Striking a delicate balance

Over the past decade, Old Town Manassas, once an outdated, abandoned strip flanked with 33 vacant buildings, has transformed itself into a thriving historical district providing a trendy old-fashioned setting for restaurants, barber shops, coffee shops and more.

But the successful improvements have left local groups and officials asking a new question: What next?

Some believe preserving the historic feel of Old Town should be a top priority, while others stress the need to build parking garages and wider sidewalks. Still others say more diverse businesses — from children’s clothing stores to nightclubs to even a movie theater — would bring more people into the downtown.

“No business can be successful without a plan … I think the citizens need to know what the vision of our community is,” said Creston Owen, who owns four buildings in the downtown.

Martha Wilson, the chairwoman of the city’s Architectural Review Board, raised such questions at a recent meeting of the non-profit Historic Manassas Inc.’s board of directors. She asked whether the organization was so wrapped up in fostering economic development that it had ignored its mission to preserve history — a growing concern about the future of the downtown.

Over the past year, the ARB, which enforces historic preservation guidelines in Old Town, has seen a number of its decisions overturned by the City Council. Trinity Episcopal Church was given permission to tear down a building in order to expand. And in another decision, the city gave its nod on camouflaging large rooftop air conditioning units with paint.

“I think [HMI needs] to ask whether we are a preservation board or a development board. Is there anything we should be thinking to strengthen our position?” Wilson said.

Less than three weeks before, Gov. Mark R. Warner had overseen the dedication of a new domed structure on top of the renamed Harry J. Parrish Town Hall, then walked down Center Street to mark the opening of the renovated Hopkins Candy Factory building on Battle Street. Only a stone’s throw away was the Loy E. Harris Pavilion, both an ice skating rink and venue for social events, christened in early May.

Taken as a whole, the structures represent the culmination of a process that began in Old Town in 1995, when the late Loy E. Harris, a local insurance broker, opened the Opera House Gourmet on Center Street.

And yet the goals for the area sometimes seem conflicted.

Different entities have varied boundaries for what actually constitutes Old Town. For the ARB, the downtown is the businesses and homes of the Manassas Historic District, while HMI only concentrates on the commercial areas on Center and Church streets.

In the new comprehensive plan, the long-term plan for the city, now under consideration by the council, the idea of protecting “visual integrity and historic compatibility” are mentioned among initiatives for Old Town. At the same time, the document talks of creating a “more urban feel” with a higher density of apartments, stores and offices.

Local bookstore owner Ray Willis sometimes sees these two ideas coming into conflict.

“A business-successful town is more important than a town preserved the way it was 50 to 100 years ago. If we didn’t have businesses in these buildings, they would become dilapidated and run down, because no one would want to visit them,” he said.

The demands of preserving buildings and fostering growth can be a balancing act, said Randolph Frostick, a local lawyer who is the new president of HMI. The nonprofit corporation, which manages the historic train depot and the pavilion, is dedicated to fostering economic growth in the downtown, using its historic nature as a catalyst.

Development is needed to keep the downtown vital, Frostick says. But it’s the old-fashioned buildings that make it so attractive.

“It’s what sets us apart from the shopping centers,” he said.

At this time, the question of how much more growth will take place downtown is up in the air. As president of the Old Town Business Association, Willis has heard other merchants in the area complain that the cost of renting space is on the rise. And he has trouble believing more of his kind will be attracted into setting up shop in the area.

“I don’t think we’re going to see the sudden changes we’ve seen in the past few years,” he said.

More building projects, however, are in the works for the area. For his part, Owen is getting ready to expand the very Center Street building Willis’ business is in. Farther to the west, on the corner of Va. 28 and Stonewall Road, he is in the planning stages for a mixed-use residential development.

And J. Bren Compton, president of J.B.C. Developers Inc., is building up, adding two stories to a one-story brick building on Center Street. The new stories, meant for apartments, will be an “asset for Old Town,” she said.

Meanwhile, local law firm Vanderpool, Frostick and Nishanian’s new four-story headquarters, set to open in December, towers over the rest of Old Town.

Frostick sees other property owners in the area following his law firm’s lead and building up. Because of this, HMI is supporting a proposed zoning ordinance allowing more apartments in the upper floors of buildings in Old Town.

There is also a need to bring new parking into the area. Mike Moon, the city’s public work’s director, says $2.3 million of the $5.4 million needed to build a parking garage, between Battle and Main streets south of the downtown, has been assembled, with another $925,000 expected soon. Work is not scheduled to begin until 2005.

For its part, HMI is toying with the idea of partnering with the city to acquire more parking, Frostick said.

Meanwhile, OTBA is pushing to make Center Street, the main business draw in Old Town, more pedestrian-friendly. The city is scheduled to start work on the street in 2004. Proposals include widening the sidewalks, planting trees and installing brick crosswalks.

Such moves are all good and beneficial, says Debi Sandlin, economic development facilitator for the city. But she also believes they miss an important point.

“People have to get out of a Metro station and walk all the way to Old Town Alexandria. But they do it, because of what is there,” she said.

People attending special events in the downtown have mentioned a movie theater, a health food store, a night club and a children’s clothing store as some of the things that might bring them back, according to Silver Spring, Md.-based Hammer, Siler, George & Associates.

The consulting group, which is scheduled to release a final report in February, found members of local focus groups mentioning Old Town’s restaurants and entertainment as its big draws.

More diverse business, Sandlin believes, is needed for the downtown to improve itself. With the right attractions, the downtown would be able to partner with outside businesses and foster the type of economic growth seen in communities such as Fredericksburg.

It’s but another ingredient to add into the mix as debate continues on what the next step should be for Old Town. Sandlin agrees there are many issues to sort through. But in the end, she believes the city will be better for it.

“It’s going to make us a stronger community,” she said.

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