The deed has been done, and the Falls Church School Board and City Council ditched the flawed effort at a “private-public education partnership” for the development of the 36 acre campus site after less than a year working with two bidders for the project.
That was the right move. But what happens now? There is a troubling amount of confusion in high places right now leading to seriously misplaced priorities and upsetting suggestions. City Manager Wyatt Shields sought to clear some of this up at Monday’s Council work session, but it was not at all clear his message got through.
The first major misconception expressed itself in the form of talk about “how much we can afford” for a new high school. Numbers ranged from $40 to $112 million, with those speaking about this clearly preferring numbers at the lower end.
The second misconception had to do with the timing for deciding how to divvy up the land between the school project and the 10-acre commercial component. We contend:
First, how much the school will cost is not in one-dimensional isolation. It must be a function of how much the commercial component of the project can yield. It is a fluid concept, and no numbers should be considered until the question of the commercial component’s yield can be addressed.
Second, to optimize the yield from the commercial component, no step to divide the land should be taken until after the development community has been asked to offer its best shot at what it could do.
In other words, developers should be asked to take any 10 acres on the site, at any place on the site – from next to the West Falls Church Metro to the Haycock at West Broad intersection – where they think that they could derive the best yield. At the same time, there should be no limits on the density or height of the project. This is in order to elicit truly the “highest and best use” of the commercial development.
After evaluating whatever proposals come forward, only then the Council and the School Board should plot out where to locate the school, and not before.
This is how the optimal symbiotic relationship between the educational and commercial uses of the site can be achieved. Developers who are invited to cook up their ideal plans can also be encouraged to contact WMATA and the Northern Virginia Graduate Center about possible collaboration.
Another point: In last Saturday’s “visioning exercise” at the Episcopal church, the experts who spoke first all failed to mention a highly-relevant key element of the regional economy, that one of its single biggest drivers is tourism, with over 20 million visitors to the region a year.
We propose that the commercial project that would work best on the campus site would be a high-rise hotel and condo project at the West Falls Church Metro catering, among other things, to tourists.