As expected following the approval granted by the Falls Church City Council the night before, the Falls Church School Board voted 7-0 Tuesday to authorize Superintendent Peter Noonan to ink the first of two “guaranteed maximum price” contracts with the development team of Gilbane, Stantec and Quinn Evans to ensure that construction of an all-new, state-of-the-art George Mason High School will commence with a groundbreaking ceremony on June 14, the day school lets out for the summer.
A sizeable assemblage gathered at the Mustang Cafe of GMHS for the almost-ceremonial School Board meeting, culminating an arduous first phase of a process that began with Falls Church voters approving a $120 million bond referendum for the new school in November 2017. The new high school construction is scheduled to be completed for occupancy by December 2020.
Present at Tuesday’s party-like special were most members of the Falls Church City Council, many school supporters including past School Board members, City staff and members of the development team, who applauded the vote and ate cake and posed for photos afterwards.
It took Noonan three cracks at including by name all those he thanked for their work on bringing forward the project, in the end naming virtually everyone in the room except maybe some of the children on hand.
The night before, on Monday, the Falls Church City Council by a unanimous 7-0 vote approved the signing of a comprehensive agreement with the team of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency, known as the Falls Church Gateway Partners, to move ahead with the development of more than 1.3 million square feet of mixed uses on 9.4 acres at the current site of George Mason High School at the City’s far west end.
The critical decision, which surprised observers by its unanimous Council support, cleared the way for the City Schools to ink a pact with the Gilbane-led team to commence construction of a new high school on the site of fields adjacent the current high school.
The plan is to build the all-new high school and transfer the student body and all activities during the winter break beginning December 2020, then to hand EYA and partners the land where the current school stands, to demolish that school, and commence development of its dense mixed-use project that promises to yield sufficient revenue to offset the entire cost of the new school.
In the critical City Council and School Board votes this week authorizing the signing of the two agreements, neither involved an actual signing. The schools’ agreement for the first-phase “guaranteed maximum price” with its development partners is expected to be consummated without delay in the next days.
The deal with the City and the EYA team may take longer to actually ink, however, as there have been some important last-minute changes to the overall makeup of the economic development portion.
That has caused the City Council to approve a delay in the final vote on the special exception entitlement (SEE) for the property until July 8. The changes include removal of the structured parking lot adjacent the new high school that was to be shared by the developer and the schools, the reversion to a surface lot solely for school use at that spot, and thus an overall reduction of the size of the economic development parcel from 10.38 to 9.4 acres.
Despite the reduction, all of the elements of the original plan are retained, Goldman explained, and the delay in signing the SEE will mean only that an initial payment on a 99-year lease will be held in escrow, instead of paid immediately, until the vote is taken in July.
Parking for the retail and residential uses at the site will be relocated to a structured garage elsewhere in the project, further from the school, and underground.
The changes were made in an effort to avoid any potential conflict regarding the division of the project, in the terms of the land’s original conveyance from Fairfax County to the City as part of the deal to hand over the City’s water system to the county, to a minimum 70 percent educational use and maximum 30 percent other uses.
In the minds of some, the original shared structured parking garage idea blurred that line of demarcation, and both the City and the developers agreed that avoiding any potential for friction as a result should be avoided.
The Council was assured that the changes will not impact the ability of the project to align with the developments anticipated to its immediate north on land held by Virginia Tech and WMATA, leading to the West Falls Church Metro station.
Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields hailed the “great team to be our partners” that have come through “tough and fair negotiations” to reach the comprehensive agreement approved Monday, noting its 105 pages including 80 pages of lease terms. “We’ve spent three months,” he said, “Working through this very complex transaction.” On the City side, City Attorney Carol McCoskrie has been a key player.
Since the passage of the November 2017 referendum, “We’ve done precisely what we laid out to voters,” Shields said. “I am very confident the Council’s intent in its interim agreements with the developers are reflected in the comprehensive agreement.” He said there will be “a few more iterations” before it is signed, but “we are comfortable with the business terms.”
He said it is “prudent” to take additional time with the special exception entitlement as “we want to be good neighbors with Fairfax County.”
“I hope these changes are pleasing to our friends in Fairfax County,” said Council member Phil Duncan, “If we can accommodate their concerns and get along while retaining the potential for aligning our effort with Virginia Tech and WMATA.”
Goldman said that alignment potential remains, and more attention is also being placed on other adjacent properties, such as the Federal Realty property that is current home to the Giant supermarket and the Beyer Automotive property across the street.
While the revised plan does not allow for a left turn out of the center of the project on Route 7 toward Falls Church, it will be more “outward focused” toward the City, and the main promenade northward through the middle will “make walking to the West Falls Church Metro station more pleasant.”
With the changes in parking lot plans, Council member Letty Hardi said her concern is that “we do not seek more parking than we need,” since transportation trends are moving away from automobiles to alternative modes.
There will be the official groundbreaking for the new high school at 2 p.m. on Friday, June 14, just hours after the school year ends for students at the current high school location. Then, a second phase “GMP” agreement will come to be signed in August.
The final closing on the economic development real estate transaction will come when the high school is moved to its new location in 18 months.