A plan to redevelop the Prison Fellowship estates — considered one of Reston's most historically significant properties — was approved Monday night by Reston Association's Planning & Zoning Committee.
Pending approval by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the plan would convert existing office buildings into a maximum of 40 condominiums and convert the historic A. Smith Bowman house into a restaurant and inn. The non-profit Prison Fellowship, which has occupied the historic estates since 1985, is relocating its offices to Landsdowne, Md. in December.
Jorge Kfoury, the property's owner, said he intends to maintain the site's historical integrity, focusing primarily on renovating the existing structures.
"You can feel pretty sure it will be protected," said Kfoury, who has owned the property for two years.
The site, located along Old Reston Avenue, was purchased by Bowman in 1927 and served as his family's estates. The Bowman mansion oversaw the family business, the Virginia Gentleman bourbon distillery, which is now the location of the Sallie Mae building.
Prison Fellowship bought the property in July 1983 and built the office buildings to house the organization's staff. Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by former Nixon aide, Chuck Colson, who became a born-again Christian after a seven month prison stay for his role in the Watergate conspiracy.
The organization, now led by former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, has become the world's largest religious outreach program for prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims, and their families.
NINE YEARS AGO, the county rezoned the site to allow 98,500 square feet of office space to be built on the property. The office space was never built and Kfoury said he hopes this new plan will allow him to make a profit off the property without constructing such large commercial real estate buildings.
Arthur Hill, the P&Z Committee's vice chairman, said he supports Kfoury's plan because it seems to keep the site largely the same aesthetically and is better than the alternative of hulking corporate structures that would sully the view from the nearby high-rise condominiums.
"I think this is a jewel of a piece of property and I can't see anything wrong with this," Hill said. "When I stop and think what could happen to this property ... the whole thing could disappear."
The plan to rezone the property for residential use will be considered on Nov. 17 by the Fairfax County Planning Commission and then by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 6. Frank de la Fe, the Hunter Mill District representative to the planning commission, said the plan for the site appears to be a good way of maintaining one of Reston's historic treasures that might otherwise be knocked down altogether.
"The attraction of this one is to consider what can happen here right now," he said. "This is a way of preserving it."
IF THE BOARD of Supervisors approves the rezoning in December, Kfoury said the redevelopment should be underway shortly thereafter and finished within a year or a year and six months.
"We're moving along very fast here," he said.
Details are still unclear about what type of restaurant would be added or how extensive the renovations would change the existing buildings. However, William Keefe, the project's chief planner, said they are fairly sure they want to add a classy restaurant on the Bowman House's first floor and convert the upper floors into seven rooms for rent, similar to a bed and breakfast.
"It will be something that is nice and tasteful," he said.
Kfoury, who also owns several other properties in Reston, including the SkateQuest ice skating rink, has been approached by developers interested in purchasing the property on numerous occasions. Keefe said this project is merely a chance for Kfoury to turn a profit once Prison Fellowship leaves, without destroying the tranquil character of the area.
"It's strictly a labor of love," he said.
THE BOWMAN House is one of the last remaining vestiges of the Town of Wiehle, the precursor to Reston that was founded in the late 1890s by Carl Adolph Max Wiehle. Wiehle wanted to establish a Utopian planned community, and got as far as laying out roads, digging lakes and constructing a town hall, a post office, and a train station.
Residents from Washington, D.C. would ride the train on the W&OD out to Wiehle to spend their summers in the bucolic and largely undeveloped town, said Sarah Larson, a Reston historian.
When Wiehle died, the town floundered until the Bowman family came along in the 1920s. The Bowmans tried to make a living as farmers for a while, but turned to the liquor business after prohibition ended in 1934.
After the Bowmans abandoned the property, the house fell into disrepair. It was rejected by the federal government as a protected historical site in 1970 because it had become so dilapidated that trees were growing up through the floorboards. It was renovated extensively when Prison Fellowship bought the property in the 1980s.
Over the last 20 years, several similar houses and buildings along Old Reston Avenue that were built during the time of Wiehle have been bought by developers and turned into apartments and office buildings.