Blog posts are the personal views of Letty Hardi and not official statements or records on behalf of the Falls Church City Council
Are you ready for the weekend? It looks to be perfect weather for the 3Es: eating + exercise + engagement. Fill your belly at the Fall Festival / Taste of Falls Church on Saturday; you can run it off at the Falls Church Education Foundation’s Run for the Schools on Sunday morning; then get your civic engagement on at the Oxford-style debate on the school referendum on Sunday afternoon. Members of the City Council will be at all three events, so come find us and say hello!
Before then, I’ll be holding office hours this afternoon on the patio at Clare and Don’s – stop by between 5-6 pm and share what’s on your mind.
This week’s post will be a little different and (warning) long. I’ve written a more limited digest of our Council meeting (which includes the Railroad Cottage project and why I voted to support it) to make room for a chronological recap of the GMHS project with links to *all* of the supporting data. For those of you who are just tuning in (no judgment, it’s complex and we’re all busy) or new to town – this could be a good opportunity to catch up and understand the work that has led to getting the referendum on the November ballot, read about the previous approaches and other options that were considered, and my thoughts along the way. For those of who have already been paying attention – kudos and read on anyway! If you’ve heard buzz about the “free school” from 2015 or the $60M school that was in the paper in the spring or renovation or phasing, I’ll explain what that was all about and how we got to $120M on the November ballot. I also provide a timeline of what happens next if there’s a “yes” vote and the financial estimates of a “no” vote .
After re-living the GMHS work to date, I certainly gained a greater appreciation for the study that has gone into this project, even long before I was on City Council. If you find it helpful – feel free to pass it along to others to help them get informed before November 7th.
Look forwarding to seeing you this weekend and hearing your questions and feedback!
What Happened This Week:
(1) ICYMI – last Sunday’s Town Hall with the City Manager and Superintendent – video and presentation materials are now posted. If you want the Cliffs Notes version, I snapped photos and highlights on my Facebook page.
(2) City Council Meeting
Railroad Cottages – Railroad Cottages was approved by a 5-2 vote.
Letty’s thoughts: I cast a “yes” for 2 reasons – 1) the importance of housing diversity. Diversity is a value we espouse and age/generational diversity is an important kind of diversity. I see age-restricted small housing like cottages as an actionable way to provide an innovative housing type for those looking to stay in Falls Church but want to downsize in something other than an apartment or condo. 2) the site will get re-developed. By right, the land can be subdivided into four parcels and four big, single family homes would likely be built. Besides the financials (the service costs of SFHs generally result in net money losses for the city), when comparing the other details of those 4 SFHs vs 10 cottages, cottages are actually less dense in terms of FAR (floor area ratio) and all of the other factors are rather comparable (number of people, cars, etc). The project also provides an opportunity to improve emergency access on Railroad Ave that wouldn’t be done under a by-right project. Like with all other development projects, I’ll push for a post mortem, walking tour, or some other mechanism to evaluate the project after completion so we can determine if the original cottage housing ordinance will need future updates.
Miller House – exciting news! We unanimously voted to approve the agreement to move forward with a group home I wrote about last week.
New voting equipment – you may have read the news that Falls Church’s voting equipment was decertified last week due to hacking risk. Not to worry – from our registrar: ” It’s important to note that, although the system Falls Church has been using for over a decade has been decertified, we consider every election we have conducted with it to have been accurate and have no reason to think the results of any election were compromised at any time.” Luckily, our registrar and electoral board have been on top of the issue and mobilized to get new equipment in time for in person absentee voting beginning later this fall and the November elections. City Council unanimously voted to approve the expenditure on Monday (it was already planned for in the CIP, albeit not as urgently).
GMHS Recap – How did we get here?
For a good history lesson on GMHS from 1949 to present – this timeline is a great high level recap. Below, I include more detail from the past 20 months since I’ve been “in the weeds” as a Council member; I also note my take on decisions along the way via my old blog posts. As you consider the referendum, I think it’s important to understand the work done to date, the options that were considered with all of the supporting data and analysis so you can make an informed decision.
