A few downtown Fairfax business owners say their businesses have been struggling ever since the Harris Teeter food market moved out of the Main Street Marketplace last spring. Now they’re asking the city to amend city laws in order to stay afloat.
“Everyone lost about 20 percent of their business because of Harris Teeter moving out,” said Sabiha Zubair, franchise owner of the UPS store in the Main Street Marketplace shopping center, near the intersection of Main Street and Old Lee Highway.
The UPS store is one of several businesses in the shopping center that backs up to Old Lee Highway. Signs for the businesses face the parking lot and the vacant building that used to house Harris Teeter, but have no signs on the exterior part of the building that faces the road and the majority of passersby. The business owners and managers are requesting that the city amend zoning laws in order to allow signs or banners on either, or both, Main Street and Old Lee Highway to advertise their businesses.
“People can only see us when they are inside the shopping center,” said Anna Rodriguez, salon leader at the Hair Cuttery salon, just a couple doors down from UPS.
Some of the businesses have been using sandwich board signs in front of their stores illegally, said Monty Lowe, deputy zoning administrator, at an Oct. 24 City Council work session presentation. The signs are small, portable signs that are placed on the ground and usually targeted more at pedestrian traffic. They are illegal throughout the city, except within the Old Town Fairfax Historic Overlay District, just across Old Lee Highway. Those types of signs would not do much for the shopping center’s businesses though, said Lowe.
“The signs would do little to increase business visibility to auto traffic,” said Lowe.
AT THE OCT. 24 work session, councilmembers agreed with Lowe and struck down the possibility for allowing the signs in the Old Town Fairfax Transition Overlay District, the area where the Main Street Marketplace is located. They agreed to help the businesses try and find alternative sign options though, exercising ideas for both temporary and permanent solutions.
“These smaller businesses have to survive to give them a little bit more to work with,” said Councilmember Patrice Winter. “I would be really in favor of helping them.”
Eddie Zomorodian, co-owner of the Quizno’s Subs franchise in the marketplace, said he hopes the council does something soon. Zomorodian has had to get rid of some employees and cut the hours back of his existing employees because he has lost about 30 percent of his business, he said. As a result, he and his business partner are in the store a lot more.
“We pay taxes,” said Zomorodian. “They listen when they need something from us, but not when we need something from them. We need some support, such as having a banner.”
The city’s zoning staff is currently working on alternative zoning amendments that would allow tenant signs around the shopping center in the near future. Tenant signs in shopping centers are currently prohibited, except for storefront signs.
If approved, the amendment would allow tenant signs throughout the entire city, not just in the marketplace shopping center, said Lowe. The only part of the city that has its own sign laws and exceptions is the Historic Overlay District.
City Councilmember Scott Silverthorne said the city wants to be as accommodating as possible, but he said he has some reservations about the assumption that signs and business traffic go hand in hand. He said he’s seen businesses with no signs thrive, and businesses with plenty of signs struggle.
“I am not a believer that signs will ensure a business’ success,” said Silverthorne. “At what point is it just that the business model doesn’t work?”
City zoning administrators are currently working on a way to appease both sides, at least until a new “anchor store” moves into the vacant Harris Teeter building. Winter said she’d be willing to look at temporary solutions too, until redevelopment is finished or a new “anchor store” moves into the shopping center, since the businesses “need help now.”
“There are a lot of small businesses in the marketplace,” said Winter. “A lot of owners are really feeling the crunch of not being able to have signage.”
Silverthorne said he’s not opposed to helping them temporarily either, but he wants to be careful not to make changes that could add to signs that already plague the city. He said he also has a fear that the pendulum could swing from one extreme to the other, “where you end up having this feeling that signage is the only cure to a business’ ills.”
“Do we really want to open the floodgates or provide some relief in a targeted way without allowing a complete proliferation of signage throughout the city?” Silverthorne asked.
Councilmembers are expected to vote on some type of solution, whether temporary or permanent, in time for the holiday shopping season.
“There is very little exposure for those merchants,” said Councilmember Joan Cross. “I do sympathize with them.”