Renovated F.C. City Hall Cornerstone, & New Council Digs Feted Monday

DIGGING THE IDEA of a brand new, state of the art George Mason High School, this was one phalanx of the local celebrities that took turns at breaking ground in last Friday’s ceremony. (Photo: FCCPS/Carol Sly)

June 2019 marks an historic month in the City of Falls Church even if only as marked by events of pomp and ceremony. The events signify very big and good things for the City and its residents going forward.

This Monday, a major contribution to this legacy will occur when the cornerstone of the newly renovated and expanded City Hall will be dedicated at a 6 p.m. public ceremony, and then at 7:30 when the new Council chambers in the City Hall will be unveiled and open for business for the first time.

That will mark the completion of an extended, year-and-a-half, cheerful tedium for the City Council and other major governing bodies in the City who had to hold their meetings in temporary locations, usually in the Senior Center room at the Community Center.

The occasion is the latest this month of other important milestone events that included the groundbreaking for the new George Mason High School, the signing of a comprehensive agreement for the economic development of 9.45 acres adjacent the new high school, and the opening of a new downtown pocket park in the 100 block of West Broad.

Yes, the Council will be back in its proper digs, notwithstanding two changes. The first involves the notable lack of colorless portraits on the walls of the Council chamber of humorless “Founding Fathers,” all white males. This is seen as a fresh opportunity by most on the Council to proceed with alternatives, to include women and persons of color, an abundance of both having contributed mightily to the history of Falls Church.

The second change will involve the shift in the direction of the room, with the dais and other features at its front now facing the opposite direction of the way it was for many years before. Some are concerned for the way in which this disruption of the existing “feng shui,” the ancient Chinese concept for how energy forces do, or don’t, harmonize persons with their environment, might begin to impact important City decisions.

The Council chambers, as before, will also double as the courtroom for the Arlington District Court, and overall, the facilities will be much better equipped to ensure public safety and security.

City employees working in City Hall who’ve already begun breaking in their new facilities have been overjoyed in comments to the News-Press. The happiness with their new environment is doubled by the cramped and often dysfunctional conditions at the temporary site where they toiled for over a year at 400 N. Washington Street.

The new facilities at City Hall included a newly-paved and expanded parking lot, and electric car charging facilities right there, too. Up the street on Park Avenue a tad, the City’s Public Works Department has undertaken work to extend the public sidewalk on the City Hall side to establish a walkway continuity all the way up the street.

But Monday’s ceremonies at City Hall are just the latest in the important and memorable events this month.

The most significant was that at the site of George Mason High School, where last Friday afternoon the ribbon cutting led by Superintendent Peter Noonan marked the launch of the 15-month construction process of the new state of the art George Mason High School.

That was a truly memorable occasion, as it occurred on a soccer practice field on a particularly warm, sunny and blustery afternoon, with the breezes and the fast-moving cloud formations overhead providing an ambiance symbolizing the warm winds of humanizing progress that has characterized the entire process for the construction of the new school that promises to become the jewel of one of the finest school systems in America.

In addition to the virtually complete “A List” of Falls Church dignitaries and important people, representatives of the design builder, Gilbane, and the design and architecture team of Stantec and Quinn Evans, were on hand.
Student speakers who’ve gone their entire school careers through the Falls Church system and will be part of the first graduating class from the newly-completed high school in the spring of 2021 also spoke along with the mayor, the superintendent, and all the “usual suspects.”

Not unrelated to that event was the ceremonial signing of the comprehensive agreement for the development of 9.45 acres of City land by the City with the Falls Church Gateway Partners, a partnership of the firms of EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency for dense mixed-use development. That signing, which took place last week in the Mustang Cafe at the existing high school site, culminated a highly-successful vetting process that included scores of public meetings to evaluate the plans for the site, which sits beneath the current George Mason High School footprint, and will become available for development once the new high school is completed in early 2021.

The proposed development will include a broad mix of commercial uses, including a grocery store, restaurants and retail, office space, residences, a hotel and civic spaces. The plan also includes “The Commons,” an active public space at the center of the development. The project is intended to help defray the costs of the new high school.

The terms of the Comprehensive Agreement include a 99-year ground lease to be entered into in 2021, five payments in Phase 1 ($6.5 million in 2019, then $7.0 million each in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024), and one payment in Phase 2 ($10 million or appraised value, whichever is higher), for a total of $44.5 million. Additional potential land payments of up to $2.5 million are possible, depending on the creation of a Community Development Authority. In exchange for a short-term real estate tax abatement program while the project is under construction, the City will receive $200,000 annual payments, commencing in 2029 and lasting for life of the 99-year lease. The City will also benefit from a profit-sharing provision should land values increase prior to construction, and a Capital Event Fee, which will apply whenever the property is sold or refinanced over the life of the lease. The City was advised by the firms of Alvarez and Marsal and Arent Fox in the work that culminated in this agreement.

The developer’s Special Exception Entitlement Application which establishes building heights, permitted uses, plan layouts, and other project details, is currently under City review, with anticipated action by City Council at its July 8 meeting.

As for the pocket park in the 100 block of West Broad that was unveiled at a ribbon cutting last week, the name for the park is now under consideration, with the public invited to submit suggestions at the Community Center or online.

The park is already proving popular for citizens attracted to that part of town and the many restaurants and the ice cream shop adjacent it.