- The last renovation and addition of GMHS occurred in 1995.
- 2014 – after the water system sale was complete, which included a boundary adjustment bringing the 34 acres into City limits and terms that up to 10 acres of the campus could be used for commercial development, a steering committee was formed to begin planning and test fitting commercial and education uses on the site. The City also engaged the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to study the site for potential commercial development and suggestions on siting, which concluded the best site for commercial development would be the visible corner of Rt 7 and Haycock.
- 2015 – meanwhile, the City received an unsolicited proposal which was later rejected. A common question I’ve received is “what happened to the free school?” from that unsolicited bid. I was not yet on City Council and the proposal is now sealed, so I haven’t been privy to the details. However, I believe that that the City leaders at the time thoroughly vetted and considered the option and would not have rejected the proposal if there really was a “free school” option that met the educational and community’s needs. Several city leaders and staff have also said simply in public, “there was no free school.”
- Summer – Fall 2015 – you may remember a number of community visioning meetings about the GMHS/MEH project 2 years ago in the MEH cafeteria. I remember participating in them as a candidate! We had great community turnout and discussed school design, sustainability, synergies between commercial and educational uses. As the school program requirements were developed, the feedback received from those visioning meetings have been critical inputs.
- Summer – Fall 2015 – PPEA Begins: around the same time as the visioning work, the City Council and School Board began the PPEA process (Public Private Education and Infrastructure Facilities Act), which is a procurement process that was used for the construction of MEH. RFPs were issued asking for bids to both build a new or renovated GMHS/MEH and develop the 10 acres. My October 2015 blog post include what I learned about the PPEA process, including a common concern about transparency and the commitment I heard from City Council at the time to share as much information as allowed under PPEA rules.
- October & November 2015 – 2 PPEA Bids: the plan at the time was to issue two rounds of RFPs (conceptual and detailed) culminating in a November 2016 referendum vote. Two bids were received in the conceptual phase and you can see the public portions of those bids archived. We held two town halls in December 2015 to update the community – videos available here and here.
- Jan to April 2016 – Closed Sessions – due to the PPEA confidentiality rules, City Council and School Board met in regular closed sessions to evaluate the two proposals and discussed whether to proceed to the second phase. We then held two more town halls that I blogged about; my post includes links to the video and presentation materials that includes a good recap of the case for GMHS and the PPEA process and timeline. A few highlights:
- The school construction cost was estimated to be $112M, for both a new GMHS and expanded MEH, capacity for 1500 students at GMHS, but no swimming pool
- The estimate on the taxpayer impact was between 5-15 cents on the tax rate which was based on the ULI study done in 2015, similar to the latest financial modeling done in 2017
- April 2016 – City Manager recommended moving the referendum date from November 2016 to May 2017 and we voted to defer issuance of the second phase of the PPEA RFP. I supported the deferral but expressed serious concerns with even proceeding to the second phase, given the content of the bids, the cost of a second phase, questioning how competitive the process could be given that we only had two responses, restrictions on public transparency, and my concerns about affordability. Discussions about a “de-coupled” process began at this point.
- June 2016 – PPEA process officially stopped and we decide to de-couple the school and economic development paths.
- Summer 2016 – De-coupled Process Begins: a new schedule for the decoupled process was developed, with a November 2017 referendum as the target. You can read my August blog post that included my thoughts on how to proceed – I believed it was critical to have a small working group who met regularly, could roll up our sleeves to deep dive and start with foundational issues to ensure there was a shared understanding and vision forward.
- September to November 2016 – we hired LINK strategic consultants to help us develop a path forward. LINK started with interviews with the School Board, City Council, and community stakeholders; outputs of those interviews were distilled into buckets of questions that needed answers and supporting data. I personally had concerns about affordability of a new school and wanted to make sure we spent time on enrollment projections to right size a new or renovated GMHS and various construction options so we could share a range of costs with the community.
