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Green on the Outside, Still Pink in the Middle

Daks plans to relocate underground for conservation, but the steakhouse’s recipes won’t change.

When Walgreens decided to build a store on a site across from Mount Vernon Plaza, the pharmacy chain gave the owners of Daks restaurant, a popular steakhouse that sits on the site, an offer they couldn’t refuse. The result: The restaurant’s future on the corridor has been buried.

And the staff of the Southeast Fairfax Development Commission, which exists to promote development on Richmond Highway, could not be more pleased to take that statement literally. At a meeting of its Area Advisory Council, executive director Lara Fritts said Daks’ burial could create an important new destination for visitors to the Richmond Highway.

The plans that call for Daks to be built underground on a new site two miles down the road (a wooded strip of land between Sacramento Center and Engleside Plaza) reveal a cutting-edge model of environmentally-friendly architecture. Owner Barry Clark said he wants the new restaurant to meet the highest possible standard of certification by the United States Green Building Council. Daks would become the only independent restaurant in the organization’s national database to achieve a gold Leadership in Environment Energy Design (LEED) rating.

FROM THE STREET, passersby will notice trees. A stand of mature hardwoods will be preserved to shield the restaurant and parking lot. Clark said he plans to pave the parking lot with porous cement that allows rainwater to drain through, preventing destructive run-off that flows into storm-sewers and eventually into the county’s eroded streams.

Beyond the parking lot, the windows of the dining rooms will be visible beside two ramped entrances that lead to separate underground seating areas for bus-passengers and general diners. A rainwater retention pond, thick with water-loving plants, will lie beside the roof of the restaurant, which will be covered with grass and trees. A few skylights will poke up and solar tubes and mirrors will draw natural light into the rooms below.

Clark said that digging a hole in the ground, then lining it with concrete, will create natural insulation that keeps the restaurant warm in winter and cool in summer, 60-80 degrees with no artificial, energy-consuming temperature controls.

By nature, Clark said, restaurants tend to be “energy hogs.” This one will heat water with sophisticated solar heaters, collect rain to water landscaping composed of indigenous plants and recycle most of the waste it produces. Clark said that to meet LEED certification it will even reduce auto pollution by encouraging people to arrive by bus and ordering all of its ingredients from locations less than 500 miles away.

To help offset the significant cost of going green, the restaurant is being designed to attract tourist buses by providing parking and a dedicated entrance for bus passengers. There will be two kitchens and two dining areas. Clark said Daks currently employs about 44 people. He estimates the new restaurant will employ 100.

THE SITE at the corner of Richmond Highway and Woodlawn Court is occupied by a dense forest that surrounds an abandoned house built in the 1930’s. It is zoned for residential use, although county planners have designated the land to be used for commercial purposes. Daks is taking the first steps of petitioning the county to rezone the site. “It’s actually in line with what the county wants to do. But we still have to jump through the hoops,” Clark said. It will take years to win county approval, then construct the building.

Last week Clark and his attorney Jason Heinberg presented their plan to the SFDC’s Area Advisory Committee, which renders non-binding opinions on commercial plans for the Richmond Highway corridor. Clark assured the committee that the residents of the homes that surround the lot were excited about the prospect of the new restaurant.

The committee members were enthusiastic about the plans, but expressed some reservations about specifics. In particular, they questioned whether the parking lot, which was designed to retain as many trees as possible, would be adequate for buses and cars and would provide handicapped parking near enough to the entrances.

They also asked why Clark was requesting a waiver of the ordinance requiring a pedestrian pathway down the sides of Richmond Highway. According to Heinburg, building a path would be incompatible with the plan to preserve as many trees as possible. But committee-member Rick Neel said there is a new focus on pedestrian access along Richmond Highway, and the restaurant is located near grocery stores and other shops that attract foot traffic. “The interest in having some kind of [uninterrupted] pedestrian linkage I think would be fairly important.”

Ginny Wells concurred. “Foot travel is a means of transportation,” she said, “a serious one.” She described women with baby carriages being forced into traffic if there is not path. The committee suggested constructing a winding path through the trees. Clark was amenable to this idea.

CLARK SAID going green will demonstrate that “normal people can do these kind of buildings as well.” He assured the committee that even if Daks’ structure changes, its food and atmosphere won’t. “We’re not changing the format of our restaurant basically. We’re still going to serve chicken wings and ribs.”

“It’s a very bold and innovative design,” said committee chairman Doug Jones, before noting its expense.

“Hopefully this will start an environmental trend,” Wells added. “No road ever needed environmental friendliness more than poor old Richmond Highway.”