It’s looking more and more like the City’s governmental leadership at City Hall and the School Board office, with poignant input from key private sector figures, has done numerous things very, very right lately. The process, with all of its countless meetings and deliberations, first began with a really good deal for the sale of the City’s water system — nothing but a pain in the neck once the courts, rightly or not, ruled the City could not make a dime from its operation — completed at the start of 2014. The City scored $40 million in cash, which it has put to good use, a portion going to shore up its pension fund resulting in annual $640,000 savings to taxpayers, and received into its City limits 34.8 acres covering the George Mason High School site with the proviso that up to 10.3 of the acres could be used for something other than education.
Then the City and schools, with the help of some talented and experienced consultants, boiled down its choice of applicants to find top notch developers to build a new high school, Gilbane Construction with Standec and Quinn Evans architects, and, as approved by the City Council last month, to develop the 10.3 acres for dense and creative commercial mixed use development, EYA with PN Hoffman and Regency Centers.
The products as we’ve seen them in their planning stages so far, are both stunning. The high school final schematic design was unveiled the same week in mid-November that the master developer team was chosen for the economic portion and it is spectacular. Now, the developer group is moving at breakneck speed to advance its plan, with some “letters of intent” from quality retailers and others already signed.
The interface between the educational and commercial components of the site, taken overall, has the potential to transform the City into a true Florentine renaissance masterpiece, a sturdy and beautiful flower around which the entire Northern Virginia region will increasingly rotate. All the other major areas, from Amazon’s new HQ2 in Crystal City, the huge Virginia Tech campus adjacent it, to the exploding Inova campus in Merrifield and the plans for a huge expansion of the University of Virginia in conjunction with it, and, of course, Tysons Corner, cannot match what the City of Falls Church will be bringing to the region by virtue of its vision for economic, scholastic and cultural interfaces. It’s not how big or small something is, it’s about what revolves around what, where the center of gravity resides and what commands the most attention.
The genius in the West End development concept is the intention to link it to two adjacent properties — the Virginia Tech and WMATA components — to bring it right up against the West Falls Church Metro station in the form of a magnificent boulevard that links the station to West Broad. That will produce something no other area can.