- November 2016 – Campus Working Group Begins & Binders of Data: the Campus Working Group was chartered to include 2 members of City Council, 2 members of School Board, LINK, and staff. I was a member of the group. Our shared goals: 1) find data, tackle all of the issues and questions with consistent answers and 2) make recommendations back to the School Board and City Council. We met weekly in public meetings through the winter and covered:
- The status of the school, including cost of needed repairs and current capacity
- Enrollment projections
- School construction options ranging from do nothing to renovate to a new school. Contrary to skepticism, we did not assume that new construction nor economic development was the best path forward
- We toured a number of neighboring and recently completed schools for both cost benchmarking and idea generation. For you long time readers, you’ll recall that I blogged about tours at Wakefield High School (new construction) and Polk Elementary (renovation, modular construction).
- The questions we tackled + answers and supporting data were archived in a notebook given to each City Council and School Board member and reviewed in joint meetings during November 2016 through January 2017. My blog post from November includes a recap of the first set of questions we tackled with links to the binder of data.
- December 2016 – Affordability Analysis – what can we afford, can we afford more, and if so – how? The working group studied the financial implications of the project, and I attempted to translate it for the average citizen in this blog post. I will be the first to admit that it was really dense! However, as you consider the November referendum, I believe it’s important to understand the magnitude of the $120M debt and the financial levers we’re pulling (and key assumptions and associated risks) in order to afford the $120M and the rest of the adopted full CIP.
- January 2017 – 13 Options! We presented 10 options (which later grew to 13) to a joint session of City Council and School Board – ranging from a barebones “fix issues and add trailers” option, to 6 renovation + addition options, to 3 all new construction options. The reason why we had so many options is because the Campus Working Group looked at various forms and scales of renovation, phasing, and types of new construction as well. I wrote at the time: “This may seem like a dizzying set of options (and it is), but it is in response to two key pieces of feedback and consternation with the the last process. We heard concerns about the lack of affordability of a brand new school and concerns that we arrived at an option in the PPEA without having thoroughly considered alternatives.”
- February 2017 – Options Town Hall – for communication ease, we boiled down the 13 options to 3 broader options and shared them with the community in a town hall. The 3 broad options were: Renovation/Addition, Build New in 1 Phase, Build New in 2 Phases. We had great turnout and engagement at this important town hall as it was the first time we shared pros and cons of different approaches to the GMHS campus.
- Renovation & Addition – at $65M, while this option had the lowest direct cost, we expected that option to have higher maintenance costs and wouldn’t meet the long term needs of the school program. Further, it would not free up land for economic development and therefore taxpayers had to pay for the cost via taxes at an estimate of 9 cents on the tax rate or $650 for the median homeowner.
- Phasing did not turn out to be as much as a cost saver many hoped – while it lowers cost upfront and reduces the uncertainty and risk by developing some of the 10 acres before building the second phase of GM, our analysis showed that it would be difficult operationally to run a school that would be under construction for 8+ years. It also had the highest total cost $64M in phase 1 and $83 in phase 2, with a tax rate impact of 18 cents ($1300 for the median homeowner) with potential reduction to $650-450 after economic development.
- March 2017 – $60M school?! – one of the iterations of the renovation/addition options included saving the newest part of GMHS (called the A Wing) and the gyms, and only building a new academic tower, with a reduced footprint still freeing up 6-8 acres for economic development. It also involved removing the MEH addition and Central Office space. I personally had high hopes for this option and it seemed like it could be a workable compromise!
- March to June 2017 – School Options Feasibility Study – the cost estimates and plans for the school options above, including the $60M option, were based on simple cost per square footage estimates done in house. We (the Campus Working Group) recommended to the School Board and City Council that we needed expertise to validate and benchmark the school program specs vs neighboring districts, evaluate construction options for feasibility, and provide more grounded costs, floor plans, and renderings in order to intelligently weigh the options. A RFP was issued, bids were received, and Perkins Eastman was chosen for the school feasibility work.
- March 2017 – In parallel, an Economic Working Group was chartered with members of the City Council, School Board, Planning Commission, and Economic Development Authority to plan how we could develop the 10 acres, seek more grounded valuations of the 10 acres of land, and involve the developer community in for idea exchange.
