In the wake of last month’s revelations of plans submitted by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority proposing dense mixed-use development at its West Falls Church rail station that caught area officials, including those in Falls Church and Fairfax County, by surprise, a non-publicized large gathering of staff members from all three parties involved was held here Tuesday.
According to F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields, the event was a robust information sharing session in which everyone was brought up to date with what everyone else is doing and planning for the greater West Falls Church area. An abundance of WMATA, Fairfax and Falls Church representatives were present.
Shields hailed it, in a conversation with the News-Press, as a big “step in the right direction” for getting everyone on the “same page,” at least in terms of information sharing. All this comes as the City of Falls Church embarks on its 10-acre West Falls Church Economic Development Project (WFCEDP) with an initial “request for proposal” (RFP) planned for issuance to the regional development community on March 1, and the Falls Church City Schools move toward construction of an all new George Mason High School on the adjacent 26 acres.
In fact, in separate meetings both the Falls Church City Council and School Board scrutinized their draft RFPs this week, the Council for the WFCEDP one that is planned for issuance to the regional development community on March 1, and the Schools for a revised RFP from its initial November submission that will go out Feb. 22 to the top three entities selected to provide a more detailed version of their original response.
In the case of the School Board effort, the original five outstanding developers who responded to the first RFP have been pared down to three, and the announcement of those three will come at the School Board meeting next Tuesday. At that same meeting, the Board will also finalize modifications to the draft second-stage RFP, elements of which were discussed this Tuesday. That second-stage RFP will be formally issued to the three final candidates for the job on Feb. 22.
For both the 22-page WFCEDP (is that acronym pronounced “Wuf-Sed-Puh?) RFP draft and the Schools’ RFP process, the public reveal of their contents and open discussion in the two public meetings this week represented a radical departure from the norm, as such matters are routinely held in closed-door sessions.
In fact, F.C. Shields told the F.C. City Council that their consultants on the project, Alvarez and Marsal, were astounded by the decision to make all this public from the get-go, and to keep maximum transparency in effect throughout.
But the Council and the School Board are equally resolved to make the development process of the combined 36 acres at the City’s west end as transparent as possible, even to, as some worry, the potential detriment of an effective marketing of the project to the development world.
There’s a boring history to why this is, but it’s also in keeping with the high level of civic engagement and sense of the public’s right to know that is characteristic of what some call the “Falls Church way.” Not entirely a bad thing.
But in short this is the biggest undertaking of this independent jurisdiction of 14,300 in its 70 year history, and it won the public’s support with a 63 percent majority “yes” vote authorizing the issuance of $120 million in bonds to build the new school last November.
This is going to put a dent in every taxpaying citizens’ pocket in Falls Church, but the overriding hope is that an enthusiastic commercial development partner for the WFCEDP will work to offset the school cost with a significant economic bonanza on its 10 acres.
To this end, the Council members Monday focused their comments on the need for the RFP to make it clear that the City is looking to draw very significant revenues from the project.
“Falls Church is initiating the process…which encourages the development of the office, hotel and retail uses, while allowing residential buildings to balance the mix of users and ensure an 18-hour hub of activity,” the draft RFP reads. It goes on to say the City wants “flexibility of heights and densities…to permit through special exception, the City’s tallest structures. The City approved on January 22, 2018, Comprehensive Plan amendments that anticipate that density on the site will be allowed at an FAR [floor-to-area ratio–ed.] of 4.0 or higher, with total gross floor area approved at 1.5 million square feet or more.”
“We need to have the highest level of expectation for something truly exceptional,” commented Council member Ross Litkenhous. “We need to add the word ‘innovative’ into this every chance we get. We don’t want a plain vanilla mixed use development.”
Councilman David Snyder added that the RFP “should include enough leeway for a ‘Hail Mary,’ an unexpected major corporate involvement.”
“We may get a ‘Hail Mary,’ a corporate headquarters, but we also may not,” added Council member Letty Hardi, who stressed the importance of getting as much public input into the process as possible. “We need to get more eyeballs on this,” she said, “To make sure we’re asking for the right things and all marching in the same direction.”
Shields said that the City has already received “a lot of feedback” that is “exciting,” echoing the report of Lee Goldstein, recently retained as the City’s project manager for the WFCEDP effort. Goldstein noted an effective presence at the recent heavily-attended luncheon meeting of the National Association for Industrial and Office Parks (NAIOP) at the Fairview Marriott, and ongoing marketing efforts leading up to the issuance of the RFP on March 1.
There will be a meeting of the new Campus Coordinating Committee of City and School officials on Feb. 23, and a forum to provide an update for citizens will be held on March 15.
As for the School Board’s RFP that will be finalized next week for the three bidders who will be finalists for the project, Superintendent Peter Noonan reported Tuesday that revisions now being considered arose from the well-attended public forum on Jan. 28 at the Community Center.
From that, suggestions about the performing arts, including the auditorium size, the athletic department, parking and transportation, green space and tree canopy, preserving legacy, community uses, “net zero” sustainability and LEED gold may be included in a revised RFP for the School Board to adopt next week.