Architect Presents Plans for Commercial Development, New High School

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
September 28, 2014

An architectural firm hired by Falls Church City officials has prepared four different drawings that show how a new George Mason High School could be relocated in order to allow for significant commercial development on the land housing the City’s middle school-high school complex.

That land, which was in Fairfax County until January of this year, became City land because of a boundary adjustment that was part of the deal to sell the City’s water system to Fairfax. That in turn opened up the possibility of selling some of it for commercial development, which could then be used to increase revenue to the City and help finance a new high school.

The firm, RTKL, presented the four drawings to City officials last week. Each drawing is quite a bit different from the others. But what they have in common is that a new high school would be built and the existing Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, built in 2004, would be retained.

A new high school, which officials have been dreaming of and planning for some time, is controversial because of the high cost, estimated to be $85-$100 million. Renovating the existing Mason, which was built in 1952, would likely be considerably cheaper.

But if the school could be relocated and a multi-acre swath of the land where the high school now sits could be cleared for commercial development, a new school might become less controversial and more financially palatable.

The land in question, at the corner of Broad and Shreve across from the plaza housing the Giant, is considered quite valuable because of its proximity to Interstate 66 and the West Falls Church Metro Station.

Sources say representatives from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which owns the Giant plaza, and from Don Beyer Motors, which has significant land holdings kitty corner from the high school site, have been attending meetings of the “steering committee” of City officials discussing ideas for the land for much of the year.

It doesn’t appear that the steering committee has made any decisions, but they do appear to be considering either selling some of the land outright to a developer or engaging a public private partnership, such as one in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood, where a developer built a new elementary school and an apartment building on land adjacent to the school. Taxes from the apartment building are paying off the bonds sold to build the school.

The architect’s drawings are, of course, not set in stone. But they show four different but seemingly viable ways to build a new George Mason while consolidating the 42 acres of land the City recently gained in a way that maximizes the potential for development.

Still, until the commercial development is proposed, it would be impossible even to project how much tax revenue it would bring in and thus how much school construction cost it could defray.

In the firm’s first option, an L-shaped Mason wraps around Henderson to the north and east, and the building is quite vertical, rising as many as six stories in some areas. That allows the footprint to be reduced to 2.6 acres from the current four. A parking structure would be built beneath the athletic fields. The white space represents a new George Mason, and the pink shaded area is reserved for commercial. The yellow striped space represents Henderson.
Option two would put Mason right at the hard corner of Broad & Shreve and make it five stories tall. That would allow it to occupy only 1.8 acres. Athletic fields and a new track and football stadium would be built between the new Mason and the existing Henderson, and commercial development would be placed closer to the highway and the train.
That would have the added bonus of allowing automobile traffic to access the commercial development directly from the highway, which would keep many out-of-town vehicles outside the City.

The third option would place the new school west of Henderson, closer to the highway, and would split the commercial development into two parcels: a smaller one, presumably retail, at Broad & Shreve, and a second, larger parcel near the highway and train, which would more likely be residential or offices. The school would be four stories and 2.6 acres.
The firm’s last option is the most sprawling, with the proposed Mason being four acres and four stories. It would wrap around Henderson on three sides — all except the Broad Street side. However, doing that would reduce the amount of available commercial land from 10.4 acres in each of the other proposals to 7.6; the commercial would be located at Broad & Shreve.
That would presumably reduce the amount of revenue that could be gained from the commercial development, but it could be worth it if it’s deemed the best educational option.

September 28, 2014 


24 Responses to “Architect Presents Plans for Commercial Development, New High School”

  1. Brian Rye on September 28th, 2014 9:32 pm

    Thank you for providing the background info and the detailed drawings. I’ll be very curious to hear the financial details behind whatever decision is made.

  2. TFC on September 29th, 2014 8:35 am

    Thanks for the visuals. It’s not the end- all- be- all plan but a good place to start

  3. Dennis Szymanski on September 29th, 2014 9:48 am

    Great public service, Stephen.

  4. Dale Walton on September 29th, 2014 3:39 pm

    There should be no further activity associated with this project until the taxpayers are assured that the cost will be offset by revenue from other revenue streams and not further increases in the tax rate assessed taxpayers. Any new school project should be offset by the sale and commercial development of the property and/or from water sale proceeds. Taxpayers are taxed far more than what is reasonable. Maximize the revenue from non-tax sources if you are going to construct a new school.

  5. TFC on September 29th, 2014 4:16 pm

    …..and this event is tomorrow night…pushed out through morning announcements so……

    Early Conceptual Drawing
    FCCPS Facilities Forum Tomorrow Night!

