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A Daring Design?

City Council debates a business' proposed facade design and its place along Lee Highway.

How should architecture along the Lee Highway corridor look? If it's a contemporary design, what makes it tasteful?

The Fairfax City Council, like the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), appeared divided when answering those questions at Tuesday night's City Council Meeting. Council members debated whether to approve facade improvements at The Guitar Center, located at 11051 Lee Highway. While some argued that personal taste was at the center of the issue, others didn't approve of the applicant's inability to work out a compromise with the BAR and city staff.

"This is a matter of legislating taste," said Councilmember Scott Silverthorne, who supported The Guitar Center's facade improvements.

The Guitar Center, represented by its owner, Cary Luskin of Baltimore, wanted to redesign the facade of the business by building in a sloping facade across the front, with the highest point at the western side of the building. The tip of the slope would be 14 feet above the existing roof. Although beige would be the predominating color, there would also be a vertical and horizontal grid pattern and red accent banding on top of the building.

"I would like to freshen up the building," Luskin said. "It's dated looking, it's tired looking."

To strengthen his case, Luskin pointed out that the city's Community Appearance Plan offers no preference between contemporary and traditional architecture, and that while the plan advocates using brick, wood and stone materials, they are only recommended, not required. Luskin added that the architects on the BAR liked his contemporary design.

However, Councilmember Joan Cross was concerned not only about the design but by the fact that Luskin had met with the BAR at a work session and failed to come up with alternate plans after hearing their comments. When the application appeared again before the BAR for a vote, three voted for the application, and three voted against it. One member was absent.

"You certainly can't legislate taste," said Cross. But "it irks me to have an applicant who had an opportunity to work with staff, with the BAR, at a work session."

The three who voted against the application took their lead from city staff members, who felt the design was incongruent with Community Appearance Plan guidelines, which emphasize the context, materials and detail of a design in addition to the design itself. They argued that the contemporary design, with its lack of detail and sloping facade, didn't blend well with the character of renovations at other businesses along the Lee Highway corridor, such as Office Depot, CVS and Tweeters.

"In our discussions with applicants who have a different idea...we do make every attempt to try to find some middle ground," said David Hudson, the city's director of community development and planning, after the meeting. The BAR falls under his department. "We still have to make the case that the architecture is consistent with the guidelines...We are not suggesting that every buillding has to be a brick building up and down the corridor."

Because of the tie vote, the application came to the City Council, which then deferred the vote until March 23, to allow Luskin to work out a compromise with BAR.

That vote was 5 to 1, with Councilmember Patrice Winter voting against.

"I think we have to stick with what is right," said Councilmember Gary Rasmussen, who recalled the Council had approved a Hollywood Video sign years ago, accepting the argument that the business owners needed the contemporary signage in order to please their patrons. That business ended up closing.

Silverthorne also voted to defer the vote but feared that the applicant's interest in improving the facade would wane if the applicant perceived it would have a hard time working with the city.

"Here we are, in many ways, tying their hands," Silverthorne said. "We want to have a city that's inviting for business."

THE CITY COUNCIL also unanimously allowed Ned Devine's Irish Pub to expand its operations to the floor below the restaurant. By moving the dancing and music to the first floor, the pub can continue to create a more subdued restaurant atmosphere on the second floor. Entertainment would also expand from three nights to five nights a week, from Tuesday through Saturday, 10 p.m.-1:30 a.m.