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It takes more than stores to build a winning town center
"It feels like a pass-through to other places," said Heather Pischel, 21, a senior in information technology at George Mason University, a mile away. She and her husband, Chris, lamented the closing of Foster's Grille, a popular restaurant.
"Half the places here, you get used to them, they leave," Chris said.
No village feel
Local residents don't seem to be walking to Old Town Plaza, either, and those accustomed to street parking haven't switched to the garage.
"We have an older demographic," said Geoff Durham, Fairfax City's economic development director. "Walking is learned behavior that hasn't been learned here."
But Chris Farley, owner of Pacers Running Stores, thinks that Old Town Plaza has failed to create a true village feel. He said his other stores, including those in the mixed-use Pentagon Row and downtown Silver Spring developments, are doing well despite the recession.
The restaurants adjacent to and across the street from his Fairfax store have closed, however, and a wine store provides the only other shopping, he said. Even local residents -- the kind of customers his stores depend on -- seem to be shopping elsewhere, Farley said.
"I don't need people to come in and buy shoes every time they're there, but we need people to think of it as a place they want to be and hang out," he said. "It's just not relevant to people."
Although most new development is on hold during the financing crunch, plenty of plans are in the works, with some governments providing incentives to make them possible. Over the next 20 years, as areas such as Tysons Corner are redeveloped, about 70 percent of the Washington region's "walkable, urban places" will remain outside the District, said Christopher B. Leinberger, a real estate expert at the Brookings Institution.
The shift is changing how Washington's suburban governments pursue development. Montgomery County officials recently revamped the planning policy to focus growth in high-density centers around transit stations, and Prince George's is using special tax districts as incentives for such projects, a strategy it once used rarely. When Rockville Town Square was being developed, state and local governments invested $100 million in the project and in improvements in the surrounding area.
"Town centers provide a sense of place, which is hard to find in a suburban environment," said Al Dobbins, deputy planning director for Prince George's. "They provide an opportunity for people to work where they live, which takes vehicles off the roadway, which reduces traffic and improves quality of life."
Fairfax County officials hoping to revitalize an older commercial area in Merrifield have sweetened the pot for Edens & Avant, a developer planning a $750 million town center. The county has agreed to issue $40 million worth of bonds that the company will borrow against and pay back via future property taxes, the first such deal in Fairfax.
Loudoun County officials said they hope to attract more employers by providing office space near gyms, restaurants and stores in town centers that workers can quickly walk to at lunchtime.