Russ Wodiska, the new chair of the Falls Church Planning Commission, keynoted and moderated last Saturday’s town hall forum on economic development options for the West End Campus Development Project. He told the News-Press Tuesday that he came away from the event heartened, and with a strong sense of consensus that greater densities than earlier in vogue in Falls Church will be both welcomed and expected on the 36-acre site of a prospective new high school.
In closing summary remarks from different breakout groups, Wodiska said he divined a “general agreement” that, he said, “will help shape our draft plan in the next two months.” He said the key themes were to 1. use the entire 10 acres allotted under the agreement to acquire the land for economic development (the rest to go to educational purposes), 2. to prefer mixed use to help create a “unique place,” 3. to prefer more density than currently permitted, with buildings from eight to 13 stories, and 4. to take advantage of the easy access to the West Falls Church Metro station.
There was no major dissent to the prospect of greater density, he said, although no one wanted to see 20-story or higher buildings. (One innovative developer at the meeting quipped that he’d see no reason why a mixed use building of 35 stories would not work, since there is one that height, The Adair, that has just been completed in Tysons, and another one, even higher, is just now coming out of the ground. Such a high-rise mostly residential building would put enough “feet on the ground” to trigger a restaurant and retail boom in the City, he said.)
The focus on density is directly related to the cost of constructing a new high school on the site, although that was not the subject of this meeting. The cost of the new school may approach $100 million (deliberations on that matter are still being fiercely discussed and explored, with a wide range from $70 million to $120 million being debated, all subject to voter approval in a referendum this November).
If an aggressive economic development plan is adopted by the City, and hopefully by a developer, to offset that cost through the purchase or lease of the 10 acres and the ongoing tax yields, then the burden on Cty taxpayers could be significantly eased, if not eliminated.
A task force is now working that will study the results from last weekend’s meeting to shape what will eventually become a “request for proposal” document to be circulated to the regional development community.
In Wodiska’s opening remarks last Saturday morning, he stressed how open-ended the opportunity is for the City. He said that with the land now annexed into the City, nobody has any say so over what can go on it except the Falls Church citizenry and its leaders. He said afterward that he was particularly pleased by the turnout of City Council and other policy-making officials.
“This is an amazing and unique opportunity,” he said, “and there is a lot riding on this.” He cited the location of the 10 acres, adjacent the Metro, with the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech satellite campus there, and additional lands adjacent the site that could also be folded into a longer-term development, including dozens of acres of properties owned by WMATA, Federal Realty, and Beyer Automotive.
“Not everybody is as optimistic as I am about what a wonderful site this is,” Wodiska said Saturday. There are high vacancy rates in commercial properties in the wider region, and traffic at least temporarily diverted away from the West Falls Church Metro station by the new Silver Line. We will have to be pragmatic, but I am very optimistic. We need game-changing ideas.”
He added, “The challenge is to think bigger here. We need to aim high. This is a big idea, an opportunity to combine education with the demographics of Falls Church and all just a stone’s throw from the Metro.” We own the land, and it’s a blank slate.
Parameters the City and its consultants are currently working with envision a lease or sale price of the developable land of $30 million to $42 million, and annual tax returns of $4 million to $6 million. While those parameters will not eliminate a cost factor for taxpayers of a new high school, it will significantly mitigate them for a school that grows from its current 200,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet, and a capacity increased from 800 to 1,200 students, with an expansion capacity to 1,500 students.
Leaders of the City’s Planning Department staff, led by Jim Snyder and including Kerri Oddenino and Loren Bruce, offered input on transportation issues and comparables, such as projects underway in Rockville, Bethesda, Arlington and Merrifield.