MAN ABOUT TOWN: What? Tear Down Our New School?

Falls Church Times Columnist

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.


September 27, 2010 


25 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: What? Tear Down Our New School?”

  1. Peggy Monahan on September 27th, 2010 6:46 am

    Wow, first I’ve heard of it! Thanks for the heads up, food for thought…..

  2. Jason Douglas Falls Church on September 27th, 2010 7:53 am

    Interesting idea, George. If executed properly, this could solve two additional problems. The high school building is probably not terribly energy efficient, which should definitely be a concern in the long term. Also, the right project on the GM site could have a significant economic impact on the west end.

  3. JAC on September 27th, 2010 8:24 am

    Wait … isn’t that property actually a part of Fairfax County?

  4. Brad Fribley, Falls Church City on September 27th, 2010 9:10 am

    It could be a good idea. The George Mason building does take a lot of space. A new high school could be multi-storied, similar to the new Washington and Lee HS in Arlington, with state of the art educational space and energy efficiency. You could even add some bells and whistles, such as multiple gyms, a swimming pool, etc. It probably wouldn’t hurt to leave MEH where it is. As you say, it seems a waste to destroy a 5 year old building.

    Two important considerations: 1) Be absolutely certain the plan is financially viable and 2) Complete transparency throughout the project. There can’t be anymore “secret meetings.”

  5. Barry Buschow on September 27th, 2010 9:24 am

    The City does Not own Larry Graves fields. We are allowed the right to use it because we invested in developing the fields there. Second don/t forget we own the Kieslling tract which we lease to UVA/VA Tech for $1 a year. There is a School there already…..Metro should sell their big parking lot/garage. If they offered a shuttle system (like we should have anyway) they would not need all that land. Sounds like a real estate speculator is stirring the pot………

  6. Mike Smith on September 27th, 2010 9:25 am

    I had to chew on this one for quite a while, but the more I think about it the more I like it. Now, does the City have the horsepower to get this going and, more doubtful, does Fairfax have the vision to see how it benefits them?

  7. Hembrey, Falls Church on September 27th, 2010 9:48 am

    Wow. Talk about a bees nest. People move into the city for the schools. Mess with this and you may mess with the property values. Besides, if they plan to build multi use / high density residences, they better also prepare for traffic control. What a mess that would be with the existing streets!

  8. Nikki Graves Henderson on September 27th, 2010 9:50 am

    Interesting? Interesting indeed! Is not this part of the same land that was gerrymandered outside the city’s limits, becoming part of Fairfax County, in 1887? Interesting indeed, if this land was part of the land that was gerrymandered outside the city, this suggests to me that the city is far too short sighted. . . just over a hundred years ago this land was ceded back to Fairfax County. . . NOW, it is a desirable piece of land, opps Fairfax County, we need it back and we’ll make you a real deal to get it? . . . by the way. . . based on my last visit to the area, while conducting a heritage tour of Falls Church (which ignores the boundaries) by implementing this plan, once again, the people who would be displaced are people of color, African Americans, Asians, Latino and people who can not afford to live inside the city limits and take advantage of our schools. . . all for the good of the . . . majority of the citizens of Falls Church? Sounds like we need to stop thinking so insular. . .let’s avoid being penny wise and pound foolish- add ethics to decision and we will not repeat the 1887 mistake! Parts of the proposed plan are sound — however we need to base our decisions on more than strictly dollars and cents to make a good long term decision. Since there is no one still living to say “I told you so” regarding the long term implications of the gerrymandering. . . . . . so on their behalf I will say “I told you so!” Had not the foolish decision to gerrymander the town’s borders then there would be more of a tax base in the city NOW. Freddie Foote, Mayor Duncan I hope you are listening beyond the grave!

  9. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on September 27th, 2010 10:57 am

    I know someone who lives over in Hillwood Square and a developer has been working on getting them to sell for the past several months (if not longer). I don’t know the status of things but if that’s true it sounds like the City doesn’t have much time to consider this plan.

    How much influence over a plan like this would Fairfax County have? Both properties in question are in Fairfax County so zoning would be an issue – but it does seem like it would ultimately benefit them.

