Following some spirited exchanges Monday night, the Falls Church City Council moved to bring to a vote at its next business meeting a resolution authorizing the issuance of $19,575,000 in general obligation bonds to finance capital improvement projects, including $4,375,000 in City Hall renovations and expansion plans and $7,885,000 in school system improvements, including $4 million to repay loans for the Thomas Jefferson renovation and $2,4 million for preparations for a Mt. Daniel Elementary expansion.
The main bone of contention at the meeting involved the funding for City Hall, as Councilman Phil Duncan pointed out that leaders of the City’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) had questioned the option of going to a new site, altogether.
When Duncan pleaded for at least providing an estimate of the relative costs of building a new City Hall, altogether, compared with the cost of a renovation of the existing building, it was agreed that this could be part of the task for the $1 million in planning money included for City Hall in the proposed bond issue.
City Manager Wyatt Shields pointed out that with the extraordinarily high growth in enrollment at the Mt. Daniel Elementary, School Division officials are scrambling to determine how to best expand that site to accommodate the growth.
Written comments from two members of the City’s EDA to the Council underscored the concerns that Councilman Duncan raised.
Eric Pelton, an attorney in the City who is also on the Legislative Committee of the F.C. Chamber of Commerce, wrote, “I am concerned about the possibility that spending money on rehabbing the curent city hall would be a significant expense and could be misguided. While rehabbing the existing structure would no doubt be cheaper than a new city hall, would it meet our long term needs?”
He continued “Would the investment pay dividends long term, or just be an expensive band aid leaving the city with a need for a new building in another decade? Is spending a fair amount of money to fix what is arguably a very bad building really a better option than building something new that is unencumbered by the current structure? While new construction likely costs more up front, it may provide significantly more return, space and value, and may last longer.”
A fellow member of the F.C. EDA, Brian Williams, CEO of Viget Labs, wrote, on the general question of “rehab vs. rebuild,” “I’d like to better understand how the City Council and city staff determines which approach makes more sense. As a resident who has been in the city for about six years and plans to be here another 60, I want to make sure we’re making the tough choices that are logical not just for the next few years, but for the next several decades.”
He questioned that, as “school expansion efforts have been rather piecemeal,” “if this is in part due to the difficulties related to gathering consensus for a longer term vision.”
Pelton concluded his letter, “I don not believe there has been sufficient public discussion yet on these and other related issues prior to any decision whether or not to spend money rehabbing the existing city hall. I encourage the Council to remove this request from the current overall bond request in order to encourage greater discussion before we commit money to the project.”