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Votes

Open Space Initiative

City Council votes to condemn building on University Drive and buy the property for future open space.

One day, Fairfax families may be able to picnic where "the Weight Watchers Building" currently sits.

At Tuesday's Council meeting, the Fairfax City Council decided 5-0, with Councilmember Gary Rasmussen absent, to condemn 3987 University Drive, otherwise known as the Weight Watchers Building, in hopes of turning it into open space.

Clearing the building from the site would expand the park area beyond the adjoining Kitty Pozer Garden, create a more attractive sight line, and showcase Old Town Hall, supporters said.

"This action will be thought of kindly in years to come," said Councilmember Joan Cross. "It has so many positives that I can hardly enumerate them all."

Approving condemnation means that the city will begin legal steps with the owners, Virginia Seekford Smith and Smith and Francis Inc., to acquire the property at fair market value price.

Council members said they would work with current tenants to find suitable, alternative space. They added that the word "immediate" was struck from the motion, implying that it could take many months or even years before any demolition would begin.

The passage did occur with some reservations by citizens, although most of the pubic testimony spoken that Tuesday evening supported turning the Weight Watchers Building into open space. Hugo Blankenship, an attorney representing Virginia Smith, cautioned the City Council about making a hasty decision and asked members to consider slowing down the process.

He said the staff report he received, which included a resolution and two sketches, did not adequately address the economic impact of tearing down the building.

"Why would you remove viable businesses in the downtown area?" Blankenship asked.

A manager with The Connaught Place, an Indian restaurant located in the building and fronting North Street, wanted to know what compensation the restaurant would receive.

"It's taken a long time for us to establish this business," he said, adding that the restaurant was the family's life's work and savings.

BUT SUPPORTERS said demolishing the building would benefit Old Town Fairfax overall. Fairfax mayor Rob Lederer responded to Blakenship's comments by saying it was in the interests of the Council to work with the tenants and to "follow the letter of the law.

"The purpose of taking down this building has nothing to do with the appearance and everything to do with open space," Lederer said.

Six other citizens also spoke in favor of the city’s going forward with the condemnation process. They reasoned that it would benefit neighboring Kitty Pozer Garden, restore the sight line, promote safety through the possible creation of wider sidewalks and setbacks, and create a buzz within the Old Town area.

"Here's a building that encroaches upon one of the most historic sites we have in the city," said Mick Frasier.

Fairfax resident David Meyer agreed. "The redevelopment of our downtown only comes once in a 50-year, 100-year period," he said.

Several residents also praised the condemnation by arguing that past and current redevelopment projects for downtown did not have enough allotted open space.

"Kitty Pozer has an extreme amount of history," said Douglas Schauss. "It would be an extreme benefit to the city to acquire this piece of property."

Before approving the resolution, Councilmember Scott Silverthorne offered a motion to defer consideration until the Council's May 25 meeting, since Rasmussen was absent and some citizens wanted Council to slow down the process. Silverthorne and Councilmember Jeff Greenfield voted for that deferral, but it was defeated 3-2.

All five Council members then approved condemning the property, with Fairfax mayor Rob Lederer adding his support.

"I see this as an opportunity to expand Kitty Pozer Garden," said Councilmember Gail Lyon. "I, too, do not love condemnation, but I feel we have to go this route."