  10. George Southern, Falls Church City on September 27th, 2010 10:59 am

    Nikki — Thank you for your comment, which is so, so true. I just wanted you to know that I’m singing on the same page. Here’s what I wrote a few months ago on that subject:

    We’re all proud of the City of Falls Church, but when it comes to Tinner Hill, it may be best not to rush in where angels fear to tread. There was a Town of Falls Church long before there was ever a City, and the Town limits were considerably larger than the present City limits. The Tinner Hill section of the segregated Town of Falls Church was the “colored” area. In 1948 when the City was incorporated, a deliberate decision was made to exclude Tinner Hill to keep the City as “white” as possible. The Henderson House on Maple Avenue just barely made it inside the new City limits. The new City of Falls Church, incorporated specifically to gain control from Fairfax County of the schools, excluded all black children from City schools. The relatively few black children who lived in the new City had to attend the James Lee school in Fairfax County, and the City paid Fairfax County for their tuition. Mary Ellen Henderson, being black, was never allowed to teach inside the present City limits. Instead, the realization of her lifelong struggle to obtain decent education for African-Americans was the building of the James Lee School, outside the City. Thus, when we celebrate the history of Tinner Hill, we might do well not to dwell on the City.

    Nikki, I wonder if future historians will remark on the futility of this Little City’s trying in the 21st century to continue maintaining a separate community within gerrymandered borders so small that it must build its schools in other jurisdictions where the neighboring children can look but not attend.

  11. Karen Hoofnagle on September 27th, 2010 11:12 am

    George you write:

    “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.”

    I get it that we don’t want to pull any commercial land off the tax rolls, but do you honestly object to reducing the number of residential acres in the city?

    GEORGE RESPONDS: Thanks Karen — I should clarify that those aren’t MY criteria — they just reflect historical reality. It’s ironic that we can’t afford the tax loss of having neighborhood schools within the City (excepting TJ), but yet we have St. James School operating on tax-free land. That’s nothing against St. James — it just indicates a broken City model. That’s why I advocate merging with Arlington County to become part of a large enough jurisdiction to afford neighborhood schools. And to answer your question about converting residential land to school land, I just can’t fathom how it would be possible. You’d have to condemn a lot of houses. Talk about a hornets nest!

  12. TFC on September 27th, 2010 1:55 pm

    Would the proposed property meet the Va regs for school property size? I remember this was a potential problem back when there was talk of building a new school over on Hillwood…..there would not be enough property unless we “took” the fields that do not belong to us. That was when the talk surrounded the old Falls Church High School spot (now townhouses). Can anyone provide illumination?

  13. Nikki Graves Henderson on September 27th, 2010 2:46 pm

    Details, oh details. . . it is not as simple as just “it is nothing to be proud of”. Tinner Hill is an institutional member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a group that promotes open dialogue about the past . . . dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and connecting them with today’s most pressing issues. . . We can and must talk about . . . the race issue. . . as Dr. DuBois called it “the most pressing issue of the 20th century” now hauled into the next partly because due to our inability to claim our history. . . BTW before the gerrymandering there were THREE black areas in the town of Falls Church! Tinner Hill is only one – owned by African American family Tinner . . . In addition to these 3 pockets there were also blacks who lived, worked – owned businesses in white areas of FC. . . the Henderson’s had a store and home on S. Washington S. right next to the Falls Church. . . Thomas, Briggs and Costner were in the same block as the library/along Broad Street. . . further. . . although I do not know what Mary Ellen Henderson’s choice would have been if she had the option of teaching in Falls Church. . . her return of her teaching career in 1919 came only because she was interested in providing education for black children. . .she was not allowed to teach in DC after her marriage in 1910 (married women were not allowed to continue teaching in DC during that period) and only returned to teaching in FC due to repeated pleas to open the Colored School on Annandale Road from parents and administrators (there was no teacher and the school was closed) I doubt very seriously if she would have been interested in teaching in the all white school had it not provided education for black and white students. . . as a member of the NAACP, the first black member of the Falls Church League of Women, a founding member of the Women’s Democratic Voters and a staunch volunteer for the Girl Scouts during the years it was segregated I find it hard to pigeon hole her as only being interested in African American children. . .
    Must have missed the post containing your quoted comments, can you forward?

