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There Goes the Neighborhood

Downtown Fairfax building to make way for parking lot and open space.

The landscape of University Drive and Main Street is about to change dramatically. A year and a half after its condemnation, the building at 3987 University Drive, commonly known as the "Weight Watchers building," will be torn down to make way for parking during the redevelopment of downtown Fairfax. According to city manager Bob Sisson, the city is aiming for a demolition date of Monday, Nov. 28. But after redevelopment is over, the parking lot will be torn up to make way for an extension of the Kitty Pozer Garden, which now sits north of the Weight Watchers building on University Drive.

In the last few years, the city acquired other open space tracts and considered options for parking lots or parks in the area, said Sisson. "The mayor and city councilmembers thought that the Weight Watchers building would be a wonderful acquisition to have more green space downtown," he said. In May 2004, the city went through a condemnation process to buy the land. When city officials discovered that work on downtown redevelopment would create a short-term parking shortage, it settled upon the Weight Watchers building site for the two-year interim, he said.

Balancing buildings and open space parks has always been a part of the ultimate plan for the city, said Mayor Rob Lederer.

"We didn’t want every single block of [downtown Fairfax] to be built out," he said. The three-story Old Town Village development, a mix of retail stores, restaurants, office space and a parking garage on the site of the old post office and Logan-Sipan parking lot, must be balanced with open space in order to create a more attractive downtown. The larger Kitty Pozer Garden will open up Main Street to the view of Old Town Hall just up the hill from the building, said Lederer. The city owns nearly the entire block where Old Town Hall and the Weight Watchers building stand, he said, and eventually will take down some of the buildings there to provide parking, such as the New Orleans House at 3928 Old Lee Highway. The total cost for the properties on the block, he said, was $4 million.

OTHER OPEN SPACE parcels that the city has recently purchased include the one at 9985 Lee Highway, next to Fairfax High School, for $1.35 million and a parcel of land, including a pond, at 9817 Ashby Road for $507,500.

For some downtown business owners, who are already dealing with the ongoing construction to make traffic on Main and North streets two-way, removing an existing building to make way for a garden seems a foolhardy idea.

Joanna Nueno, owner of the Firehouse Grill on Main Street, said she was originally excited about the prospect of extra parking at the Weight Watchers building site.

"Then I found out it was going to be a park and I was disappointed, because it's a useless park," she said. "Who wants to go to a park with all four sides surrounded by two-way streets? "

The space would be much more useful as a parking lot, especially in an area that is already tight on parking, said Nuenos.

For Becky Stoeckel, who owns Executive Press, Inc. on Main Street with her husband Matt, a park in place of an office building makes no economic sense.

"That building was generating revenue," she said. "Isn't the whole point of a redevelopment to generate revenue?" Stoeckel contends that the park was something the developers — Walnut Street Development, Trammell Crow, and Jay Donegan Development — wanted.

"[The developer] just wanted some trees. This was solely to their benefit," she said.

According to Bobby Montagne, president of Walnut Street Development, it was the City Council that first introduced the open-space idea on the Weight Watchers site, at the May 2004 City Council meeting addressing the condemnation.

"We embraced it pretty much immediately, because we think it’s a great idea to have a park there," said Montagne. "It makes for a more pedestrian-friendly area … It'll break up the new development and all the buildings that are there now."

However, condemnation of the Weight Watchers building meant that the businesses operating in it had to leave. JC House, an Asian restaurant on the lower level of the building, went out of business and vacated some months ago, and the Weight Watchers meetings operated in the building have moved to 9703 Lee Highway in Fairfax. But for Ashwani Ahuja, who formerly owned the Indian restaurant Connaught Place in the bottom floor of the building, condemnation caused him to close the restaurant altogether.

"It was hard for many reasons," said Ahuja. "[Connaught Place] was the first business I opened in my life, and your first business is like your first child." He had owned Connaught Place for 14 years, he said, and when he moved out, could not to relocate in the city. He said he received $150,000 compensation. Ahuja currently operates Infusion, an Indian fusion restaurant in Tysons Corner.

Lederer said he considered Ahuja's compensation fair. "We would love to see him reopen in the City of Fairfax, but that’s a decision he has to make," he said. "None of us wants to be in the condemnation business, but in these circumstances, we thought it was part of the responsibility for the redevelopment of old downtown."