2300 Fall Hill Avenue

In keeping with our discussions about fiscal responsibility during the budget season, I think a discussion about what’s going on with the 2300 Fall Hill Avenue Feasibility Study is warranted. This is also a good example of the Venn Diagram approach to problem solving. Here, the issues driving the conversation are new school construction, business development, the environment, and transportation.

Here’s the Backstory

2300 Fall Hill Avenue (aka “the old hospital”) has been a topic in school capacity discussions for several years. I’ve been part of those discussions, mainly as they relate to the creation of a robust CTE program in conjunction with Fredericksburg City Public Schools (“FCPS”), UMW, and Germanna Community College (“GCC”).  A working group of FCPS executive staff and board members, EDA members, members of City Council and Staff, along with representatives from UMW and GCC engaged in very productive meetings for quite a while. For reasons that are still unknown to me, that group was supplanted by the School Enrollment, Capacity and Expansion Taskforce (“ECE Taskforce”), which did not include EDA members, UMW, or GCC representatives.  

Back in 2019, Mary Washington Healthcare (“MWHC”) indicated they wanted to build a new office building and vacate its “back-office” operation at 2300 Fall Hill Avenue, which is a 280,000 square foot building. MWHC expressed interest in building its new offices on some portion of the 47.5 acres of City-owned land next to Idlewild. It appeared that MWHC was willing to move its back-office operation outside of the City if the City-owned property near Idlewild was not available.

At that time, the City commissioned an Economic Impact Study by Chmura Economics & Analytics, to determine what the cost to the City would be if MWHC moved all its 612 employees (now at 2300 Fall Hill Avenue) and its entire back-office operation out of the City. The Economic Impact study determined that if MWHC, the City’s largest employer, moved its back-office operations out of the City, the annual revenue to the City would drop by millions of dollars. Also around that time, after a walk-thru, school officials concluded that 2300 Fall Hill Avenue was not suitable for adaptive reuse as a new school.

That was Then (2019) and this is Now

Enter COVID in March 2020, and understandably, MWHC put a pause on its negotiations with the City regarding 2300 Fall Hill Avenue and its plans to relocate its offices.

The ECE Taskforce continued with its work and determined that building a new school was the best solution for the capacity crisis in our primary schools (and it IS a crisis). FCPS concluded that the best course of action was to build a new middle school building (rather than a new elementary school building) using City revenue and debt, and renovate the existing Walker-Grant Middle School (WGMS) into a third elementary school using COVID ESSER funds. This conclusion was based on student enrollment estimates and core capacity needs, and I agree with it. I do think this is the best forward-thinking approach to dealing with the very critical capacity needs of elementary school children, while, at the same time, looking ahead at the future capacity needs of FCPS.

The School Board also decided that the best place for the new middle school is on the same 47.5 acres of City-owned land next to Idlewild that MHWC had its eye on.

In late December 2021 – at the very time that the City was meeting with the FCPS School Board regarding entering into the Interim Agreement with the contractor to build the new middle school –MWHC presented its offer to the City to swap MWHC’s ownership of 2300 Fall Hill Avenue for some of the City’s buildable land on the 47.5 acres next to Idlewild. While the post-COVID numbers may vary somewhat from Chmura’s Economic Impact Study in 2019, MWHC believes that it needs to build a new office building and that the best place for that is on the 47.5 acres of City-owned land next to Idlewild.

MWHC’s land-swap offer required a deeper look into what use the City could make of 2300 Fall Hill Avenue. Although school officials had determined that 2300 Fall Hill Avenue would not work as a middle school, no professional architectural/engineering/economic feasibility study had ever been done to determine what role, if any, 2300 Fall Hill Avenue could have in the City School system.

Enter the EDA. Still interested in the idea that 2300 Fall Hill Avenue could play a role in the City’s CTE plans, the EDA offered to fund up to $50,000 for a feasibility study on 2300 Fall Hill Avenue, conducted by Moseley Architects. The scope of the Feasibility Study was the assessment of the building itself, the building’s feasibility for several specific uses, such as a primary or secondary school, a CTE center, an office building, senior living, multi-family housing, or some combinations thereof. Additionally, the feasibility study looked at whether the City-owned property near Idlewild could be jointly used by FCPS and MWHC.

The Feasibility Study was sent to City Council, the School Board, and the EDA a couple weeks ago. You can read it here.

City Council was briefed on Moseley’s Feasibility Study at a March 16th Special Session called for that purpose. What’s clear to me from the study (and probably everyone else on Council would agree) is that 2300 Fall Hill Avenue is not a practical candidate for adaptive reuse as a primary or secondary school, including a middle school. The building is concrete slab and pillar construction, meaning that re-configuration into a school would be incredibly expensive, on an order of magnitude much like building a new middle school from the ground up ($57M). What’s more, there is inadequate space at 2300 Fall Hill Avenue for athletic fields, and the circulation of cars and school buses would be problematic.

