Old Town consultant says growth very likely

The Manassas-area economy has the ability to support massive expansion and growth in Old Town over the next decade, a paid consultant told the City Council on Monday night.

An additional 46,700 to 54,200 square feet of retail space in Manassas’ downtown would be able to bring in $14 million of extra revenue in the local economy over the next 10 years, said David C. Slater of Hammer, Siler, George and Associates, based in Silver Spring, Md.

On top of that, the expansion of the Prince William Judicial Center and population growth suggest that there is demand for 56,000 to 62,000 square feet of new office space in Old Town over the next five years, with another 63,000 to 69,000 square feet possible after that.

“This is not to say you should be building skyscrapers,” Slater said. “But there is a choice to increase permitted building densities.”

The projections, part of an Old Town market analysis conducted for the city by Slater’s firm, come at the same time that the council is increasingly grappling with how to keep economic development compatible with historic preservation. At the Monday night meeting, Councilwoman Judith S. Hays urged the council to spend the money needed to study which buildings should be preserved and which should not.

“What we need to do is be able to separate out what is historic and valuable to the character of our downtown and what is simply old,” she said.

At this time, 52,000 square feet of new office space is set to be built in the Manassas’ central historic district alone. Remax has presented plans for a three-story building behind its existing offices, and area developer Joe Morais is looking at building a four-story office building next to Two Days Gifts.

Debra Sandlin, the city’s economic development manager, sees a downtown that will grow not only up but out. The idea of expanding the downtown toward Matthis Avenue and the Judicial Center area is already implied in the city’s Comprehensive plan, she said.

“You go to Alexandria or Fredericksburg, and you see downtown historic areas that stretch for blocks and blocks,” she said. “That is possible here.”

The marketing study, however, warns that more parking will be needed in Old Town to support such growth. A future parking garage, Slater said, is needed. And that was only the beginning. Slater offered a wide variety of suggestions to improve economic development in Old Town:

— More needs to be done to make the downtown more accessible to pedestrians and bicycle riders;

— Continued work on historic sites and expansion of the Manassas Museum is needed to make Old Town more attractive to outside visitors;

— Joint marketing with the National Park Service should be explored;

— A branch library might also bring more people into the area;

— Public art projects, including murals, would help too;

— Loans and tax incentives would encourage more development.

Such initiatives, Slater said, were but some of the ways Manassas might continue to move forward in improving its downtown. “Manassas is a really good example of how to attract and retain businesses in a historic Old Town,” he said. “But at the same time, there are chances to attract even more businesses and opportunities to the area.”