The new George Mason High School building is on track to open January 2021 and will feature a college-regulation-sized gymnasium, a secure entrance, a “genius bar,” gender-neutral bathrooms and an auditorium that seats 1,500, Falls Church leaders said Sunday at a town hall meeting.
About 40 community members attended the event, including city council members, school board members, Mayor David Tarter and Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly.
Sunday’s town hall followed hundreds of meetings held over the last 14 months to confer feedback from high school faculty, students, community members and focus groups.
The community’s feedback has actively shaped design improvements and helped to create a building blueprint that will serve the community for 50 years or more, said Peter Noonan, Falls Church superintendent of schools.
“We really believe that this design is going to be flexible enough and nimble enough to allow us to modify, adapt, change, overcome as needed during that period of time,” Noonan said.
In tandem with the new high school building, plans for a new commercial area in West Falls Church are underway. Construction for the economic development plan will begin after the school is completed, said Evan Goldman, executive vice president of development at EYA LLC, the contracted developer for the project. The commercial area will include office space, condominiums, senior housing, retail and grocery, Goldman continued.
The budget for the 10-acre development plan is $120 million, according to City Manager Wyatt Shields, who noted the sum represents about 15 cents on the tax rate.
“We want to create a community-rich environment that people will want to come to,” Shields said. “The basic mission statement, however, is to generate revenue to help pay for this state-of-the-art high school.”
With any large-scale construction project there is a risk of overspending. Noonan, who said community leaders are taking the budget very seriously, described a buffer system to offset risks in case steel or concrete prices increase.
“We feel really good… that we will be able to make the construction costs and also reserve some money for an owner’s contingency,” Noonan said.
To stay in line with the budget, the new building may not meet every community member’s individual expectations, Noonan noted.
“I want to build the best high school we can build,” Noonan said. “…But there are are going to be some trade-offs in terms of space.”
The plan is to break ground mid-June 2019, after school year finishes, Noonan said. When the building is finished— either in December 2020 or January 2021— the students will move to the new building right away, mid-term.
“School systems do it all the time,” Noonan assured the room. “We are experts at moving people en-masse.”
Noonan also addressed air quality and safety concerns for students during the construction process. Rubber and exhaust particles are filtered out through “standard” air filters, according to Derk Jeffrey, the principal architect of the project. Jeffrey said he did not know the exact tier of the air filter at the time of the meeting but would follow up with the respondent.
The five-floor building design includes considerations for a lockdown or evacuation situation, Noonan said. In a crisis situation, components of the building can be easily isolated with built-in barriers, rendering stairwells inaccessible to an intruder, Noonan said. The planning committee will present their plan as an example of innovative safety design at the Association for Learning Environments safety symposium in Dallas, Texas in March, Noonan added.
Sustainability is also a priority. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will be installed on the school’s roof to generate power, Noonan said. The goal is for the building to be as close as possible to net-zero energy, meaning the renewable energy created by the building is roughly equal to the amount of energy it consumes.
“It speaks to the values of our community,” Noonan said. “It gives us a real opportunity from an educational perspective to use this building for sustainable energy programs, to think about urban farming, to think about solar, to think about wind.”
Other new additions also include state-of-the-art rear projection technology in the auditorium—a priority for the performing arts department— two elevators that can lift entire classes at once, a digital music editing suite and a ‘genius bar’ to solve student technology issues, Jeffrey said. Students will have the option to choose a traditional men’s and women’s restroom or a gender-neutral alternative. The walls in all of the bathrooms are floor-to-ceiling and prevent any visibility, Jeffrey said.
Noonan said the school board is looking for other ways to collaborate more widely with the region and build on the already-established relationship with Arlington Career Center. One option was to foster synergy with the Virginia Tech site in Alexandria and the incoming Amazon headquarters in Crystal City.
“We’re trying to work out some sort of consortium where we can access and leverage each other’s strengths,” Noonan said.
Community members who are interested in staying up-to-date on the project can subscribe to the West Falls Church Economic Development Project news flash, which will send emails or text messages before public meetings. Video footage of the Sunday’s town hall can be found here, courtesy of Falls Church Community Television.