Members of three leading City of Falls Church groups assembled Monday night at a work session to begin moving ahead on the George Mason High School campus development project in the wake of a rousing approval by voters of a $120 million school bond earlier this month.
The first tier of decisions before the City Council, the School Board and the Planning Commission involved a response to City Manager Wyatt Shields’ proposal to establish a Campus Coordinating Committee that would be composed of two members of the Council, two of the School Board, one of the Planning Commission, a member of the Economic Development Authority, the City Manager and the School Superintendent.
However, almost everyone who chimed in on the discussion Monday night said they felt having a single person, a “project executive” in the words of Council members Dan Sze and Letty Hardi, with a single-minded focus on all aspects of the project, is required.
Although he did not propose it this Monday, the idea of such a role was obviously not new to Shields, because he told the News-Press after the meeting that his search for a new Economic Development Office chief at City Hall, which has been underway for months, may have to take the “project executive” role into account.
“This project has got hundreds of issues coming up, not the least involving taking advantage of opportunities that might arise from conversations with neighbors such as WMATA and the University of Virginia and prospects for environmental standards on the site,” Sze said.
“We need a single point of contact at the top,” added School Board member-elect Greg Anderson. “We need a third party point person,” Council member Karen Oliver chimed in.
“There is so much about this project that is entirely new,” said Mayor David Tarter, “The 10 acres are all new, the prospect of collaborating with neighbors is all new. We can’t afford to leave anything on the table to take full advantage of this.”
The daunting prospects of the effort, now facing the policy makers since the issue of the bond referendum is no longer before them, began to sink in over the course of the meeting.
Project milestones presented at the meeting followed two columns, one for the high school redevelopment and the other for the 10-acre commercial development.
The timeline on the school begins with the School Board’s imminent decision on the approval of a request for qualifications for school design and construction, followed by the approval of a short list of respondents by February and the issuance that month of a request for proposal for school design and construction.
The final contract for that component is slated to be approved by July 2018, and the final school design readied by July 2019, with the notice to commence with the construction also coming that month.
On the City Council side concerning the 10 acres for commercial development, the approval of Comprehensive Plan modifications will be due by February 2018, and the issuance of a request for qualifications (RFQ) for economic development also by February, followed in May 2018 by an approval of a short list of RFQ respondents.
The Council would then approve a bond for $10 million in May 2018 and in June issue a formal request for proposal (RFP), with the choice of top-ranked respondents coming by next October.
In May 2019 an approval of a master development agreement would come, including the approval of special exception entitlements associated with the plan. In June 2019 would come the approval of a bond for $60 million for initial construction, and for $50 million for the remaining amount in September 2020.
The timetable has the opening of the new George Mason High School, an entirely new building, in the Summer of 2021 and in the Fall of 2021, the commencing of the commercial development component.
Councilman Sze read a statement from the City’s Environmental Sustainability Council urging it to evaluate qualifications for the construction of the new school to be based on an ability “to deliver a balanced design that achieves Zero Energy status as defined by the United States Department of Energy.” The new high school “is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the City to back up its commitments to environmental standards with a huge step forward,” it said.