Several abandoned buildings in downtown Springfield have been of concern to local residents and businesses for years. A few of them — the Chi-Chi’s building in Springfield Plaza and the Long John Silver’s and Circuit City buildings across Old Keene Mill Road — may be dealt with in the near future. Others, on the site of the planned Midtown Springfield project, a 9-acre plot bordered by Interstate 95, Commerce Street and Brandon Avenue, may not be redeveloped as soon as had been expected.
The reason the buildings that were once a Total Wines and an animal hospital are now abandoned is that the properties were bought by the developer Kettler Services Inc. (KSI) and its affiliated company, Midtown Springfield LLC, in preparation for the construction of a town center that was to include a 10-story hotel and three 23-story towers housing condominiums, as well as retail and office space.
The project had been on the books for more than two years when, in a letter to the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, dated July 27, 2007, the law firm of McGuire Woods requested on behalf of Kettler and Midtown Springfield that the rezoning application be withdrawn. The letter cited a rise in construction costs as a reason for the withdrawal, "among other things." It also noted that Kettler had spent almost $20 million purchasing parcels of the Midtown site and had attempted to "immediately acquire the remaining land," but that the effort had been unsuccessful.
"Rather than pursuing a diluted plan that does not respect community expectations, there is no practical alternative than to withdraw the rezoning," wrote the author, adding that the company would continue discussions with the county regarding the land it had already purchased.
Earlier this year, Kettler had deferred the rezoning, and Jeff McKay, chief of staff to Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), said the deferral and subsequent withdrawal were the result of a lagging market for condominiums, as well as rising construction costs. When the expiration date for the rezoning came this summer, said McKay, some of the landowners had become impatient with the process and declined to renew their contracts with Kettler.
However, Theresa Nguyen, who owns the Saigon City restaurant and the property on which it sits, said she had not heard anything about other property owners backing out of the process. She said Kettler had not approached her recently asking to renew their contract or to close on a purchase of the property.
Saigon City opened in 2004, and it was not long after that that Kettler approached Nguyen about the Midtown project. At first, she said, "we weren’t interested because we were very happy where we are." However, Nguyen eventually gave in because she felt Springfield needed some upscale development.
"They said they wanted to settle by mid-summer of 2007, and we waited for it," she said. "We even went ahead and opened another restaurant in anticipation of this one closing, and now we’re stuck with two." She said she would probably sell the second restaurant, which is located in the Alexandria area, about five minutes from her original location.
Nancy-jo Manney, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, said delays could have come early on from county officials trying to build local consensus on the project. "But, really, I believe the Midtown Springfield project had full community buy-in by last summer," she said. Manney noted that there had also been some deliberation over tax increment financing, which is used to offset the cost of redeveloping blighted sites. Kettler had wanted the financing to help pay for some of the development’s parking, but the county had been reluctant to grant it, she said.
McKay said the property owners remain interested in redevelopment and are hoping another company might pick up where Kettler has left off. "I don’t know if this is a holdup," he said. "Maybe it’s a hiccup." He noted that Kettler specializes in condominiums, which, at the moment, are not experiencing a strong market. However, a development consisting more of office space, for example, might turn a better profit on the site, he said.
Skeeter Scheid, former chair of the Central Springfield Area Revitalization Council (CSPARC) agreed. With Fort Belvoir set to place over 9,000 jobs just south of Springfield Mall as part of the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, she said, the market for office space in the area is likely to heat up. "It’s not a dead project," she said. "The whole thing is in limbo." She added, "There definitely will be a market in Springfield, just not for condos."
"As a property owner, I don’t really care, because I’m happy where I am," Nguyen said of the future of the Midtown site. However, she added that, as a Springfield resident, she would like to see more upscale restaurants and development in town. "I surely hope Springfield is changing and improving," said Nguyen.
Between the Fort Belvoir move and the planned redevelopment of Springfield Mall, McKay said he expects to see considerable revitalization in the area in the coming years. "It’s long overdue, and I think I see it coming," he said. McKay said he did not expect the market difficulties faced by Kettler to stymie the Springfield Mall project, because the mall’s redevelopment is based more on the retail market than housing.
MEANWHILE, Monument Realty, another developer, has been considering the properties just a couple of blocks west of the Midtown Springfield site, where the old Circuit City and Long John Silver’s buildings now stand abandoned, for a mixed-use development consisting primarily of office space, said McKay. However, the company has not yet submitted anything formal to the county.
Monument Realty would need to submit a request for an out-of-turn plan amendment and a rezoning application to begin any work on the properties, "none of which have been filed yet," said McKay. The redevelopment under discussion, he said, would also involve the properties of the nearby Springfield United Methodist Church and the American Legion post. The company is considering building a parking deck over some of the Legion’s surface parking. "We told Monument we’re not going to authorize an out-of-turn plan amendment until both the Legion and the church come to us and say, ‘We want to be part of this,’" said McKay, adding that this had not yet happened.
CONFIRMING ITS continued presence in the neighborhood, Kettler purchased the Chi-Chi’s building across from Long John Silver’s, as of last Friday, said Manney. The property, which is overgrown, vandalized and littered with debris, has been a headache for local businesses and residents, and for Kauffman’s office, for some time.
Linda Waller, Kauffman’s administrative aide, noted that, in addition to its appearance, complaints had occasionally been made about vagrants staying in the building and furniture being sold illegally from trailer trucks on its premises. She said the county could not clean up the building because it is private property and that officials had unsuccessfully petitioned the former owners to post "no trespassing" signs so that local authorities would have the right to keep people off the property.
The building was central to Kauffman’s repeated lobbying of fellow supervisors for restructuring and more strictly enforcing the county’s Blight Abatement program. As recently as the Aug. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting, Kauffman made impassioned pleas to the board to move Blight Abatement from the Department of Housing and Community Development to the Department of Public Works, where it would have more authority and technical knowledge behind it. He also asked that local citizens be included in the Neighborhood Enhancement Task Force that determines which buildings constitute "blight." At the meeting, Kauffman cited as an example the "sad history of our feeble attempt" to convince the owner of the Chi-Chi’s building to clean up the property.
Until the Midtown Springfield project fell through, the problem had been considered temporary, because the Bob Evans restaurant on the site of the planned Midtown development was expected to relocate to the Chi-Chi’s property. "Now, with Kettler having purchased it, we’re hoping they will take a greater interest in maintaining the property," said Manney, noting that Kettler, unlike the former owner, is based in the area. She said she did not know what was planned for the site.
McKay said Kettler had promised to tear down the building at some point. He said the site is zoned for any sit-down restaurant without a drive-through, and no rezoning application has been submitted. Kettler had been in the process of purchasing the property to relocate Bob Evans, but McKay said the fact that the company went ahead with the buy after the Midtown project fell through likely indicated that "they probably got a pretty good deal on it."
Public relations personnel at Kettler said the employees handling downtown Springfield development were on vacation and could not be reached.