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Shields Reveals Virginia Tech Talks On GMHS Campus Development

TASK FORCE MEMBERS working on economic development for the west end high school campus site met early last Friday morning at City Hall, along with City staff. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church City officials have been meeting quietly with top level officials of Virginia Tech who’ve flown in from Blacksburg for meetings this summer. The school will be making some major decisions about its growth plan for Northern Virginia by next March, City Manager Wyatt Shields revealed at Friday morning’s meeting of the Economic Development Task Force for the 35-acre west end high school/middle school project.

Virginia Tech, along with the University of Virginia, currently shares the educational building constructed in the mid-1990s adjacent to the campus site, 10 acres of which have been designated for economic development. While there has been talk of a hoped-for collaborative effort with the universities there for things such as shared parking and even more use of classroom spaces in their building than currently, Shields suggested Friday that Virginia Tech might be interested in a lot more.

“Virginia Tech currently has a number of small sites around the region. But their hope is to grow into areas where they could directly collaborate with and achieve a mutually-beneficial working relationship with cutting edge industry,” Shields said. Needless to say, the F.C. campus site could accommodate such an arrangement.

While no definitive decisions may be forthcoming from Tech until its big confab next March, that would still be in time to have a major impact on what the City, with its consultants, will decide to do on the economic development 10 acres of the school site.

The City’s plans remain contingent on passage of the November bond referendum when citizens will be asked to approve a $120 million school bond for construction of a new George Mason High School.

At Friday morning’s meeting, members of the task force, including F.C. Mayor David Tarter, the Economic Development Authority’s Robert Young, Planning Commissioner Russ Wodiska and School Board member Michael Ankuma, kicked around ideas for the “highest and best use” of the 10 acre component of the land with representatives of the Alvarez and Marsal consulting firm. Mayor Tarter expressed most interest in a “full-service hotel” being attracted to the site. As Young, a developer himself, added, whereas a full service hotel option may suppress the amount of money the City could get up front from a long-term lease, it’s long-term benefit to the City in terms of annual tax yields and collateral benefits, noting that rival options — such as the Fairview Marriott and the Sheraton Premiere — are at a significant distance from the City and the Fairview site does not have the advantage of proximity to the Metro line, as the F.C. location does.

But the overall discussion focused on the need to be flexible and to avoid the pitfall of mandating to developers what the City will accept on the site. The upcoming year will be used to gain a sensitivity for what the market will be open to before issuing an official “request for proposal” late next summer.

Alvarez and Marsal’s Ted Richards said he believes that the challenge will be to encourage the maximum response from the development community while having the end product maintained within the City Council’s goals to maintain the culture of the City. “We have to better understand the value and risk factors,” he said. Shields concurred. The goal has to be to maximize value and minimize risk, he said. Tarter stressed the need to maintain the “tight schedule” that such a process will require.

Alvarez and Marsal’s Jenifer Boss stressed that in developing goals and requirements, that the City does not “proscribe too much.” Tarter replied, “There is going to be a tug of war in this, as we have priorities, too. We can’t be overly flexible.”

Young proposed that the City not delay in rezoning the entire 36 acres to encourage business development, going to a B-2 option that allows a 120-foot height limit by right, and through the special exception process to go even higher. Richards quipped that if someone wants a 20-story building there, that might not be such a bad idea.

On the hotel discussion, Richards suggested there are a lot of “tweener” products being developed by that industry that fit between a full-service hotel and smaller models. “There are some that are really pretty cool,” he said. A hotel could be “a vibrant economic and cultural driver” that could keep the area active for 18 to 24 hours a day.

Also at the meeting were the Planning Commission’s Lindy Hockenberry and Ted Stevens, and the City Council’s Phil Duncan, Marybeth Connelly and (by phone hookup) David Snyder.

The consultants’ draft “George Mason High School Commercial Development Strategic Roadmap” will be discussed at the F.C. Council’s next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 5.