    GEORGE REPLIES: Thanks again, Nikki. My quoted comment was a reaction to a comment on the Tinner Hill Blues Festival and is contained here.

  14. Karen Hoofnagle on September 27th, 2010 2:52 pm

    Pulled directly from the VA DOE Guidelines for School Facilities In Virginia’s Public Schools, the basic land requirements are as follows:

    School Type / Basic Acreage / Additional acreage Per 100 Pupils

    Elementary (PK-7) / 4 / 1
    Middle School / 10 / 1
    Senior High / 10 / 1

    So to move MEH and GMH together you’d need maybe 19 acres or you could move only one of them with 14 acres. (I’m not sure exactly how many kids are in each school. I’m guessing about 100 per grade level.)

  15. Richard Donnely on September 27th, 2010 4:11 pm

    “It’s ironic that we can’t afford the tax loss of having neighborhood schools within the City”.

    I fail to see how a jurisdiction that prides itself on our independant school system, where we the citizens maintain control over our childrens education, are making statements such as these because we find ourselves in difficult times.

    If we leave our current schools the way they area (not perfect, but remember they are the best in the nation), we will not “have to AFFORD TAX LOSS”, we will continue to maintain the current cituation. RIght now that situation seems bleak, but in 5 addtitional years, who knows!

    Energy efficiency for a building is a nice goal, but the physical cost of building a new school, even if offset by selling land, will skyrocket (as new projects always do). Once we see the money in th bank, everyone will come out to grab it (schools for “must have additions”, government to close gaps, good-idea projects, etc.) Will there be a true long term benefit, or just more of the same, just different? (I hope that came out right).

    Remember that if we merge with Arlington, we will not longer have “Falls Church City Public Schools”, we will be part of the Arlington County school system. The decisions will be Arlingtons, the budget will come from Arlington. The decisions will come from Arlington. Is that what we want?

    Short sightedness will have long term economic ramifications. Be careful what we wish for, because once we give it up….its gone!

  16. Lindy Hockenberry, City of Falls Church on September 27th, 2010 7:18 pm

    George—I would be very interested in finding out your “sources” for the information in this article.

    GEORGE REPLIES: Lindy, you are well aware that I write an opinion column, and opinions don’t require footnotes. But yes, I did obtain information from various sources, all of which are open sources. I’m guessing perhaps you wonder who told me that the City Council, School Board, and Planning Commission discussed purchasing Hillwood Square last week. That’s easy — just read the agenda item on the City’s website. Although there was no reference to Hillwood Square on the printed agenda, the web page has the following: Closed Session pursuant to Section 2.2-3711 (A)(3) of the Code of Virginia for the “[d]iscussion or consideration of the acquisition of real property for a public purpose, or of the disposition of publicly held real property, where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body.” [Hillwood Square]

  17. John Murdock, Hillwood Square resident on September 27th, 2010 8:38 pm

    Actually, George there are a number of granite countertops here in Hillwood and $25 million would only draw a laugh. (You’ve got more than a few other facts confused too.) There’s plenty of good stuff to write about here in Hillwood, but why worry about research when you can stereotype and avoid crossing the city limits.

  18. Ben Morris, Falls Church on September 27th, 2010 8:44 pm

    For what it’s worth: my elementary, middle, junior high and high school buildings (not in FC obviously) were scattered around a fairly wide area, 3 miles or more. I don’t think it is necessarily a loss to split the middle and high schools (though interested to hear if educators have a different point of view). My high school was next to an elementary, which made for some opportunities to have HS students get experience teaching & mentoring younger kids – so maybe a new elementary near the HS is better than a middle, but I digress.

    It makes common sense to me to have MEH remain where it is, develop most of the HS and athletic fields, and *also* develop redesign some of the other dead space in the photo like open parking lots. An intelligently designed development would be important for the region and the city.

