I have always found odd that Courthouse Plaza, a large chunk of parking and a single story strip center is located right on the edge of our historic downtown. It wasn’t until the past few months that I have realized a lot of people are thinking the same thing and looking at the property as a key element in the continued revitalization of downtown Fairfax.
Earlier this year during the discussion of the Kitty Pozer Park expansion, for example, some council members and members of the public pointed to Courthouse Plaza as an opportunity to offset the loss of parking in the long term through redevelopment. During the council and mayoral election campaigns, every elected council member as well as the mayor mentioned some kind of improvement to the property, usually as a means to step up downtown revitalization.
Despite this, some downtown business owners are concerned that a major development on the edge of downtown could compete with Main Street rather than support it. This is a valid concern, though I think it can be alleviated if we consider all of the major issues impacting downtown when thinking about redevelopment of the Courthouse Plaza property. Here is an example of a few of these issues broken down into opportunities and challenges.
1. Create demand & critical mass: Probably the biggest reason to support redevelopment is to bring more people downtown to shop at local businesses. This can be by bringing residents and office workers, or making downtown more of a destination by bringing in an entertainment destination or a critical mass of retail.
2. Add parking: Whether real or perceived, there is definitely a parking problem downtown, which has an impact on businesses. Courthouse Plaza is probably the last site downtown that is large enough to accommodate another parking garage as part of a private development. Other sites might be large enough for a parking garage, but would be completely dependent on the city to fund and construct them.
3. Minimal impact on residential: The site is relatively isolated from residential areas, meaning denser development could be accommodated without negatively impacting established neighborhoods.
4. Improve street network: If properly planned, redevelopment of the property could extend the downtown street grid and providing alternate routes to North Street to get to the places such as the Old Town Village parking garage from the east. A well laid out street network would feel like an extension of downtown rather than a development adjacent to downtown.
1. Distance from Downtown: Although Courthouse Plaza is on the edge of downtown, it is far enough away that a successful redevelopment won’t guarantee more business for the rest of downtown. Also, as we have experienced with Old Town Village, North Street is a barrier for pedestrians and makes the distance seem longer than it actually is. This means that treating the property as the center of downtown could end up sucking life from the traditional downtown core, as opposed to contributing to it. It also means that adding parking might not relieve our existing parking issues.
That being said, a lot of people have expressed interest in bringing a destination element, such as a theater to Downtown Fairfax, and Courthouse Plaza might be the only site large enough to make that happen. I think such a use could be incorporated into the site if it is oriented to the edge of the property, preferably toward University Drive so it is a part of the existing streetscape.
2. Owner: Combined Properties, who owns Courthouse Plaza, has a less than stellar record with anything outside of traditional strip centers. The city has also been struggling with them to revitalize Turnpike Shopping Center (the old Giant) for years. On the flip side, they have recently approached the city regarding redeveloping another one of their properties, Fairfax Circle Plaza (Hudson Trail Outfitters, etc.), as a mixed use development with residential, retail, and a grocery store. During a meeting with city council, a representative from the company noted that the company is moving into more mixed-use development, citing several project examples in California. Fairfax Circle would be their first local effort, and hopefully a test before the greater challenge of Courthouse Plaza.
3. Zoning: The property is currently zoned for commercial development only and the comprehensive plan prescribes the same. In contrast, the comprehensive plan prescribes “mixed use” for most of downtown. This creates an extra challenge for the landowner to create a successful redevelopment project and could encourage them to simply remodel it as a strip center.
4. Competition: There has been a huge jump in mixed-use, pedestrian oriented development over the past few years, and this is only expected to increase as the economy improves. At the same time, the city is working on implementing the Fairfax Boulevard Masterplan with the hopes of bringing some of the development here. Redevelopment of Courthouse Plaza would have to compete with places like and Fairfax Corner, as well as any new development on Fairfax Boulevard.
5. Existing Businesses: The shopping center is almost fully leased with businesses that serve the community, some of which are well established community icons. Others have just opened recently with extensive investment for interior work, etc. Also, the loss of a grocery store downtown would counter the goal of making it a place where you accomplish all of your daily needs.
With a few of these issues resolved, Courthouse Plaza would be an ideal property to be redeveloped into better uses, but we should not look at it as a “Town Center” type development. Rather, it should be an “Edge of the Town Center” development. We should look at it as an opportunity to bring more people to live and work here and provide them with neighborhood serving retail such as a grocery store, but the center of downtown should remain where it is.
Although there are no immediate plans to redevelop the property, the age of the buildings on the site and recent actions by the owner elsewhere indicate that it might be on the horizon. When the time comes, we should be prepared to tell them what we would like to see on the property that would offer the most benefit to Downtown Fairfax.