    Tuesday, Sept. 30 at 7:00 p.m. at MEH

    Mount Daniel School Expansion, George Mason High School campus planning – get the latest information!
    Join us at the FCCPS Facilities Forum with Superintendent Toni Jones, City Manager Wyatt Shields, School Board Chair Susan Kearney, Mayor David Tarter and others for an update on all the project details.

  6. Victor Wong, Falls Church on October 1st, 2014 3:13 pm

    Aerial views are nice, but actual concepts of the height and usage of the building parts leaves one wondering about all the odd shapes.

    But the worst part of the story is that the City is not actively looking for builders/developers to develop the site. The City’s Economic Development infrastructure is non-existent. The City waits for businesses to come to us, the City does not market to business or developers that are looking to build or build/occupy structures. This is what will slow down the building of the high school otherwise the citizens will be left with the bill.

  7. Dale Walton on October 1st, 2014 3:49 pm

    I am betting unfortunately the citizens will be stuck with most of the bill…..UNLESS the school board, city council, and manager get in sync and agree no new high school until the cost is offset through commercial development. Things just don’t work the way they should with the interest of ALL taxpayers in mind. The city council and city manager are going to need to push back on the school lobby who has just the new school in mind and probably cares a lot less about offsetting the cost.

    But lets not forget about the short-term and this upcoming bond referendum and the impacts of that action on the tax rate and other fiscal impacts of that debt on city taxpayers. Thus far, Is anyone happy with how all of this has been described.

    Besides schools, what are the other competing priorities of this City which require financing but which are being neglected.

  8. Brian Rye on October 1st, 2014 4:10 pm

    Here is a link to the City’s February 2014 presentation on the 5-year Capital Improvements Program for FY15 through FY19. Slide 13 shows the breakdown excluding a new high school (or assuming it is paid for some other way).

  9. Brian Rye on October 1st, 2014 4:45 pm

    Also, FWIW, Arlington residents will vote on a series of bond referendums (referenda??) totaling $219 million this fall, $107 million of which is for schools. This includes $50 million for a new elementary school and $29 million for a 136-seat expansion of another, existing elementary school.

  10. Dennis Szymanski, Falls Church on October 1st, 2014 5:20 pm

    Thanks, and Thanks, Brian. I went to the Feb presentation and, on slide 30, it shows “MDES $14.6.M FY13-15, increased” and then “GMHS $99.5M FY15-16, need financing plan”. So, using only the information in the slide deck, I could assume we Had a financing plan for MDES back in Feb. Yet, we don’t seem to have one now. Let me quickly add that I am only commenting on the lack of a plan and not the Need.

  11. Dale Walton on October 1st, 2014 5:27 pm

    Thanks. The presentation to me is big on the expenditure side and short on explaining affordability and the revenue/funding sources needed to pay…..and a guestimate on the impact on and what the residential tax rate is projected to be. Also unless I missed it, what are the priorities. I think the taxpayers have bought off on things like this in the past without asking the tough questions on affordability and impact on tax rate. Keep in mind for the current budget year, the city manager originally proposed a 5 cent tax rate increase which the city council surprisingly showed some push back on by saying “no”….keep the tax rate the same.

  12. Dale Walton on October 1st, 2014 6:01 pm

    Failed to add that I just recalled seeing the City CFO just is now projecting a significant shortfall in tax receipts for what was projected this year. If that trend holds, that adds pressure to increasing residential taxes next year and future year unless there confidence that we will be back in a surplus position. If not, combine this revenue shortfall now and probably for the immediate future,,,,now there is a push to borrow money which adds more debt service and more expense….thus adding more pressure to raise the tax rate on residential taxpayers. Where am I wrong.

  13. TFC on October 1st, 2014 8:02 pm

    At the tue night presentation the Mayor seemed clear that we would be voting on the referendum without a sure plan of paying for this specific debt…..many ideas are out there but nothing with a nail in it. The MD debt alone would be about 3 cents on the rate if it was solely the tax rate paying it. I *think* folks will look for other revenue sources to offset some of the burden.

    I have a lot of questions. I guess I will save them up for the Town Hall meeting.

    I am afraid the water sale proceeds will be oh soooo appealing a chunk of money.

  14. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 1st, 2014 11:56 pm

    I wasn’t able to make it to the Tuesday presentation so maybe TFC and others have more info, but I think we might be mixing up two different things.

