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Time to Redevelop Lee Highway?

The city is to examine a proposal to revitalize Lee Highway through the creation of a business improvement district and a supplemental tax.

Jim Brantley, owner of the Hampton Inn at 10860 Lee Highway, is awaiting the delivery of new granite tops. Although he does not need to renovate his hotel, he said the hotel is "upscaling" its bathrooms and rooms in order to stay competitive.

"We're constantly putting in new carpet and painting and wallpapering," said Brantley. "I always feel it's important to show the guests that we're giving back to the property and improving the property."

If Fairfax City did the same thing to Lee Highway as he does to his hotel, Brantley would be in favor of those improvements. Although he said that as a hotel owner, he would not experience an increase in business if improvements were made, he continued to support the improvements because it would benefit his property values.

"It will hold my property value up, and I feel that it will bring more attention to the businesses along the Lee Highway Corridor," Brantley said.

Throughout this week and during next Tuesday's meeting, the Fairfax City Council is receiving public testimony on a proposal aimed at revitalizing the Lee Highway Corridor as it stretches from Fairfax Circle to Kamp Washington. The proposal is to create a Business Improvement District (BID), that would work to increase economic viability; promote business marketing and development; offer financial incentives and assistance through low-interest loans for businesses to improve their appearance; determine aesthetic and architectural guidelines for the corridor; and encourage commuters to become shoppers along the corridor; according to presentation notes from the city's Economic Development Office.

The most controversial aspect of the BID is a 12.5-cent supplemental tax per $100 assessed value, creating $850,000 in revenue. Properties within the business district would be taxed, and revenue would go solely towards BID projects and initiatives. Those initiatives include architectural plans and assistance, beautification projects, subsidized loans, and the creation of a governing organization that would oversee the revitalization.

While the majority of the properties within the district are commercial, two residential areas would also be affected. One is the Foxcroft Colony Condominiums located on Arlington Boulevard, and the other are apartments on Cedar Avenue behind Pars Restaurant on Lee Highway.

RELATED TO the creation of the BID and the supplemental tax would be changing the name of Lee Highway, as it passes through the city, to "Fairfax Boulevard."

"The important point here is, in the city we've been considering this kind of activity for a long period of time," said William G. Foster Jr., chair of the Industrial Development Authority (IDA). Foster had been working for the past two years with a Lee Highway task force composed of members of the city's Planning Commission, the Economic Development Authority, and the Community Planning and Economic Development offices. "I think there seems to be a strong feeling ... that it was time to do something."

The catalyst for revitalizing the Lee Highway Corridor comes in part from the surrounding communities. With the development of Fairfax Corner to the west and the revitalization of Maple Avenue in Vienna, Burke Centre Parkway in Burke, and Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, the redevelopment of the Lee Highway Corridor would ensure that stretch of road's economic viability for years to come, supporters said.

If no improvements were made along Lee Highway, the fear among business owners and the city is that the corridor would eventually decline in appearance and worth due to languishing properties and stalled development.

Throughout the last several years, the city and independent organizations such as the Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce have studied Lee Highway and recommended measures to prevent its decline. Yet revitalizing Lee Highway was often put on the back burner due to the prominence of Old Town redevelopment.

"That has taken much of the focus," said Paul Cunningham, chair of the city's Planning Commission and a task force member.

WITH THE redevelopment plans for downtown Fairfax looking promising, the city has turned the spotlight onto Lee Highway. A task force composed of city volunteers and business owners had been meeting for the past two years, with the fruit of its labor being the BID proposal.

"Redevelopment has been occurring along the corridor piecemeal for a long time," said Cunningham. He recalled that when he moved to Fairfax in 1980, the Rite-Aid on Route 123 was an Italian restaurant. "There was no plan for what redevelopment would occur," he said.

If the BID is created, what would follow is the 12.5-cent supplemental tax for property owners within the district. The concept of a BID is not new. According to Foster, examples of special tax districts include the Golden Triangle area in the District and Clarendon in Arlington. Although some tax districts fund themselves through dues and have most of their money going to overhead, Fairfax would try to keep its overhead as low as possible, Foster added.

As for the supplemental tax, the city's Economic Development director Earl Berner has created a projected budget for the BID. The revenue, around $850,000 annually, would go toward business development, architectural and landscape design support, marketing brochures, a master plan for the corridor, business renaissance loans, debt service for EDA-bonded debt, and administrative expenses and consultant fees.

Larger-scale projects, such as the undergrounding of utilities, would not be funded under the supplemental tax.

The tax and the business district could last as long as 20 years, although the actual life of both could be shorter than that timespan. Ordinances like the one to create the BID typically have 20-year sunset dates, Foster said.

THE PURPOSE of he supplemental tax is to ensure that revenue collected for the Lee Highway Corridor stays within the corridor, supporters said. If the city establishes or uses a citywide tax, there would be too much pressure to fund projects outside the corridor, they argued.

"It gave us a way to separate funds from general fund monies, so [businesses] would have a say on how those tax revenues should be spent," Foster said.

Since announcing the proposal in March, planners have been conducting outreach meetings to introduce Lee Highway businesses to the proposal. Around 78 property and business owners attended at least one of the six outreach meetings that took place.

At the meetings, reaction was generally favorable, although a few had some reservations.

John Brice of National Security Inc. had several concerns about the tax rate, although he added that he was neither for nor against the proposal, and that he supported beautification in general.

"With the real estate assessments going skyward right now, the 12.5-cent increase I thought was a little high," said Brice, who in addition to owning property on Lee Highway, owns property in downtown Fairfax, which has its own supplemental tax for the undergrounding of utilities.

Another concern Brice had was for property owners who lived outside the city not having a sufficient voice, since they would not be able to vote in the next election or in any other related measure if they did not like the tax. As a city resident, he can vote in elections.

"I've always been concerned when people raise taxes and they're not affected themselves," Brice said.

The Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce (CFCC) sent a letter to members about the BID, which outlined reservations about the supplemental tax and the overall effectiveness of the BID.

Since they are awaiting member feedback, the Chamber has not taken a position on the BID, said CFCC president Claire Luke.

As a supporter of the BID, Brantley thought the improvements could potentially increase his property values.

"I don't think the price is that much to pay for all of us to collectively get together and beautify our very heavily trafficked corridor," Brantley said. "As a property owner, there's a pride of ownership, and I'd like to have a nice streetscape running by the hotel.

The City Council is hosting a public hearing on the BID at its Tuesday, May 25 meeting at City Hall. The public is invited to attend.

"We just want to be able to make a change because I can't sit around and wait for the state do to something about it," Brantley said. "We just need to do something, because if we don't do nothin', it's going to be stagnant. In my mind, something is better than nothing."

What the Corridor Looks Like:

Cars/customers per day 40,000

Total distance 3.5 miles

Business licenses More than 1,000

Auto dealers/services 34

Restaurants 67

Hotels/motels 9

Commercial business 301

Gas stations 16

Condo/apartment units 409

Big-box retail 10

Retail 191

Total land area 516 acres

Total assessed value $241 million

Source: Economic Development, City of Fairfax