The City of Falls Church’s invitation to the regional and national developer community to come in and fill up 10 acres with dense economic development, including buildings of 14 stories and possibly higher, by the West Falls Church Metro station is due to be dropped into the mailbox today.
Remember when you put all those wedding invitations into the mail, and the profound thoughts associated with a pause you took before you let them actually drop? That’s kind of what this is like, involving a combination of excitement and understandable dread associated with notions of possibilities and very long-term commitment.
The City is literally looking for a development partner that will transform 10 acres of the 36-acre George Mason High School campus into something that will enhance the already-formidable quality of life for all 14,300 City residents. Along with that, the development should generate a bucket-full of new tax revenue that will help pay for a brand new high school and major renovations of City Hall, the library and other projects.
What’s going into the mailbox today is a 22-page “Request for Conceptual Proposals for the West Falls Church Economic Development Project,” (RFP) that is, as stated in its opening paragraph, to “identify qualified teams and solicit project concepts to redevelop and commercialize approximately 10.38 acres of real property adjacent to the replacement site of the existing George Mason High School…intended to activate the parcel and generate both upfront and long-term revenue to fund the construction of a new high school.”
For the Little City (as Falls Church has chosen to identify itself in its logo), it will be by far the biggest commercial project undertaking in the 70 years since it became, under Virginia law, an independent city with its own school system, own land use and other decision-making, including taxing, authority.
Insofar as the land in question is located on the western fringe of the City, it is not encumbered with the restrictions that would come into play if it were closer to residential neighborhoods, such that height and massing limitations have been relaxed to optimize development. Transportation impacts, such as vehicular congestion, are more relevant, but the site is ideal for dense, and user-friendly, development because of its unique proximity to Metro, I-66 and the Beltway.
In fact, in the 1990s, Falls Church’s city manager at the time, David Lasso, called the property “the most valuable real estate in the entire region” because of its multiple nearby transportation links connecting it readily to the entire D.C. Metro region, including its location in between the area’s two largest international airports.
Many of the best and brightest development teams in the nation have already been alerted to this prospect, as the West Falls Church Economic Development Project’s manager Lee Goldstein, hired by the City away from the D.C. government’s economic development office for this assignment in January, told the City Council here that over 80 firms have already been contacted to check their in-boxes for the RFP today or tomorrow.
Of course, in this day and age, the missive will come not solely through “snail mail” but by electronic means. Some, who knows, may already be working feverishly on plans to bid on the project.
The timeline going forward calls for the announcement of a shortlist from among all the applicants by mid-June, the selection of the preferred proposer with the execution of an exclusive rights agreement by October, the finalization of a comprehensive agreement by May 2019, a construction bond sale for the new high school project in June 2019, and the transfer of the property and demolition of the current high school by the Summer of 2021.
The length of the timeline is to allow the process for the construction of the new high school to be completed prior to the demolition of the old one, and decisions on a shortlist of three developers to build the new school have already occured.
In the near term, the timeline includes a public non-mandatory industry forum set for March 14 where information can be shared, and a March 27 deadline for questions to be submitted about the RFP. The deadline for the submission of formal responses is May 1, prior to the announcement of a shortlist in mid-June.
In the last week, three public meetings of City officials and the citizenry have been held, in the spirit of the City’s extraordinary and almost-unprecedented commitment to transparency and openness in this process. There was the first meeting of the Campus Coordinating Committee, another Sunday town hall forum and Monday night’s final meeting of the City Council to have one last crack at massaging the RFP language.
The open process is giving the City’s consultants on the project of Alvarez and Marsal heartburn, but the public has been privy to almost all the deliberations that went into the crafting of the RFP, and will continue to have that kind of access through the whole process. It is a uniquely transparent test-tube case that should be of interest to students of such processes, which are normally kept much more secretive, everywhere.
In the early morning hours of last Friday, Feb. 23, the first meeting of the project’s overarching Campus Coordinating Committee, was jammed into the School Board offices for an intense discussion where a lot of the issues associated with the coordination of the high school and economic development components of the overall project were aired.
Little things like the need for a pump station to handle storm water on the site came up, as well as ingress and egress matters for traffic centering the site off Route 7 and Haycock Road, the height difference between the end of the site where the economic development will go (much higher) and the new high school, and the prospect for shared infrastructure were all broached, and the need for the final choices for the school and economic development teams to meet and coordinate as much as necessary.
The most tension will arise in the February-April 2019 time frame when major decisions on both projects will be in full swing, City Manager Wyatt Shields predicted. “But we’re confident everything will work well. We’ve got a really good process underway,” he added.
Falls Church Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan stressed it will be important that the high school get built on time such that the transition to the economic development part can be “beautiful.”
On the Campus Coordinating Committee were Mayor David Tarter, Shields, Noonan, the School Board’s Lawrence Webb and Justin Castillo, the City Council’s Letty Hardi, the Planning Commission’s Russ Wodiska, and the Economic Development Authority’s Mike and Mollie Novotny and Kristen Sherard of the Falls Church Education Association, Greenberg and the Schools’ consultant Robert Jones.
Among others sitting in on the meeting were Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, Council members Phil Duncan and Ross Litkenhous and Planning Commissioner Tim Stevens.
At the Sunday public forum, one of a series that will become monthly Sunday public forums on the issue led by Shields and Noonan (the next set for March 18), centered on financing issues, as Shields pointed out that the expected yield of the economic development component, will be limited to four cents on the real estate tax rate, compared to 15 cents if the economic component were absent.
At Monday’s Council meeting, a final Council scrub of the RFP document included praise for what City staff had developed with Council input to date. “This is a masterful job,” said Councilman Dan Sze. “It is well written and inspiring,” Letty Hardi said. “Reading it makes me want to live here.”
“It is rare for the public sector to take this kind of product to the market,” Shields said. “We’ve kept it simple, and we’ll learn from what comes in from this.”
Finally, just as a marriage is not official with the mailing of invitations but the sharing of vows, such that there’s always time to flee from the altar, so in this process, there are plenty of required assurances, including for the cost of the work and the City’s and Schools’ right to terminate the process at any point they may decide it’s just not going to work out with their chosen developers.