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Downtown Fairfax Open For Business?

Parking remains concern for merchants.

The conversation continues between City of Fairfax government and downtown business owners regarding Old Town redevelopment. Most of the discussion revolves around parking.

"They can't tell me where our parking is going to be," said John Brice, who owns National Security on Main Street. "A lot of it was kind of left up in air."

In a city like Fairfax, where most residents and visitors make their way around town by car, the downtown shops and restaurants need to have parking available for their customers.

Main Street has a few parking spaces, but most of these serve as a loading zone, so on-street parking is limited. Downtown visitors usually park in one of two lots on the corner of North Street and University Drive: the Webb lot and the Logan-Sipan lot directly across from it. But these lots will be demolished and built upon as part of the Old Town redevelopment project. The Webb lot will make way for a retail and office building, while the Logan-Sipan lot will become part of the Old Town Village development.

In August 2005, the City of Fairfax used a quick-take condemnation process to buy a 15,630-square-foot parcel of land at 3987 University Drive for $2.75 million that included the building commonly referred to as the "Weight Watchers building." During Old Town redevelopment, said Mayor Rob Lederer, the site will serve as a temporary parking lot. After that, however, the site will become an extension of the Kitty Pozer Garden.

Town business owners echoed Brice’s concerns, dwelling upon the question of where their customers would park before, during and after construction.

"We have a shortage of parking as it stands now, before construction," said Kevin Hildebeidel, whose law office has a Main Street address.

The parking plan changes all the time, said director of public works John Veneziano, but the latest plan incorporates a mix of street and lot parking to make up for the absence of the Webb and Logan-Sipan lots.

AS PART of the project to install utility lines underground, construction crews are widening North Street, said Veneziano, and parking spaces will be available on that street between Old Lee Highway and University Drive. These parking spaces will remain after Old Town redevelopment construction is finished, he said, at least until two-way traffic is instated on North Street. When the Weight Watchers building site comes down the week of Nov. 28, it will provide temporary parking, said Lederer.

The city will also add parking spaces along University Drive near the Main Street Marketplace and along Old Lee Highway where extra pavement is available, he said. These parking spaces will also remain after construction is over.

Control parking will be available in a parking lot on the corner of Sager Avenue and, and the city is negotiating for the Amoco lot on the corner of East and Main Streets, said Lederer.

The Webb lot’s future as a parking area is a little more uncertain, however. "The Webb lot status is in the air," said Veneziano. "We’re going to try to keep it in play as long as possible."

"A lot of people don’t anticipate what may be happening while the downtown work is going on," said Art Foster, who owns the Foster Building in the 3900 block of University Drive in Old Town. "A lot of people do not know exactly when the project is going to be completed, but you can’t predict these things."

After the project is over, said Lederer, the city will have added parking spaces to the total downtown tally.

"This is just an aggressive ongoing plan we have to make sure we are enhancing the downtown area, not hurting it," said Lederer. "People will have some frustration, sitting there and dealing with the congestion and traffic during construction and back-ups every time try and do something. That’s kind of what we are dealing with now."

The city may have added parking spaces, said Brice, but it will have made them farther away.

"I'm not fat and I'm not lazy, but I know that when I go to the Price Club, Home Depot, or anywhere, I drive up and down those things a couple times looking for the closest space," said Brice.

When the parking garage becomes the main source of downtown parking, many business owners worry that people will not want to walk the few blocks from the garage to their stores and restaurants.

"The parking is too much on the perimeter [of downtown]," said Becky Rutkowski, who owns the Circa home and garden store in downtown Fairfax.

"Two blocks doesn’t sound like much, but you don’t want to carry bags and parcels and shopping bags and stuff for two blocks," said Hildebeidel.

Also, many business owners worried that people in the parking garage in the new office-retail complex called Old Town Village might be more likely to visit the nearby shops and restaurants in Old Town Village than the businesses on Main Street.

"[This is] forcing people to walk past all those retail stores, all those restaurants, and to go up a hill," said Hildebeidel. "It puts us at a major competitive disadvantage."

The construction may also be keeping people out of downtown. Rutkowski looked at her revenue numbers during the month of September and realized that business had gone down.

"I'm really excited about the development, and I welcome it and think it will be really great for the businesses down there," said Rutkowski, who started Circa three years ago. "But I was a little surprised when I found the set numbers were down considerably, and it was quite a shock."

After hearing the concerns of people like Rutkowski whose businesses are suffering because of the construction, city officials also offered to pump up their advertising efforts for downtown: putting up "Pardon Our Dust" road signs reminding people the downtown is open for business and promoting upcoming holiday celebrations such as the Festival of Lights and Carols and First Fairfax.

"We are going the extra mile to ensure the integrity of the downtown businesses," said Lederer.

While some downtown business owners do not think the advertising will help matters, others, like Rutkowski, feel the city is taking steps in the right direction.

"I wish they had some things planned before but at least they are doing it now," she said. "I hope it is not too late."