If the City acquires 2300 Fall Hill Avenue, it could be used to house a greatly expanded FCPS CTE program in partnership with UMW, GCC, and local employers. Some classes, such as construction trades and automotive, might need to be done offsite, and those opportunities will be explored soon. 2300 Fall Hill Avenue is also a candidate for adaptive reuse as multi-family housing, office use, some retail, and possibly senior housing. Stay tuned as these opportunities are explored further.

The Study also found that the City-owned property near Idlewild could support the new Middle School and MWHC’s new offices. There is now a general consensus among City officials that the City should continue to negotiate with MWHC for a possible land swap, where the City would acquire 2300 Fall Hill Avenue in exchange for MWHC getting some of the 47.5 acres of City-owned land next to Idlewild for MWHC to build its new offices.

I noted in the Special Session that the idea of “co-locating” the new Middle School next to MWHC’s new offices could lower the City’s cost of building the new Middle School. For example, MWHC and the City could share in the cost of site work, such as surveying, grading, site utilities, paving and landscaping for the two projects. And some shared parking lot arrangements might be possible.

The initial reaction to the “co-location” idea is quite positive, although some residents of Idlewild are concerned about increased vehicle traffic going through their neighborhood. That’s certainly a valid concern, as their community thus far has been spared much cut-through traffic. Essentially, the 47.5 acres of City-owned land next door hasn’t been developed yet (which, by the way, is already zoned for by-right offices and school use). The traffic concern is similar to what other neighborhoods in the City struggle with, particularly folks living along Lafayette Boulevard and in Normandy Village. However, cut-through traffic in Idlewild would not even come close to what folks in those other two areas, and elsewhere in the City, have to deal with.

Traffic is a fact of life in a vibrant, growing urban area, and it comes with the territory if you will. Furthermore, the portion of the City-owned parcel that would be used for MWHC’s offices is, for most MWHC’s employees, more conveniently accessed by Gateway Boulevard, not through Idlewild. I would venture a guess that much of the traffic uptick though Idlewild, if not most of it, will be parents dropping off and picking up their kids at school, not office workers heading to and from the MWHC offices.

Some folks have expressed concerns about the tree cutting that would take place if MWHC were to build an office there. I too hate it when trees are cut down. You might recall that I was a vocal proponent of the ordinance amendments that saved a lot of mature trees in Braehead Woods recently. A great deal of tree removal will be necessary for the new Middle School. There’s no way around it. The footprint of the school, with its athletic fields and parking areas, will be significantly larger than the footprint for MWHC’s office building, and therefore, most of the tree cutting will be done to build the new Middle School, not the office building.

So What’s Next?

Let’s start with a few premises that I think most of us can agree on:

1.     We need a third elementary school. And the best approach is to build a new middle school and repurpose the existing middle school as a third elementary school.

2.     Given the population growth we will see in the next 18 years, we will need to build yet another (unidentified) public school during that time.

3.     School construction is expensive, and we must do it in a fiscally responsible way so that we can maintain the financial resources necessary to fund school operations.

4.     Fiscal responsibility here means that we should be careful not to hamstring the City’s ability to develop its sources of revenue going forward (in fact, City revenue must be maximized in ways that don’t unreasonably burden the public).

5.     If we want to maintain our socio-economic diversity and not become a place where only the well-off can afford to live, we must be smart about how we pay for necessary capital improvements such as new schools, and place greater reliance on new business development and tourism to reduce our reliance on real estate taxes.

6.     If we can acquire and adaptively reuse 2300 Fall Hill Avenue in ways that generate additional revenue for the City, while keeping MWHC’s back-office operation in the City along with its millions of dollars of annual economic activity, and while sharing with MWHC some of the costs of site work on the 47.5 acres near Idlewild (which could amount to millions in City cost savings), that would be a win-win scenario and a fiscally sound thing to do.

To be clear, I cannot support a plan that precludes the City from using its own land to promote our shared economic health, improve our revenue, and help pay for future school expenses, such as faculty and staff salaries, school programming, an expanded CTE program, and the additional new school that will need to be built after we build a new Middle School.

I also think we must be very diligent about keeping good employers in the City. It says a lot to prospective businesses who are looking to move into our region that Fredericksburg is open for business and welcomes them.

Having said that, I want to move forward with the Interim Agreement, so long as the door is left open to develop City-owned property near the new Middle School in ways that are fiscally responsible and fit the City’s vision. This is exactly the type of solution I’m talking about when I say that we must employ a Venn Diagram approach to problem-solving.  

City Council has a joint meeting with the FCPS School Board on Thursday, March 24th to discuss the Interim Agreement. You may want to keep tabs on what happens in that meeting and beyond. I will certainly try to keep you posted.