The Falls Church City community has always been told that there would be ample opportunities for input into the design of the new school and that the design process would be transparent. The recent community discussion about the auditorium, the changing size of the stage and the news that there will be no full fly rigging system has brought these promises into serious question. Many in the community would really like to understand the decision making process associated with the development of not only the footprint for the Performing Arts Space but details about the space itself. By reviewing the proposal documents it looks like decisions were made that did not take into account the community feedback.
Input from so called “stakeholders” last December 17, 2017, documents the concern about the size of the space and the desire for a full fly rigging.
- Why was that input ignored?
- Who counseled the school board to vote on a revised RFP last November that has the stage size at 50’ by 50’, smaller the current stage?
Further, while changes seem to have been made or are represented to have been made, it is difficult if not impossible to track the changes in the available posted documents. Presentations by school leadership do not provide clarity. As recently as October 16, 2018, at a school board work session Superintendent Dr. Noonan stated, interestingly reading carefully from prepared remarks, that teachers have been involved from the start. However despite the fact that staff did share their thoughts with regard to stage size, that input was not heeded in the original building footprint which seems to be the problem.
Drawings shown at the October 16 work session appear to have the stage now down to 40’ X 40.’ That hardly seems consistent with notes from a meeting with staff in January of this year where, according to the notes, that staff members were asking for a stage of similar size to what they have now or 65 x 40. By his own admission, Dr. Noonan, in this same work session retraces the timeline and references a December 2017 meeting where Shawn Northrip, Theater teacher at GMHS was disappointed to learn there would be no full fly rigging (and we believe no ceiling overhead height to accommodate that) so it is hard to follow how staff had real input into the design before decisions were made. It is also hard to follow that changes have been made, what the new specifications actually now include or provide when the revised RFP still has the same language as before with regard to the fly or stage rigging.
- Where does the community read the specific detail to which Dr. Noonan refers when he says revisions include “some stage rigging, “incredible features,” “state of the art,” “lighting” and “technology?”
- Where can the community read about what those words actually and specifically mean?
The reasons against a full fly rigging we are hearing are safety concerns, VDOE recommendations, possible cost and loss of classroom space.
- If safety concerns are real, has the school board ruled that students and staff may no longer use the system we currently have?
- Since the fly rigging appears to be part of the contract will the now deleted system now come at a misleadingly named “cost savings” on the order of a 50- 50 split with Gilbane or given back in full as it appears to be a material change to the contract specifications?
- If it is classroom space that is of concern, why short change the performing arts space when you have open atriums in the school that could be classroom space?
As Planning Commissioner Melissa Teates so astutely points out in comments made to the Falls Church News Press, Virginia State Department of Education’s specifications come in the form of recommendations, only, and not mandates.
According to Gordon Theisz, who has been closely following these plans, the problems are related to the size of the theater. Given ⅓ of the main floor (the other ⅔ are occupied by two gyms) the theater is simply not wide or deep enough to accommodate the seating and performance needs simultaneously. A wider stage (60’) allows for a larger band to perform but severely limits off stage production space including “technological” solutions to compensate for the absent fly and for set changes. A narrower (40’) stage provides the space for these, but limits the performance size and impacts sight lines severely. A deeper stage (50’) provides for cross stage movement but limits seating capacity potentially to less than our current theater while a shallower stage limits production and while increasing seating. There is seemingly no interest in expanding the theater dimensions or the footprint of the building even though a shovel has yet to hit the ground.
Ultimately the insistence of City Council to re-develop all 10 acres allowed by the agreement with Fairfax County shoehorns the high school onto a tiny footprint. This current footprint limits the theater space so the community will not be seeing the Performing Arts space it was expecting, there is no room for future growth, and parking options are severely limited on the campus.
Falls Church Facts is seeking answers to to many questions not the least of which are:
- Who proposed the outside dimensions of the space?
- Why was the community feedback, given so early in the process, basically ignored?
- By what agreement were the changes made to the original specifications as required by the contract and can that be posted?
Editor’s Note: For Further Reading: In an effort to understand the decision making process a timeline of events has been drafted which is still a work in progress. You may read it here and check back as we add information as it known to us. If you have details to add please comment and/or email us at Fallschurchfacts@gmail.com
Another mountain out of a mole hill concern. I trust Dr. Noonan’s input on this and you should too. Enough already.
Charles, why would you trust Dr. Noonan’s input when theater experts believe the design is inferior for production, set design and other factors? The community has put forth some excellent reasons why the space needs to be larger.
The community needs to stop gettingd in the way and frankly get over itself on this matter. I think Noonan has been clear enough. There are more important matters to focus on. Be happy you got your darn school funds and stop complaining over something that is a nit. The insurance situation alone appears to justify decisions made to date.
Seems you people are never satisfied to be honest no matter what you get.
To be clear, I did not vote for a new school. I think we should have done some upgrades to the current GMHS and not sell our land. I like to have open space and we will give all of that green space just for one school.
I will continue to “get in the way” because it is my tax dollars and I don’t think the process is transparent and I don’t understand how you can build a new school, with a clean slate, and not design a theater with sufficient seats, a real stage and other features.
