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Giving Old Town a Facelift

Downtown businesses voice their opinions on future redevelopment.

When Herndon-based Ned Devine's wanted to expand its business, it spent six months looking for a space for its restaurant and Irish pub. It finally decided to settle in downtown Fairfax, having been attracted to Fairfax's small-town feel.

"It just seemed that we would fit right in," said Ned Devine's general manager Greg Whelan.

With Ned Devine's arrival, the city further established itself as a possible destination for night life and entertainment. Yet as the city creates its vision for downtown redevelopment, downtown businesses hope that a proposed development will address their concerns of congestion and parking, foot traffic and rental affordability. Some also want to ensure that current businesses be allowed to remain on their property.

"We just want to make sure it's for the betterment of all the people around here," said Claire Luke, executive director and chief executive officer for the Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce.

Although not necessary, the move to redevelop downtown has been discussed by city staff and officials, as well as local businesses, for years. According to the city's economic development director Earl Berner, the next step for the city will be to solicit RFQs from new developers for three city-owned properties: the post office site, the North Street parking lot and a parking lot next to Truro Church.

Within the next year, Berner expects that the city will see the relocation of the Chain Bridge Road post office to Judicial Drive and Page Avenue, the selection of developer(s) and the beginning drafts of a design, initial leasing and financing activity and the finishing up of engineering projects for undergrounding utilities, road improvements and Library renovations.

"My guess is that it will take at least a year for a developer, once selected, to get everything in place to begin construction," Berner said in an e-mail.

The city has kept the Downtown Fairfax Coalition and the Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce appraised of the process, Berner said. As the process develops, the city will continue to inform the business community of the project's status.

"Once a developer or developers have been selected and they have definite plans to show, there will probably be a series of public outreach meetings," Berner said.

LIKE NED DEVINE'S owners, downtown merchants opened and remain in Fairfax because of the city's small-town charm. To enhance that feeling, as well as their business, several merchants agreed that a development should allow pedestrians the opportunity to browse and walk freely.

"Anything that's going to bring more walk traffic to the community would be great," said Peter Lupo, owner of the Italian restaurant Il Lupos.

Lupo suggested that a department store, an upscale retail store or a bookstore could do the trick. He added that he would've supported a movie theater, because it would've brought more business to his restaurant.

"I want to become a destination point down here," Lupo said.

Being able to walk to multiple downtown destinations has been an attractive option for Jennie Culbertson, an event planner with the Baliwick Inn. Culbertson praised the newly-renovated shopping center that holds the Harris Teeter grocery store.

"Now it is really beginning to breathe again, and that is really refreshing," Culbertson said.

While Culbertson supported improving foot traffic, she also wanted a downtown redevelopment to address parking as well. Past plans by the city have included a parking garage, an option that many businesses have endorsed.

"I think a lot of businesses do feel the stress and the strain," Culbertson said.

Luke of the Central Fairfax Chamber echoed a desire to encourage foot traffic, and wanted the city to work with businesses in establishing traffic patterns and flow.

"If they do make some changes, that they consider people here," Luke said.

FOR SMALL BUSINESSES, rental affordabilty has been a chief concern. Betsy K. Rutkowski opened her shop Circa, specializing in decorative accessories and antiques, because she saw a niche for it. For stores like hers to thrive downtown, a downtown redevelopment would need to provide suitable and affordable space for its merchants.

"I'm hoping that whatever the retail will be, that it will attract small businesses like myself," Rutkowski said.

And like her counterparts, Rutkowski supported efforts for more foot traffic, suggesting a central gathering place or courtyard for citizens to linger.

"A place for people to stroll in the evenings after you've gone to dinner," Rutkowski said.

While most businesses have agreed on bettering foot traffic, parking and small business incentives, some argue on how much the city should play a role in redeveloping downtown. Becky Stoeckel, president of 14-year-old Executive Press, questioned the city's push to revitalize downtown. In her opinion, the city should sell its land to the private industry, because they have a better sense of what drives the market.

"You're just only going to cram so much in here," Stoeckel said.

But Stoeckel's biggest concern is ensuring that current merchants won't be forced to move out of their properties to make room for redevelopment. She preferred that the city create tax incentives for businesses to rehabilitate or remodel their properties, as well as streamline the zoning and planning process.

"I have a problem from benefiting from the demise of others," Stoeckel said.

But if the city pushes forward with redevelopment, she hoped that any plan would maintain Fairfax's small-town atmosphere.

"I think buildings that are appropriate in size and scale [to those] already down here is great," Stoeckel said.

Since plans are sketchy, the reaction of downtown businesses to redevelopment has been very mixed, according to Luke.

"It depends on when you asked them," Luke said, when asked how businesses have responded. "It's changed so much that it's hard to get a real read on it."

Council member Scott Silverthorne has also heard mixed opinions, from doing nothing to offering chain stores like Crate & Barrel to concentrating only on small, mom-and-pop businesses.

"I've heard from all over the map," Silverthorne said.

Until the city reaches a deal for redevelopment, new establishments like Ned Devine's will help enliven downtown's street life.

"We're quite happy where we are and hopefully we can keep going," Whelan said.