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Renovated "Town Center" Proposed for Fairfax City

GTE Auditorium

By Diane Britton
The Fairfax City Council wants you to picture this: Shop at your leisure at a number of boutiques or small chain stores in the heart of its historic district. Dine at an upscale restaurant, or grab a bite at a more casual eatery. Attend cultural events or a movie, or hop aboard a CUE bus or trolley to catch a performance at the Concert Hall or Patriot Center. Finally, if you're from out of town, spend the night at a fine hotel in the city. And do it all without the hassle of driving a car and finding a parking space.

Such is the vision of the council for the revitalization of what would be called Old Town Fairfax. Although plans to renovate the area have been discussed on and off for 30 years, this time they may fly. The council, after putting in writing its goals and strategies for the project during a November 1998 meeting, has entered into exclusive negotiations with the Dogwood Development Group and McCaffery Interests, both of which have been involved in renovation projects in the Washington metropolitan area, to implement its vision.

"We want the project to grow from its historic roots to serve the needs of those who live and visit here," says Ray Smith of the Dogwood Development Group. Old Town Fairfax is planned by the city council to be the "town center" for central Fairfax County, one that will be "pedestrian friendly," "GMU friendly," "alive and vibrant," and architecturally pleasing. It would retain its historic character while providing special events, shopping, dining, and entertainment for residents, businesses, visitors, and the George Mason community.

The proposed development has a $200 million price tag, which would pay for a 168-room hotel, a 16-screen movie theater complex, restaurants, retail shops, residential and office space, a renovated library, an extended pedestrian/bicycle trail system, hidden parking garages, an expanded courthouse, and more. At least $20 million to $30 million of that amount would be the responsibility of the city for infrastructure improvements, such as burying utility lines, improving traffic circulation on North and Main Streets, and constructing one or more parking garages.

Smith, an alumnus of George Mason College (B.B.A. '70), has been urged by his daughter, a university professor, to "create a college town"¬with amenities far more numerous than the ones he found at Mason ("What amenities?" he jokes) in the late 1960s.

So he is eager to receive input from faculty, staff, and students at Mason about what they would like to see in the final redevelopment plan. His first meeting with university staff and senior administrators took place last summer, where he discussed plans for a university bookstore, university shop, live theater, and restaurants that would cater to the college crowd. Additional presentations have been open to the entire campus community.

At the core of the project is the city's historical character. "These buildings have so much historical significance," says Smith. "Many people don't know that George Mason's will and George Washington's will are in the old courthouse building, which was designed in 1800 by James Wren, a descendant of English architect Christopher Wren. Also, the first skirmishes of the Civil War took place here."

According to Smith, "trends in the retail industry show that people nowadays want 'experiences' when they shop, and they find shopping and finding entertainment in a historic district to be very appealing." Mayor John Mason cautions that "an enormous... outreach effort is needed to make this happen." He acknowledges that there is opposition to the project from residents and preservationists, who are concerned that the small businesses already in the district may be forced out, that traffic will become unmanageable, that taxes will be raised to pay for the city's portion, and that a "McHistory" renovation will obliterate and replace the real thing. A series of public hearings on the project and ongoing negotiations with the developer took place throughout the fall. If the city council votes to go ahead with the five-year project in its present form or as modified, building could start as early as this spring.

Artist's renderings of the redevelopment plan, titled "Sketchbook of a Vision," can be found online at A public hearing with the City Council is scheduled for January 25. For more information, call (703) 385-7862.

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