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A Vision for Courthouse Plaza

Redevelopment of this againg strip center could benefit downtown, but there are potential drawbacks as well.

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. 

 

Opportunities:

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.

 

 

Challenges:

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

FairfaxMango August 27, 2012 at 06:30 PM
Paul, you've thoughtfully laid out some of the issues here. If zoning is an impediment to redevelopment to mixed use, dense residential/commercial, then council should re-zone, yes?
Jason Nadeev Kazi August 27, 2012 at 08:30 PM
Another very important to issue to address is that shopping center is terrible for anyone using it who is not using a car to get there. There are no bike stands, which should exist in every shopping center in our city and pedestrian crosswalks are rare and if they exist, drivers don't seem to care. We need some signs like the ones at Fair City that say "It's the law to stop for pedestrians or something. The lighting at the shopping center is also bad. Combined Properties owns the fairly old Pickett Shopping Center which is constantly busy and every other shopping center they own is kinda quiet. They are also the owners of the most commercial properties in Fairfax City.
Douglas Stewart August 28, 2012 at 11:25 AM
It's not clear to me whether the owner feels any financial pressure to redevelop the site or what the city could or wants to do to encourage redevelopment. The stores don't seem to be doing a particularly brisk business, but maybe Combined is happy with it as it is. That said, I guess we need to get ahead of the curve and be prepared if and when the time comes. It would be important I think to place the building line up to University, but we need to have a good human-scale orientation toward Old Lee Highway as well.
Debra Mulcahy August 28, 2012 at 11:55 AM
The City of Fairfax is totally missing the boat by not encouraging a decent grocery store to move into the city proper. Those of us living in the city drive thru town to shop. Trader Joe's is too small and has limited parking. Safeway is dirty, outdated, and competing for parking with Wings is ridiculous. Hopefully, the city will be prepared with a plan when the opportunity arises.
Bill McAllister August 28, 2012 at 01:12 PM
Trying to revive "downtown Fairfax" as a retail center is a lost cause. Fairfax Blvd (Rte 50) is the retail hub of this community. Unless the city is willing to widen Rte 123 as it snakes through the city and add more lanes to the other streets, prospects for downtown are very, very slim. What the city did to Main Street traffic was a crime and makes for hazardous driving.
Angela Robb August 28, 2012 at 03:16 PM
I would really like to see a more upscale and updated grocery store. I hate having to drive to the county to spend my time and money to by groceries. I was sad when Harris Teeter left. I think pressure needs to be applied to get in a grocery store that cares about serving quality groceries to our community. I would shop downtown more often if this was an option :(
Maddy August 28, 2012 at 04:07 PM
I just read this article to my 14-year-old. His response was "we have a downtown?!"
Mark Gibson August 29, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Get Artie's to move (OK, I know that's not going to happen). I agree with Bill McAllister that Chain Bridge must be widened. And what about the old Shell station at Main and East? If we're to have a "historic downtown", then that theme needs to stick and be realized. Right now it's a hodgepodge ...
Jason Nadeev Kazi August 29, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Artie's is in the recently remodeled Fairfax Circle Shopping Center. I'm not sure why that would be a relevant point. I believe the old Shell station is in the process of becoming condos similar to the Providence Square complex across the street from Main Street Marketplace. Also notable, is that Icon's Sports Bar recently shut its doors. And, Subway and a sushi place are coming to Main Street Marketplace.
Mark Gibson August 29, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Jason: Artie's is a personal favorite and widely popular -- Great American Restaurants or other respected name would be a great addition
Jason Nadeev Kazi August 30, 2012 at 02:16 AM
Oh I see what you're saying. Yeah, how about another Ozzie's Italian!
TVICOMS August 30, 2012 at 02:48 AM
We live right by Courthouse Plaza and would strongly oppose a dense residential development. The new townhomes they just built are so packed, there is no space. Furthermore, downtown redevelopment has failed on a very large scale. There is so much empty space and we have witnessed several businesses and restaurants go out of business, which has been very concerning. We love walking to this shopping center and feel many of the comments made in this article reflect subjective and questionable motivations. Safeway does not take parking away from Buffalo Wing. Although some improvements need to be made in the shopping center, having a grocery store and a pharmacy are crucial elements to downtown. We prefer the smaller grocery store and are opposed to the super-sized trendy stores. The current store does serve a vital purpose and there is a residential neighborhood nearby; during the day, this shopping center serves the businesses and their employees during the day.
Jon Fairfax August 30, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Why does everything need to be dense commercial/residential? We live in Fairfax City because it is NOT dense commercial/residential -- because it feels like a small town. If you want dense commercial you can move to Arlington, Dunn Loring, or many other places. Bigger isn't always better or safer. The community has its charm because of its size and history. I have to take note of several statements in the article especially the one that states there are no residential neighborhoods near the property - there are two - one being mine. Building another parking garage when the one that currently exists is empty does not seem like a good plan either. Downtown Fairfax must keep a full service grocery store -- a store that is affordable to all and traditional items in addition to whatever upscale offering it has. Not everyone can afford to shop at Whole Foods or wants to shop at a Korean market.
Rich Williams August 30, 2012 at 05:36 PM
I agree with the two comments above -- it's amazing that the new Madison Mews townhouses and the Old Town Village shopping center have virtually no landscaping or open space between them. I thought Fairfax was supposed to be a "tree city", and value it's small town charm! These latest projects just make it look like the City can't so no to a developer wanting to maximize their profits and density at the expense of community character. Fairfax is unique in that we ARE NOT dense, urban jungles like Arlington, etc... people choose to make their homes here for exactly that reason. We already have tons of apartments in the City, so we don't need some huge "mixed use" center -- we just need a neighborhood shopping center with better tenants than what's there now (and particularly a more up-to-date supermarket).
Jason Nadeev Kazi August 30, 2012 at 09:51 PM
The other thing to note is that the above-ground free parking lots, Old Town Plaza parking garage and library parking garage are largely underused. On the other hand, the Main Street Marketplace is absolutely full between 10 AM to 10 PM, most of the time.
John Klemick August 31, 2012 at 02:15 PM
I suggest that no additional parking garages be built until the ones that we have can be made safe. I always see reports of property damage or thefts on the police report.
Bobbie September 03, 2012 at 11:17 AM
The city counsel has ignored this center for years. Why? The landlord is Big Part of the Problem. Herbie Haft would turn over in his grave. I'm suprised the entire center isn't empty.
Bobbie September 03, 2012 at 11:23 AM
Safeway isn't spending money to fix the store because the sales are poor. Look at the center itself. Fairfax city politicians have done nothing with the center other than use it for parking. Work with the landlord and come up with a plan that will stimulate business and be useful for the residence.
Bobbie September 03, 2012 at 11:25 AM
Can you even get in and out of the center? It's not friendly due to the silly traffic patterns of Fairfax City.
Jonathan May June 08, 2013 at 01:37 AM
What is missing from Old Town Fairfax are the residents to support any new or existing businesses. You need to not only look at Courthouse Plaza. You need to look at all the wasted land being used as parking lots to serve the multiple office properties lining Chainbridge Road and University Drive immediately south of Old Town Fairfax. If those properties were divided up using a proper city street grid you could bring in many more residential unit, which would turn Old Town Fairfax into a thriving neighborhood.

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