Re-Imagining Downtown

Re-Imagining Downtown

Concerns raised over traffic, rezoning as developer intends to propose multi-million dollar partnership.

Town officials will be working with a national developer to establish a partnership that could allow for major redevelopment of Herndon’s historic downtown district, including the addition of more than $20 million in public facilities and as many as 600 new residential units.

The interest shown by JPI is the first active attempt by a developer to explore a partnership for downtown development since Herndon’s Town Council took office last year in July. Herndon’s Town Council was set to vote on the intent to hear the developer’s proposals at its Aug. 14 public hearing. It first came when the developer contacted the town in March, following a return of no bids for downtown development proposals in January.

"It’s a great place to start," said Vice Mayor Dennis Husch, "but we’ve got miles to go until we sleep."

The letter of intent to develop proposals comes after JPI Development, Inc., based locally in Vienna, was able to obtain several downtown parcels of land under contract for sale, provided a partnership deal with the town is struck. Multiple town attempts to purchase that same land had fallen through in the past.

"We just found that amazing, given how difficult it had been for us," said Dana Heiberg, senior planner for the Town of Herndon. "But they were able to do that and put together a unified site, and we’re able to move forward now and see what they can put together for us."

IF A PARTNERSHIP can be established between the town and JPI and major rezoning can be agreed upon, approximately 8.5 acres of downtown land, including nearly five acres of town-owned land, would be redeveloped into mixed-use municipal, commercial and residential developments, according to Heiberg.

In return for the preferential rezoning, the town would receive at least $20.4 million in municipal facilities, including a community arts center, a parking garage and public open space, he added. That land originally cost the town about $4.3 million.

"We had worked for years to put this land together, since the early 1990s, and it was always the intention to have it developed, we just had never been able to come up with a complete partnership," said Heiberg. "Given the framework laid out in the letter of intent, I think we should be able to get in and see what we can do with this property."

The opening of the field for proposals comes despite the recent downtown of the national real estate market, and is considered a long-term project for the developer, according to Aaron Liebert senior vice president for JPI. A final closing agreement for the development isn’t expected for several years, as Dec. 31 2010 is listed in the letter of intent as a deadline.

"We’re not in this to get in and get out," Liebert said. "Herndon, and the whole Dulles corridor really has great long-term potential, with the new office space and the new developments in the area."

THE LETTER of intent from JPI lays out a few general ground rules for its plans, including allowing twice the amount of developed floor space as there is total property space. That figure falls below the 2.5 described in the town’s current comprehensive development plan, according to Heiberg.

That density number, along with the aspects of the "major rezoning" that town staff and officials would need to undertake downtown, will be addressed as the proposal process goes on, Heiberg added.

"Some folks really want the downtown to stay the same, and they wanted a lot of that space to stay vacant," he said. "But at the same time, Herndon has a downtown with a substantial amount of area that has been looked at from a redevelopment standpoint and nothing has yet been done … and it’s always been the intention of the mayors and town councils to explore what can be done."

The distribution of buildings and density will be varied across the project, with attention paid to development of land adjacent to residential properties along the west side of downtown. That area is likely to be lower to the ground and less dense, according to Heiberg.

The Herndon downtown district’s historic nature and original challenges are what primarily drew JPI to the project, as the developer has had experience working in historic districts, such as Penn Quarter and Capitol Hill in downtown Washington, D.C., Liebert said.

"Our speciality is challenging projects and just about every project that we have done is in one way or another atypical," he said. "That’s one of the things that attracted us to Herndon, in that it’s a project that many have tried to do but have not been successful."

IF THE PROJECT is to move forward, the council must take into account several issues such as the project’s visual standards and traffic concerns that could come from increased commercial activity and downtown residents, according to Town Council member Bill Tirrell.

"I don’t want to see us turn the downtown into a huge traffic jam," Tirrell said. "I also don’t want to see us build any kind of white elephants down there that will just sit empty, vacant or idle."

As the Dulles region continues to grow, any changes that come to Herndon’s downtown as a result of that growth need to be "the right kind of development," according to council member Harlon Reece.

"This area is about to become a very densely urban area, all along the corridor, and I think we need to make a decision about what Herndon’s going to look like 20 years down the road," Reece said. "I think we need to take a look at what the residents want and what we can do and see what’s possible."

Any additions made to the downtown will ultimately serve to not just create more community resources and business options downtown, but improve Herndon’s tax base as well, Heiberg noted.

"It brings a lot of downtown that’s been envisioned for a lot of years, and that is an area with an active environment, street life and a lot of activities," he said. "But it is … an urban project and there certainly is a long road ahead of us."