    My only caution is that the city not rush into the first opportunity that it sees, lest we end up with cheap condos that won’t age well.

  19. Lindy Hockenberry City of Falls Church on September 28th, 2010 12:24 am

    George—Yes, i am guessing and the solution is not as easy to me as it seems to be from you. I am leaning more to the statement from our School board Chair re information.

  20. Barry Buschow on September 28th, 2010 11:10 am

    Didn’t Orson Wells get in trouble a few years back for fabricating a story……We always need to be looking at options and new ideas….that is the only way we don’t let the “sky fall”.

  21. Terence Kuch, Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 9:57 am

    “… 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.”

    — But it’s OK to remove Fairfax County property from the County’s tax rolls? As we do now for MEH and GMHS? (I’m assuming that the City doesn’t compensate the County for the lost RE tax revenue — is this assumption correct?)

  22. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on September 29th, 2010 10:20 am

    Terence, I think the point is that while the Hillwood Square property (relatively low value) would be removed from the tax rolls most, if not all, of the MEH/GMHS property (very high value) would be returned to the tax rolls. The net impact on Fairfax County taxes would be very positive.

  23. Brian McMahon, Falls Church on September 29th, 2010 1:04 pm

    I agree with George about the aging at Hillwood Square. I do contracting work there and there is always something wrong. The pipes are returning to the earth. I have made a lot of money there with all the repair work that is required.

    I personally know a lot of the Vietnamese at Hillwood Square and many would be happy with any offer over $20 million.

  24. Anastasia Kapitan, Hillwood Square Resident on October 13th, 2010 6:58 pm

    I want to thank my fellow Hillwood neighbors for alerting me to your article, I do not read the Falls Church News Press, I find the “opinionated” reporting annoying and lacking in truth and substance – in this respect, your article did not disappoint.

    I have to agree with John Murdock, there is so much that is news worthy in Hillwood; why not write about some of it instead of assuming the demographics held within are unworthy of the “precious” City of Falls Church. Since you seem to lack the ability of reporting these correctly, I offer the following – Hillwood residents are Educators, Project Managers, Construction Managers, Estimators, Network Specialists, Lawyers, Contract Agents, Publishers, Graphic Artists, Contractors and business owners. We are educated through both the Public and Private sector and hold PHDs, MBAs, Masters, College Degrees, and High School Diplomas. We work for the IRS, Department of Labor, Fortune Top 500 Companies, Fortune Top 100 Companies to Work for, Private Academies, Public School and ourselves. These are members I know personally.

    I served on Hillwood’s Board of Directors when the membership rejected an offer of $56 million as well as a counter offer for a portion of the property for $20 million. Methinks you doth proclaim too much when you think our membership is ignorant enough to jump at your suggestion. It amazes me that your readership is ready to jump on the $25 million band wagon without any solid consideration or fact based reporting.

    As for my countertops, I went with butcher block, it helped to soften the look of the stainless steel appliances and tied in my original hardwood floors perfectly, if I had any respect for your reporting, I would invite you for coffee so you could see for yourself.

    GEORGE SOUTHERN REPLIES: Whew! I am floored. But with my last breath of strength, as I lie prostrate, I would meekly mumble that I am not, and have never been, a reporter for the Falls Church News-Press. I can only whisper that, for my sins, I pen a weekly opinion column that may contain wildly inaccurate assumptions as to the types of counter tops extant in certain subdivisions. For further guidance on what is fact and what is opinion, please see REPRISE: Separating Fact from Opinion.

  25. Julia Ringlein, Annnandale on October 15th, 2010 10:12 pm

    As a new Fairfax County resident I liked driving thru FC City, the little stores, the restaurants, cafe’s; a warm and welcoming atmosphere – or so I thought, until I came across the little city’s evil blog by the little city’s evil people……shocking how coldly calculating they discuss how to get rid of the above mentioned Hillwood residents for their new desired school building.
    No, I won’t move to FCC, not for the stores, the schools, the property values, you just keep living in isolation in your own little world! I’ll raise my kids to be responsible, caring world citizens instead.

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