- June 2017 – Feasibility Town Hall & Selected Option – Perkins Eastman presented 3 designs and cost estimates for new construction and 2 designs for renovation/addition, varying from 1 phase of construction lasting 2.5 years to multi-phases that would last 4+ years. I was disappointed to learn that the renovation option was north of $100M, nearly as much as a brand new construction, and only freeing up 6 acres. As part of PE’s work, they also presented potential cost levers to reduce costs based on benchmarking the school program vs neighboring schools. Ultimately, the School Board preferred the design of the “Community School” at $123M after weighing whether the design met principles and criteria determined upfront (eg, flexibility and expandability, space for community use, building lifespan, sustainability, etc). Several cost levers were identified by PE (see pages 62-69).
- Wait, where did $120M come from? The Perkins Eastman estimate for a concept like the Community School was $123M. With $6.5M in potential reductions (see Superintendent memo) the School Board would make, the school construction cost could be reduced to $117.5M. After adding in financing costs, the total construction cost would be $120M, which is the number in the draft referendum language and used in financial modeling the CIP.
- June 2017 to Present – Market Study, Valuation, and Strategic Roadmap for Commercial Development – financial consultants estimated that $43-$45 million could be earned by the City’s long-term lease or sale of the 10 acres. with $3M in annual tax yield (base assumption: 70/30 mix of residential to commercial within mixed used development). Because of limited space on the site, the new school would need to be built before the existing building can be taken down for commercial development. The City will need to issue bonds for the full cost of the school before the commercial development revenue from the sale or lease of the property is available. In house, a white paper was written to summarize the financing plan for the school, with a range of tax impacts between 4 cents to 15.5 cents on the real estate tax rate ($280 to $1050 per year for the median homeowner). The impact on taxes is heavily dependent upon the successful land transaction and future economic development.
- July 2017 – City Council and School Board voted to put $120M referendum on the November 2017 ballot
If Referendum Passes, What’s Next?
- December 2017 through March 2019: High school design and permitting
- March 2019: City issues first half of construction bonds, with remainder of bonds sold in 2020
- Spring 2019 – Summer 2021: Construction of the high school
- September 2021: New high school opens
- December 2017 through February 2019: Final planning, zoning, and marketing of 10 acres of campus property for commercial development
- February 2019: City enters into master development agreement for the lease or sale of 10 acres of campus property, prior to the issuance of bonds to finance the construction of the school
- Spring 2019 through Summer 2021: City considers land approvals and site plan approvals for commercial development
- September 2021: Developer takes possession of 10 acres of campus land for commercial development and the existing high school is demolished
If Referendum Fails, Then What?
At the most recent town hall last Sunday, the Superintendent spoke about the costs of a “plan B” if the referendum fails. It would cost $40M in order to repair and replace the aging infrastructure like the HVAC, roof, and updated ADA requirements. Another $30M would be needed to build a 25 classroom addition to accommodate future enrollment growth. The footprint of GMHS would remain, ie no land would be opened up for economic development to offset the cost. You’ll see that the $70M cost estimate is similar to some of the renovation + addition options (page 31) we explored this past winter/spring in which we later had Perkins Eastman assess feasibility.
What’s Coming Up:
- Today – Friday, September 15 at 5 pm – Letty’s Office Hours at Clare and Don’s
- Sunday, September 17 at 3 pm – Oxford Style Debate on School Bond Referendum (Falls Church Episcopal)
- Monday, September 18 at 730 pm – City Council Work Session (City Hall)
- Tuesday, September 26 at 7 pm – Joint PTA Meeting on GMHS Project (GMHS)
Planning ahead for other election-related forums…
- Wednesday, September 27 at 7 pm – City Council Candidate Forum (American Legion)
- Wednesday, October 25 at 7 pm – School Board Candidate Forum (American Legion)
Letty’s Office Hours
- Sunday, October 1 at 9 am – Cafe Kindred
- Monday, October 16 at 9 am – Happy Tart
- Tuesday, October 31 at 9 am – Rare Bird