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Crunch Time: Deals for New School & Economic Project Near Deadlines

Falls Church Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan (right) updated a Sunday town hall forum on latest design developments for the new George Mason High School. (Photo: News-Press)

Turning the corner into spring, in the manner to wit warmer temperatures attest this week, the target date for launching the next critical phase of the major development at the City of Falls Church’s west end is looming large, and includes some nail-biting concern for meeting contract agreements by the time the big day of Wednesday, May 15 arrives.

On that date, as school prepares to let out for the summer at George Mason High, a first “guaranteed maximum price” (GMP) contract with the team of Gilbane, Stantec and Quinn-Evans, set to build the new high school, needs to get signed. It is no coincidence that it is also set to be the day that a “site plan exception” agreement, essentially a “go” for the development team selected for the project, is signed by the City with the developers of the 10.3 acre West End Gateway development on the site.

All this is needed for the project to remain on schedule, School Superintendent Peter Noonan and F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields told a town hall forum at the Community Center last Sunday in order for the flowering of the full, expected potential of the overall game plan to proceed as hoped.

The president of the Falls Church Education Foundation, Cecily Shea, asked how this is going at the forum, saying that persons around town are wondering, even though there was no specific indicators of problems.

The problem with any significant delay beyond May 15 would mean that the occupancy of the new high school might not be ready by December 2021, and given how school years work, the delay would push back the date of occupancy by a full six months to June 2022.

That would, in turn, throw the economic development effort off kilter, which will not be able to commence until the old (existing) high school is vacated, the buildings demolished and the land cleared.

But although there is a lot to be hammered out in the negotiations for the two contracts, Noonan and Shields suggested there are no stumbling blocks at this point which might lead to any delays, though, Shields said of the economic development part, “This is a pretty high level and pretty sophisticated land deal,” and “We are working hard to keep on track.”

Still, some fingers are crossed in town. The F.C. Planning Commission is expected to vote on the proposed site plan exception for the economic development component this Monday, April 1, and the target date for signing the economic development piece with the team of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency the same May 15 date that the schools’ GMP deal with its construction team is due.

Meanwhile, Noonan reported some filling in on the design development of the new school plan following deliberations with the City’s Architectural Advisory Board and Planning Commission, affirming at the outset that the entire site will be Americans With Disabilities Act accessible.

The tree canopy on the site will exceed what was requested in the original “request for proposals,” there will be bioretention plantings and fields, “one earth” paving in outside areas, “Socrates benches,” bollards, bike racks, a grove outside the main entrance where donor bricks will be moved from their current location at the existing high school, a “kiss and ride” drop-off area in front of the new school that will be separated by portable bollards from the drive through street in front of the school (to be called “Mustang Alley”), lighting for the new softball and multi-purpose fields (as already exist for the football/soccer and baseball fields), “dark sky” lighting, and different colored brick and metal panel exteriors with clear and blue glass.

Noonan cited a meeting with the high school athletic boosters and baseball parents last week that addressed needs to spruce up the baseball field by fixing some drainage issues in one of the dugouts and adding upgrades to the press box and snack bar, and even add more restrooms, to the facility that serves both the football/soccer and baseball fields.

Concerning the proximity of the planned new softball field to the main high school building, Noonan said he has a standing offer of $100 for any softball player who can hit the ball so far that it breaks glass in the building.

A final submission of design drawings are due April 5, and the School Board is expected to sign off on the plan May 6 before the contracts are signed May 15.

If this schedule holds, the school construction is due to be sufficiently completed for moving in to begin by December 2020, and open to students upon their return from winter break by January 2021. The project will be finally completed by August 2021.

On this timetable, the demolition of the existing high school should commence by February 2021 to permit construction of the 10.3 acre economic development component to begin.