, as City Hall’s major renovation effort has gotten underway. (Photo: News-Press)

The newly-constituted Falls Church City Council did not waste any time upon convening for its first meeting Tuesday night striking up differences that may or may not become more serious as the new year evolves.

On the subject of the organization for the City’s most ambitious capital improvement project ever, the construction of a brand-new George Mason High School and dense commercial development of an adjacent 10 acres to help pay for it, City Manager Wyatt Shields and Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan devised a “roles and coordination structure” for pushing ahead that Shields floated to the Council Tuesday.

As seemed to make good sense self-evidently, the structure is premised on a dual track approach, one headed by the School Board to oversee and coordinate the construction of the new school and the other under the City Council’s purview to manage the 10 acres for economic development.

“We’re looking at a synchronized effort between the two parts,” Shields said, “with the Council having the expertise, including in the City’s staff, for money and land use issues for the 10 acre portion and the Schools having the expertise, with its staff and consultants, in building a new school.”

The two parts will be managed by a Campus Coordinating Committee composed of two Council members, two School Board members, a Planning Commissioner, Economic Development Authority representative, a PTA member and member of the Professional Education Advisory Committee, the City Manager and the School superintendent. The lead role in this group would be the project manager of either the school project or the economic development component.

While the City’s project manager has yet to be hired, Shields said Tuesday that the person is expected to be brought on board in the next two weeks, the result of an extended recruitment process to retain a replacement for the City’s Chief Economic Development coordinator, replacing Rick Goff who left last summer. Shields said Tuesday the person “will be a procurement specialist” who will be qualified “to take the property to market.”

The plan, which will be more thoroughly discussed at the Council’s first regular business meeting of the year on Jan. 16, was met with resistance from some of the Council members this Tuesday who argued that a single “project executive” overseeing both sides of the project is needed.

This is not the first time this notion has come up. It was floated by Council member Letty Hardi last fall. But this time, it was the newly-seated Council member Ross Litkenhous who began the arguments in favor of this. Hardi and Dan Sze also chimed in.

Among other things, Litkenhous argued that should something like a tax overlay district be created covering the 36 acres of the overall project and perhaps some neighboring development-susceptible properties, then a single executive would be vital to pulling it off.

Others, like Councilman David Snyder, said that while there should be a “single source of all information” about the overall effort, that does not argue for the need for a single czar to oversee the whole project.

Shields conceded that “the public information piece of this needs to be more unified” than it was leading up to the November referendum, for example, when the lack of coordinated information was “frustrating for the public,” but he and Noonan both feel strongly about the current arrangement overall.

While a draft “request for proposal” for economic development document will be shared with the Council at its Jan. 16 meeting, and readied for formal release next month, the Council will have another crack at approving or not the overall “roles and coordination structure” roadmap for the project also on Jan. 16.

The other upcoming marks include the Schools’ short list of of respondents to the initial design and construction proposals request, and the final approval of the RFP, itself.

Among the things everyone on the Council agreed to was the need for frequent and thorough communication with the public as the process unfolds.
“We need a schedule of town hall meetings,” Hardi and Connelly concurred.