    The financing plan for the MD expansion is the bond, as I understand it, which works out to about 3 cents in the tax rate. The only other funding source for that project that I can think of, I suppose, is using some of the proceeds from the sale of the water system. I don’t think there’s anything about the MD site or redevelopment plan that can generate revenue.

    The GMHS project is a totally different thing. Because of the cost, and the fact that the water system sale has made it possible for part of the land up there to be commercially developed, there seems to be consensus that the only way we’ll be able to build a new high school is by offsetting some of the cost via redevelopment of some of the land. There are a lot of different ways that could work, which is what people are trying to figure out right now.

  15. TFC on October 2nd, 2014 7:09 am

    @Andy, no confusion here. MD debt was my focus. GM is a future focus

  16. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 2nd, 2014 10:00 am

    @TFC – ok, thanks for the clarification. Has there been any suggestion from the City or schools that there would be MD funding other than the bond or is that just something citizens have been asking about?

  17. Dennis Szymanski on October 2nd, 2014 11:46 am

    Andy, the Mt Daniel Bond Referendum information sheet states “the city has an array of financing options for all capital projects”. As we are only a month away from the vote, I think you are seeing/hearing the anxiety that there is no clarity around just how that translates. And, by extension, the growing angst over how the GM/MEH project will be funded.

  18. Dale Walton on October 2nd, 2014 12:53 pm

    Dennis – – well stated.

    I think folks are tired of general wording that says the city has an array of financing options…..only to find out later they are getting stuck with the bill. More specificity is needed on exactly how these projects and associated debt service will be financed. Without that specificity, I am a “no” vote.

    Also, the talked about option of a 3 cent increase on the residential tax rate is unacceptable. You know that 3 cents will grow to be 6 to 10 cents because of related needs. When you take such an increase into account coupled with rising assessments, folks could face a $1,500+ tax increase next year. Other financing options such as proceeds from the water sale or tapping the reserve fund have to be used. Even though this year’s tax rate remained flat, taxpayers have incurred more than enough tax increases in the rate in recent years and tax increases due to rising assessments.

  19. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 2nd, 2014 1:36 pm

    Dennis, thanks for the tip – I finally got around to looking at the web site with the info (

    The array of financing options is spelled out: local taxes, proceeds from the water system sale, proffers from current development, and the sale of bonds (which gets paid for via local taxes).

    With those options spelled out, what do people prefer? Sounds like Dale favors spending some of the water system money and I know City Council is considering various ways to deploy those proceeds.

    I’m not sure of the status of the proffers made by the current projects (Harris Teeter and Tinner Hill), if those haven’t been deployed yet then this project seems to be a good option – although they would not come close to covering the total cost. The Mason Row project is out there now and if it’s approved there will almost certainly be a proffer for school construction that’s based on the size of the residential component of the project. We should keep that in mind when considering that project.

  20. TFC on October 2nd, 2014 1:45 pm

    @Andy,The water sale proceed decision will be a first step, I think, because one option is using all of it for capital projects and someone could say “let’s use it for MD”….the devil is always in the details.

  21. Dale Walton on October 2nd, 2014 2:27 pm

    When their is money available from the sale of a major asset and it is available for use or there is money sitting idle in what may be an over-funded reserve fund….or there are other available proceeds, cuts, or offsets….my feeling is the taxpayers of this city should not have to incur a 3 cent increase on the tax rate heaped upon them….period.

  22. Dennis Szymanski on October 2nd, 2014 2:47 pm

    There is a Town Hall on Oct 11th where the CM will outline the options for Water Sale proceeds.

  23. TFC on October 16th, 2014 8:49 am

    FYI: the Urban Land Institute has been here looking over the GM/MEH campus area. They are going to present findings today (Oct 16) at the Hilton Garden Inn from 5-6:30. They will give ideas about development and land use. Public can attend as observers. This will add another layer of possibilities for development/utilization of the area as we look for ways to fund the new high school.

  24. John B. Strother Falls Church on October 27th, 2014 8:18 am

    Someone hasn’t checked their facts, this is not at Shreve Road, but on Haycock Road. Haycock Road is on the other side of Route 7 From Shreve Road. How sloppy to make references to roads if you don’t use said names for roads. Plus, I thought the contract was the lands given up by Fairfax County had to remain a certain percentage of lands had to remain in educational value. I wonder how the County feels about these plans? Does these plans affect their ideas of what this area was going to become? My biggest concern is that everyone is being lead to the wrong piece of land in the description. This is Haycock Road and not Shreve Road.

Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.