Tuesday, July 21, 2015

George Mason Expansion has some Cracks in the Foundation; No News on Mt. Daniel

On Monday, July 20, the Falls Church City School Board and City Council had very long meeting – around 5 hours in joint session with the City Council continuing afterward.  The joint session was focused on the Request for Proposals (RFP) to replace or renovate George Mason High School and expand Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.  You can find the Falls Church News Press story on the joint session here: http://fcnp.com/2015/07/21/in-marathon-session-f-c-council-school-board-edge-closer-to-final-rfp-language/.

The bottom line is (1) there was no news on the Mt. Daniel expansion; and (2) as the FCNP and Mr. Benton say in the above article, most of the issues remaining ought to be drafting issues, with one important possible exception.  Please also note that the School Board meeting for tonight has been cancelled, presumably because the RFP isn’t ready for a vote.

With regard to Mt. Daniel, last night’s meeting was focused on the RFP, and there was no discussion during the open session of the proposals to consider including language in the RFP that might give the City and Schools more options with regard to meeting the needs of elementary students.  There was no other substantive discussion of Mt. Daniel either, which is (mostly) not an RFP issue.  I can’t tell you what was discussed in the closed session.  And because tonight’s School Board meeting was cancelled, there won’t be an opportunity for further discussion by it tonight.

Turning to the RFP, I was not present for the initial discussion in which the School Board and City Council decided to go into closed session, but Erin Gill, Letty Hardi, and Jake Radcliff were, so if there is more to tell I am sure they will.  Regardless, it seems to me that a three-hour closed meeting exceeds what one could reasonably expect would be discussed without the public present.  I do hope we will see as much transparency as possible going forward.  [Of course, I wasn’t in the closed session so I don’t know if the topics warranted three hours.]

On the substance of the RFP, as the FCNP says, a lot of time was used discussing relatively smaller drafting issues which, while important to get right, should not prevent moving forward if all parties work toward reasonable compromise.  The key other issue, identified by the FCNP, is what KIND of development should be requested in the RFP for the up to 10+ acres allowed for commercial uses.   Much of the discussion centered on part of a sentence in the RFP, that says “The City prefers development proposals that (i) feature exemplary design and ‘place-making’ architecture and amenities; (ii) have a an  [sic] appropriate ratio of commercial uses relative to residential uses; … .”  While there was a lot of discussion, the greatest controversy was around “appropriate ratio” of commercial as opposed to “residential issues.”  My take on the discussion is that some members of the City Council believe that this language signals that more mixed-use development with ground-floor retail and apartments/condos above, similar to what has been elsewhere in Falls Church City, are just fine, when in fact the City really wants something very different, like a hotel or entertainment facility.

In one sense, this should be a small issue.  I think everyone agrees that as much commercial development as possible, and especially commercial development that would enhance our City, such as another entertainment venue, would be ideal.  There should be language the captures this intent and leaves the City free to select the best proposal among those submitted.  Perhaps the paragraph that includes the above language could say instead (see the bottom of this post for the original paragraph):

“Redevelop up to 10.38 acres of the Parcels for commercial or mixed uses in a manner that maximizes (i) the financial value of the property to the City and the School Board; (ii) the tax yield to the City and other financial benefits to the School Board and the City; (iii) place-making amenities, enhancements to the property, and benefits to the surrounding community including economic development; (iv) exemplary design features and “place-making” architecture; (ii) “place-making” commercial uses that add value to the community; (v) high-quality, effective transportation improvements for access to, from, and through the site (for all modes of travel, including pedestrian); and (iv) environmentally responsible and sustainable design.”

This treats all these factors as important, and requires that they be maximized. It probably goes a bit overboard on “place-making.”  It leaves bidders, however, free to choose innovate approaches to work to address all these needs.  And there are plenty of other ways to forge compromise language.  So there isn’t any reason the RFP should not be issued shortly if everyone works together.

All that said, the above dispute highlights that there are cracks in the foundation of the George Mason expansion project.  There is significant disagreement among the City Council and School Board members about what sort of commercial development should take place on the 10+ acres.  Is choosing a proposal about the highest-value commercial use that pays the most to the City, or about establishing something of unique value to the City?  Push will come to shove if there are, for example, a proposal that features apartments above ground floor retail that fully funds a new high school, versus a proposal for an entertainment facility for the city that instead requires an additional $50 million from city taxpayers to pay for the new school.  However, in my opinion this is a fight that should be put off, because the City doesn’t have the information it needs yet; only when alternative proposals are made can the costs and benefits be weighed of different proposals.

One last note – one council member did express concern that the process of soliciting proposals from developers for different, innovative proposals, under the “PPEA” may not be the best one to use, but that didn’t seem to get much uptake at this time.  City Council members were, however, concerned that the document could not be finalized last night, and so there will be a new draft, and the School Board cancelled it’s meeting for tonight, I assume because there is no new language to review yet.

Please comment or send me an email, to phil4fcc@gmail.com, if you have a question.

P.S. Here is the current version of the paragraph revised above:


“Redevelop up to 10.38 acres of the Parcels for commercial or mixed uses in a manner that maximizes (i) the financial value of the property to the City and the School Board; (ii) the tax yield to the City and other financial benefits to the School Board and the City; and (iii) enhancements to the property and surrounding community. The City prefers development proposals that (i) feature exemplary design and “place-making” architecture and amenities; (ii) have a an [sic] appropriate ratio of commercial uses relative to residential uses; (iii) provide high-quality, effective transportation improvements for access to, from, and through the site (for all modes of travel, including pedestrian); and (iv) feature an environmentally responsible and sustainable design.”

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