By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006; VA18
Fairfax City is holding its breath.
The big day will be sometime around Aug. 5, when officials convert downtown one-way streets to allow two-way traffic, hoping to create a pedestrian-friendly destination for shopping and dining.
City officials say the change is a necessary step in revitalizing the downtown, the part of the city that many have dreamed of turning into a sort of Old Town. They are betting that the changes will not trigger chaos or gridlock at one of Northern Virginia's major intersections, the juncture of Routes 123 (Chain Bridge Road) and 236 (Main Street).
Proprietors of some long-established businesses on Main Street, though, are livid. They say they will be checking their cash registers to gauge the effect of new traffic patterns and diminished parking.
Drivers -- about 37,000 on an average weekday -- will ultimately determine whether the changes are too confusing or time-consuming.
"We want to be known for revitalizing downtown, not for creating gridlock in Northern Virginia," said Mayor Robert F. Lederer. "If it doesn't work, that's what people are going to remember." The city can switch back to one-way traffic, he said, without prohibitive costs.
Some merchants along Main Street are certain that is the plan's fate.
"They're going to realize this is a dismal failure within weeks," said Becky Stoeckel, owner of Executive Press Inc., a printing company. She said city officials have bowed to the wishes of Trammell Crow Co., the lead developer for the Old Town Village project on North Street. She said the change comes at the expense of small businesses that have long existed with one-way traffic and nearby parking.
For many years, the city considered redevelopment schemes, both big and small, to revive its small downtown. Vast hotels. Multiplex movie houses. When it finally found a plan that seemed to fit -- a more modest mix of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments -- the city bought the large block bordered by Chain Bridge Road, North Street and University Drive and relocated the post office and library that had anchored the area. A new home is being built for the library .
But when prospective businesses considered the site, they noted a problem: Traffic heading south on Chain Bridge Road, from Route 50 and Interstate 66, couldn't get there. No left turns were allowed on North Street, forcing drivers to circle several blocks.
Main Street and North Street were converted to one-way streets in 1972, enabling east- and westbound traffic to flow more easily through the city, in essentially the geographic center of Fairfax County. And it does flow.
But flow doesn't necessarily mean stopping and shopping, said Steve Shelesky, managing director of development and investment for Trammell Crow.
"There's an issue of accessibility in and around the town," Shelesky said. He said it has not been a simple matter to get from one block to the next.
The developer and the city hired traffic consultants. "Every consultant's report said, 'You can do this,' " Lederer said. The conversion to two-way traffic "doesn't make it worse; it only adds about 20 to 30 seconds" to a trip through downtown, the mayor said.
"Is it designed to improve traffic through the city? No," Shelesky said. "Is it going to make it worse? I think, long term, no. Near term, perhaps. Most of that's going to be people figuring it out. In the long run, it's going to be better for the businesses that are there." And, Shelesky said, the area should be much more pedestrian friendly with the construction of brick sidewalks.
Many business owners in the area strongly oppose the plan. In addition to the new traffic pattern, a major parking lot at North Street and University Drive -- behind the T.T. Reynolds and Firehouse Grill restaurants -- will be closed Aug. 1. A smaller lot across the street, where a building that housed Weight Watchers once stood, has opened but is only temporary; the plan is to replace it with a lot a couple of blocks away.
"I'm afraid I'm going to lose my business," said Poppy Tsaderakis, owner of the Have a Bite Eatery on Main Street. "My customers already complain, asking where are they going to park. Our delivery truck drivers complain. It's not going to work."
The big changes: Main Street, switching from two one-way traffic lanes and a parking lane to one lane in each direction, a center turn lane and one parking lane; and North Street, widened from three one-way lanes to five lanes, two in each direction and a center turn lane.
"I think it's just going to be gridlock," said Stoeckel, who has worked on Main Street for 17 years. Last summer, when city officials roped off Main Street and did a test run with three lanes and a parking lane, the lanes were too narrow, and vehicle side mirrors extended into oncoming lanes, Stoeckel said.
Parking is a bigger concern, particularly with the loss, as part of the revitalization, of the 66-space lot on University Drive behind the restaurants. The Old Town Village project will have 560 spaces, 360 for public use and 200 for office use, Shelesky said, but it won't be open for another year. Lederer noted that the city has opened a temporary 42-space lot on University Drive and purchased a lot on Main Street where an Amoco gas station once sat, and it has arranged for more parking a few blocks in the other direction.
"They think people are going to park two or three blocks away," Stoeckel said of city officials. "These people don't live in the real world." She said that if Old Town Village lures numerous restaurants and shops, there won't be any parking for businesses outside the development.
Shelesky said he could not disclose any tenants.
Echoing the sentiments of other business owners, Tsaderakis said, "They do whatever they can for the property the city owns but nothing for the private owners."
Lederer has put his money where his mouth is and become a downtown merchant. Last month he and his wife opened an ice cream shop on Chain Bridge Road, across from the new development. He's already experienced problems with drivers trying to get through the downtown road projects to his shop, and he said he has learned that a Cold Stone Creamery will open in the development, which will compete with him.
"Nobody is interested in hurting the downtown merchants," Lederer said. "This is the best way to create a destination and a revitalized downtown. We're willing to try it, and we have an exit strategy." He said the city was responsive to merchants, scrapping a plan to expand Main Street to four lanes with narrower sidewalks after they objected.
The city can return the streets to one-way if the new traffic pattern doesn't work, Lederer said. That would cost $50,000, in addition to the $16 million spent to improve the roads and place utilities underground.
"I think the community as a whole understands this is a process worth trying," Lederer said.