MAN ABOUT TOWN: What? Tear Down Our New School?
September 27, 2010
I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard the idea: tear down the still-unpaid $25 million Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School? No way – it’s barely five years old!
But after getting over the initial shock I began to rationalize that, indeed, it might make sense. And now it’s looking more and more like it actually might happen. The 60 acres that house MEH and George Mason High School, with their sports fields and parking lots adjacent to the West Falls Church Metro, constitute a gold mine. You might as well build city schools there as in Times Square.
To visualize what that 60 acres could look like, hop the Metro to Vienna and just gaze: hundreds of apartments and condominiums. If they like Vienna, wouldn’t they like West Falls Church even more? Not only is it two stops closer to the District, it’s also one stop from the junction with the upcoming Silver Line out to Tyson’s and Dulles.
Sure, East Falls Church is desirable too – but with so many small property owners, it’s a developer’s nightmare. Whereas WFC offers the potential of obtaining 60 golden acres from a single owner.
Should that owner sell? Would that owner sell? Well — who needs money any worse than the Little (bankrupt) City of Falls Church?
Maybe that’s why the City Council, the School Board, and the Planning Commission held a top-secret meeting last week to discuss land acquisition. Because you can’t knock down the schools until new ones are built.
Where to build? The first criterion is that any new school has to be outside City limits – as bizarre as that sounds. We can’t afford to take any City land off the tax rolls.
The next requirement is for some serious acreage: enough for football and baseball fields, tennis courts, parking lots – all that. But where in the world can you find that much land reasonably close to the City that could actually be purchased?
There may be only one place – Hillwood Square, just behind Larry Graves Park and soccer field on Hillwood Avenue. The City already owns the soccer field [CORRECTION: See Barry Buschow's comment below]. Combine that with Hillwood Square and you have a very nice piece of property – just about perfect for a middle and high school complex.
Hillwood Square Mutual Association is a cooperative of 160 families sitting on 19 acres. The key word is “cooperative,” meaning that the residents don’t actually own their homes individually. If they did, you could never get them all to agree to sell. But a majority of the cooperative could send the rest packing.
Why would Hillwood Square residents want to sell? They certainly didn’t back in 2002 when the City offered $4 million for 6 acres of undeveloped land. And they still don’t, if you believe one website. (Methinks they doth protest too much.) But maybe since the building boom fizzled, residents have decided to sell for a realistic price. The townhomes were built by the U.S. Navy in 1941 for workers at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, so you can be pretty sure they don’t have granite counter tops. Any offer over $25 million should get their attention.
This is really a win-win-win situation. Hillwood Square owners win because they receive a far higher price for their aging properties than anyone else is likely to offer. The City wins by cashing in on the WFC land with proceeds to help build both a new middle and high school in a more suitable area than what we have now.
And most important is that Fairfax County wins big time, because without support from Fairfax the deal would never happen. All that WFC school property is in Fairfax County, and right now it’s all tax exempt. Selling it to private developers would generate windfall tax profits for the county, so they should fall all over themselves to promote a Hillwood Square sale to the City in exchange.
What’s not to like? Well, I still cringe at the thought of seeing bulldozers knocking down our brand new $25 million middle school. In hindsight it was a bad idea to build MEH where they did. But at the time it seemed the best, if not the only, alternative. After all, the City already owned the land.
Maybe they’ll decide to hang on to MEH and just sell the high school and sports fields. You’d lose the synergy of having the two schools together, but it might make economic sense.
On September 30 the City Schools will conduct their annual assessment of students – how many there are, and where they live. Then they’ll update their estimates of how soon we have to build more school facilities. Stay tuned.
By George Southern
September 27, 2010