You are correct, I am not satisfied. We are spending upwards of $125 MILLION for a school for a very small community and class size. That in itself is an INSANE amount of money for a glass and concrete box with tech components throughout. For $125 Million we get a micro stage and have to have 15 story buildings all around us to fund all the glass and concrete. I am very dissatisfied but at least we should have a proper stage instead of accepting Dr. Noonan’s comments. What happens later when we realize an additional 10 feet would have been proper? Oh, we’ll put in a change order or re-do it at a larger cost to the taxpayer.
I don’t think the size of the stage is a nit when you are designning from scratch in a brand new building.
We were promised a school building that would be better than we have now and the theater is a downgrade on several fronts. The current theater is in constant use both academically and by the community. It is not a place to cut corners. Since the community is fronting the $125M, it seems that the parts that the public might use should be outstanding.
I agree and this is the time to get the space designed correctly and to the specifications that are typical of a community theater. Based on community feedback, this needs to go back to the drawing board for a thorough discussion.
Due to the swift timeline, I believe they will approve this without the proper thought and then we will have to do change orders or be saddled with a less than optimal theater.
Sitting in the October meeting and viewing the slide presentation, I was struck by two things in the latest diagram of the theater:
1. There are serious issues with sight lines for folks in the front sections.
2. By crowding seats up against each side wall, there are no side aisles – not only a potential egress issue, but also a performance issue (side aisles often used as a performance space). The person on the far left or right has 12 others to climb over to exit a row. That is a lot of people!
Bottom Line: This theater space is too small to meet the needs of our high school.
Isn’t it a safety issue to omit an aisle on a sidewall? I think it would be difficult to get everyone out of the theater safely if they don’t have egress.
Do we use this theater for community rental? If so, shouldn’t we provide a theater that is designed so it can be rented?
I thought one of the reasons for a new school was to have enough space in the theater to seat most of the students. What happened to that thought?
Sally P – I think they will need to reconsider the side aisles. Or someone needs to explain how there is adequate egress for 500+ with only two center aisles and no side doors.
One of the initial complaints was that the capacity for the new theater was less than the current. Then they came back with 100 more seats. If the theater width does not increase, then you can only add more seats by buying smaller ones, taking up side aisles, or decreasing the depth of the stage. Need wing space? Then decrease the width of the stage. Bottom line is that the foot print is too small for an adequate theater and heels are dug into the ground – they are not going to increase the building footprint and they are not going to change the widths of the two gyms which have been planned to detail in order to have competitions. But the theater will not be able to host music competitions because the stage is too small.
Community members, myself included, are appreciative of all the time that has been spent on this project so far. I am sure meeting participants don’t want anyone to tally the hours! Staff I spoke to are, not only appreciative but, excited about the opportunity to work in a new school.
However, I think we all want the best space for the amount of money we are spending and that is the purpose of this article. It is far better to point out concerns and ask questions now than have regrets later.
Did anyone notice on the provided timeline, (link at end of article) that on February 13, of this year, the school board established a Campus Coordinating Committee. According to the city website the “Committee will meet regularly with staff and consultants during the design phase (November 2017 – June 2019) to ensure that design decisions, scheduling decisions, and financial decisions for both the school and future economic development are made in a coordinated fashion.” Agendas and minutes are posted. This was a great idea!
However, of equal importance is the core of this campus — our school.
My question is:
Where are the similar committees, including members of the community and parents of course, to “ensure that design and financial decisions associated with design proposals for the academic spaces within the school are consistent with our needs, trends and changes forecasted for those subjects areas, reasonable community expectations, promises made, and available resources” ? I would think it would be paramount to have committees focused, for example on the following areas:
Science, Math and Engineering
Art and the Performing Arts
Students with Disabilities
Athletics (and the academic fields associated with athletics such as Athletic Training)
Just to name a few.
These committees would discuss issues such as: What will high school science labs look like in 15 years? What does a theater built for the next 50 years include? The concerns the community has with the auditorium could be ironed before we start to dig.
With a growing percentage of students (close to one in four now at Mason,) with some disability and the changing profiles of the students we serve, what considerations and new information should be considered as we design this space? For example, so much is now known about how Art and Music positively influence performance and outcomes for these students especially and so are we including more classroom spaces within these academic areas for use by the students? What committee, to include highly experienced parents of students with disabilities, is considering current research, discussing these issues and reviewing applicable specifications for the school and specific spaces? Since statistically, these students cost more to serve, what can we do now that might contribute to improved outcomes and lower costs?
If we have these committees, where can we find the minutes posted, findings and feedback, and if we don’t have them, can they be formed to ensure we design a school that meets the needs of our growing community in the years to come?
Promises were made to the community about the performing arts space specifically and so many seats with a restricted view, no side aisle for ease of egress and no corridor (that I can see) behind the theater space just does not meet our expectations for what $120 million should buy us. Let’s get this right!
I think all the design is being done by the Gilbane and oversight by Noonan. I don’t think the design team has time to discuss a whole lot of changes because they are under a strict timeline. Also, they will try to design some parts of the school very cheaply to keep it within budget.
I also believe it would be very helpful to hear more specific language used when describing this space to the community. More specificity than vague words and phrases like “some rigging” and “way superior” would help the community understand what it is we are actually buying. Can we see a materials list so we can assess what we are buying? What is this screen set technology (specifically) and how much does that cost? Maintenance? Specifics please (posted on the school website so it can easily be found) Does it require no trained supervisors? I ask because trained supervisor is on the list of cons for the full fly rigging so please list that this will require no trained supervisor and no new hires to run this.