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2 Finalists’ Plans Both Include 15-Story Building at West End

THE 36-ACRE campus site, with 10 acres designated for economic development in the form of mixed use and commercial projects. (Photo: City of Falls Church)

It has been in the public portions of the submissions made in late August by two developers selected to be the finalists in the bidding to develop 10 acres of Falls Church’s economic development, but it was aired openly for the first time last Sunday at a monthly public briefing and community engagement at the Community Center. That is, among many other things, both of the projects call for one of their buildings to be 15 stories in height.

Both submissions also provide for an open public area directly in front of the entrance to the proposed new George Mason High School, and both either do, or intend to, include a linkage of the 10 acres to the adjacent Virginia Tech grad center, perhaps reaching even further into the eventual commercial development of what is now a surface parking lot at the West Falls Church Metro station.

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields told the forum that the final choice among the two finalists — the EYA, P.N. Hoffman, Regency group and the Rushmark group — will be made in early November, set back a little from the originally-targeted late October time frame.

A 15-story building would be, by far, the tallest in the 2.3-square mile City of Falls Church, but being at the west end, and in the center of a 10-acre dense mixed-use development, Shields said it should not have the effect of being out of scale with the City. Currently, there are no buildings half that size among the 10 new larger commercial-area buildings that have gone up in the City since 2002.

He said that City officials weighed carefully earlier this year changes to the zoning in the 10-acre space to permit that height, and that the developers simply took advantage of that permission.

Even with the building proposals, the overall floor-to-area ratios (FAR) on the site is between 3.0 and 3.5 for both proposals, with a lot of open space included, and that is not out of keeping with the City, overall.

One of the biggest issues Sunday revolved around parking, both at the high school, where earlier designs provided less than is there now, and in the 10-acre commercial area.

The plans have evolved to provide almost as many parking spaces as are available at the current high school, and that cooperation with the 10-acre developers will provide for shared parking especially during “surge” periods when greater parking demands at the high school occur, such as evening sporting and theater events.

The economic development evaluation committee, Shields said, will make its final decision based on three factors, including the project’s value to the City, its development program and its execution and risks. The committee’s recommendation will be subject to approval by the City Council, and a comprehensive agreement, including with special exceptions, will be expected by next May.

Plans for a new grocery store in the project raised questions about its need, given the large Giant next door, and the Harris Teeter down the street.
Shields said that “food is becoming the most solid aspect of retail,” with a lot of traditional retail giants downsizing if not going out of business because of the impact of online sales.

In terms of the new George Mason High School, Superintendent Peter Noonan said at Saturday’s forum that the final schematic design is imminent.
The schematic design will be followed by design development, a process that will lead to the establishment of a “greatest maximum price” guarantee by next May and the anticipated groundbreaking of the new high school project just after this school year’s classes are let out for the summer on June 14, 2019 at 4 p.m.

The plan is for a school with a capacity of 1,500 and capable of accommodating 1,200 students on day one, with zero net energy and as much natural light as possible. It will be “as intuitive, user-friendly, safe and secure as possible,” Noonan said.

In terms of its auditorium/theater, which has been the subject of considerable public discussion in the last month, while provision of 60 feet above the stage for a traditional “fly lift” will not be included, the design “has advanced with the help of community meetings,” Noonan clarified that the only “fly” element not included is that which provides for two-dimensional backdrops. “There will be rigging for lights and other purposes, and a meshed deck as opposed to a cat walk above the stage.”

There are efforts now to design a wider proscenium and a deeper stage, Noonan said. In addition, there will be a new music lab, teacher planning rooms and storage, public restrooms and arts-make spaces for music and arts production, and two freight elevators from the basement.
Overall, provision for the arts, “will be far superior to what we have now,” Noonan said. “We have come a million miles from where we were at this time last year.”

The final schematic design, expected to be completed in the next few weeks, will be presented to the public at the next Sunday town hall meeting next month.