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What Stays, What Goes?

Guiding the Future Downtown

While Northern Virginia has grown up around it, Herndon has always tried to maintain and celebrate its past. One of the latest efforts underway is developing a plan that creates a vision of what the future downtown Herndon should be.

The town's Planning Commission is set to hold the second in a series of work sessions Monday, May 17, aimed at hammering out a plan that will ultimately create the standards by which the historic downtown area will be maintained and redeveloped.

"Now, we're trying to advance a downtown plan that is kind of addressing what needs to be addressed up front," said Dana Heiberg, senior planner for comprehensive planning. "I think this gives more specific information with the downtown.

"Most of the downtown is adaptive area. The comprehensive plan has broad areas. For adaptive area, we do have some guidelines, but basically it says it can be adapted to a variety of uses."

Heiberg said the downtown plan would ultimately provide specifics as to what type of architectural features, land uses, required parking and building preservation that is expected to be implemented in the downtown area.

"When my neighbors say they're going downtown, I want them to mean Herndon not Washington," said Commission chair Carl Sivertsen.

The finished plan is expected to eventually be adopted by the Town Council as a comprehensive plan amendment, possibly as soon as later this year. The plan would be subject to public hearings at both the Planning Commission and Town Council level before anything is put into place.

AT ITS FIRST SESSION, April 26, the members of the Planning Commission reviewed and made suggested changes to the plan's mission statement and goals, which sets the tone for the document. Then on a block-by-block basis, discussed the historical significance of the buildings, some of which date back to the 1800s; determining if the structure would need to be preserved or whether the use of a variety of the architectural elements is sufficient in a redevelopment situation.

In future work sessions, the commission will determine what is the acceptable density, height and scope of projects, the preferred land use and the amount of parking needed to make it all work.

"We may have a point where staff or independent consultants do more technical work … maybe a market study to determine the most desirable uses," Heiberg said.

The plan is designed to go hand-in-hand with the traffic study that was released last year, which takes a look at the status of Herndon's roads under different density scenarios.

Based on comments made at the first work session, the commission could have its hands full.

"Preserving old structures is good, but I'm not sure it's possible. … Some old buildings can't be brought up to today's commercial standards," said Commissioner Robert Burk.

There were also discussions about how detailed or vague the plan should be to allow for flexibly. For example, in the draft mission statement and goals, the plan uses the term heritage without defining the term, which many of the commissioners felt was leaving the door open to broad interpretations. Then, of course, there is just a matter of differing tastes.

"There are a lot of buildings in town that were built in the 1950s. Do we have any interest in preserving that type of shape, that type of building?" asked Commissioner Jay Donahue.

BESIDES TRYING to set a course for the future, the commissioners often found themselves bringing up the past.

Several old structures were remembered as being grocery stores at one time or another. And one town restaurant, the Ice House, was once home to a strip club, said Commissioner Judy Downer.

It was also suggested there are areas downtown that could support parking that is located behind buildings and hidden from the street, such areas of Spring and Pine streets.

"The south side [of Elden Street] will not be viable unless there is parking down there," said Downer. "Germantown, Md., has the same little shops like we have … they've put parking behind the shops."

While reminiscing down memory lane, the commissioners did determine buildings, such as the Ice House, Jimmy's, the stone church, and Zeffirelli's are historically significant buildings and should be preserved. Others such as the Paul Brother's car dealership, the fire station and several buildings on Pine Street that have been altered over the years, have architectural features that should be mimicked if the existing site is redeveloped.

Even the white, boxy The Closet has redeeming qualities, but staff is not recommending it be saved. The building was a Ford Model T dealership, where the parts would be shipped by train to Herndon and the cars assembled on site for customers.

"I think a nice plaque on the wall saying its history would be good," Downer said. "In fact having a plaque on a lot of our old buildings would be nice."