Local Commentary

Signing Days Set to Go Next Week To Launch New High School Project

Evan Goldman (far right), vice president of EYA and chief project director for the Falls Church West End Economic Development Project, was at Monday’s Falls Church City Council work session with members of the F.C. Economic Development Authority (to the left). (Photo: News-Press)

D-Days, deadline days, arrive next Monday and Tuesday for the City of Falls Church and its school system to sign critical documents permitting the complicated process to proceed on schedule for the immediate and intensive, two-part development of the 34 acres where George Mason High School now sits.

Coming out of a meeting between Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields and Falls Church School Superintendent Peter Noonan Tuesday morning, both leaders confirmed to the News-Press that all last minute issues have been resolved to the point that the signings are a virtual certainty.
Noonan announced that the schools are planning a modest public celebration associated with their expected signing of a “guaranteed maximum price” deal with its developers, the team of Gilbane, Stantec and Quinn Evans, Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Mustang Cafe at Mason High. It will be followed by a ceremony marking the groundbreaking for the new high school construction scheduled for Friday, June 14.

Late changes made to assure the process will move ahead smoothly included the decision made in a late night closed meeting of the City Council and Economic Development Authority that went into the wee hours Tuesday morning that the signing of a “special exception entitlement” (SEE) agreement be delayed a couple weeks between the City and the team, the Falls Church Gateway Partners of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency, that will undertake the economic development portion.

The SEE agreement is being modified, Shields said, to change the location of a structured parking component, moving it further back from the new school and leaving the space it had been proposed to occupy for a surface parking lot exclusively for the schools. Noonan said that the modification includes an understanding with EYA that the relocated structured garage would still be available to the schools for “surge parking” at special events.

Among other issues, it has yet to be determined, Shields said, whether or not a left turn out of the project onto Route 7 (headed toward the City) will be feasible.

The 34-acre parcel of land involved, conveyed into the city limits of Falls Church as part of the payment for the sale by the City of its water system to Fairfax County in 2013, is scheduled to be converted into an all-new high school on 70 percent of it, on its western end where sports fields now exist, and followed by a dense economic development of 30 percent of it (10.38 acres) on its eastern side, on what is the existing high school footprint.

Since Falls Church voters approved by a wide margin a referendum in November 2017 authorizing the City to bond for $120 million to build the new high school, the City and schools have been working fervently to develop a plan for the site. The goal has been to enable the construction of a state-of-the-art high school for the City’s nationally renowned schools and their unique K-12 International Baccalaureate programs with virtually the entire cost born by yields from the robust economic development portion.
Handling the many moving parts in this two-part process has been a Campus Coordinating Committee team of City and school leaders aided by many consultants and legal counsel, in addition to the chosen developers of the school building, on the one side, and the proposed economic development, on the other.

The City’s volunteer citizen boards and commissions were also thoroughly briefed in numerous meetings, and 83 comments from them were compiled and published to the Council and the public.

On top of that, the public in Falls Church has been kept abreast directly of the developments through an uncommonly transparent process including more than two dozen public forums and briefings and extensive coverage almost weekly in this newspaper.

Work sessions of the City Council and School Board were held this week, including the lengthy closed session of the Council and EDA that went into Tuesday, to prepare the way for the watershed contractual signings that are anticipated next week.

Shields has made it known in recent weeks that the City has also been in constant on-going verbal dialogue with neighboring Fairfax County about the parameters of the project in hopes of maintaining a collaborative and cooperative process, especially given the impact of the proposed development on the county that borders it.

“Our conversations have been very positive and collaborative,” Shields said.
Shields’ and Noonan’s assurances to the News-Press Wednesday that the process remains on schedule came following emphatic comments by Noonan at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting that any delay in the signing of the City’s Comprehensive Agreement on the economic development portion Monday would have profound consequences on timing and costs.

The Comprehensive Agreement includes Phase I uses of 1,065.000 square feet of enclosed, occupiable space in total, including a minimum of 125,000 square feet of office space, a minimum of 80,000 square feet for a hotel (including 3,000 square feet of meeting and conference space), a minimum of 20,000 square feet of programmable civic space (including 8,000-12,000 square feet of event space with 4,000 square feet of an outdoor rooftop terrace and 6,000 square feet of performing arts/education studio space), a minimum of 120,000 square feet of retail (including 25,000-45,000 square feet of a grocery), a maximum of 550,000 square feet of residential (including a maximum of 275.000 square feet of multifamily apartments of an average 900 square foot average with an option for micro-units and 275,000 square feet for for-sale residential units), and 275,000 square feet of senior housing (predominantly independent living and active adult).

Phase II uses include approximately 154,000 square feet of residential uses, including 6,400 square feet of retail. Overall, the project will have six percent of all residential uses designated for affordable housing, with a City option for a cash contribution alternative.

The conveyance of the land will be by a ground lease for two sites of 99 years, with the possibility of extensions if both parties agree. The condos will be provided fee-simple to the developer and sites for various uses can be subdivided to separate operators with the City having approval rights until the project is up and running.

Terms of payments and guarantees, financing plans, budgets, rights of inspection, property conditions and title, closings of Phase 1 and 2, plans and drawings, construction, representations and warranties, covenants and restrictions, transfer and assignment, defaults and remedies and miscellaneous factors are all spelled out.

“This is an incredibly exciting project with a team that wants to do it right,” EDA chair Bob Young said at Monday’s work session, reflecting the sentiments of most at the meeting.