Tuesday night’s latest joint meeting of the Falls Church City Council and School Board saw a demonstrable tilt in sentiments toward a phased renovation and construction of the City’s George Mason High School that would enable immediate needs to be met quicker and provide enough new renovation and development activity to carry the school through the next 10 years, but at an upfront cost to taxpayers of less than half what a full new project would cost.
With more data now being sought for this option, the two bodies are expected to meet together again before the end of this month to begin making key decisions that will allow the lead times necessary for a referendum to be prepared for the November ballot. While most members of the two bodies wanted to keep the option for construction of a completely new high school on the table for the time being, at a rising cost now at $117 million, there was a lot of attention paid to the phased approach.
School Board member Phil Reitinger stated that he doubted there is enough of an appetite for the tax impact of an all-new high school this year, but that a phased approach that would see to the school;s expected rising enrollment up to 1,200 students (with stretching, its capacity is 876 now) carry it through 2025 at a cost of $53 million that would optimize flexibility and enable the City to retire two major debt obligations in 2022 and 2026, meaning that taking on the new debt for the school might be done with no immediate tax rate increase.
Among the issues still seeking resolution is the impact that allowing high density economic development on a portion of the site will have in terms of revenues offsetting the cost of the school construction. “There is a lot of value associated with economic development on this site,” said Mayor David Tarter, which is done right, he said, could also contribute to the City’s “sense of place.”
The City’s Chief Planner, who will be launching a visionary “small area plan” for the economic development on the site next month, said that a mixed use approach with a dense 2.5 or higher floor-to-area ratio (FAR) would be possible as the location is “transit oriented,” being by the West Falls Church Metro station. Councilman Phil Duncan suggested developing a minimum of seven acres at a 3.0 FAR. Getting the economic development planning process going will be key to the potential involvement of adjacent properties controlled by the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech Graduate Center and the acreage controlled by WMATA, said City Manager Wyatt Shields.
Consultant Bob Jones of Arcata, who has been involved in other school projects in the City, said a phased approach would probably involve construction of a new high school wing on the other site of the Henderson Middle School first, then the renovation of half the existing high school. He suggested that architectural consultants be brought in to draw up what that might look like, noting that a phased approach would be very complicated.