For 10 years the Common Ground Coffee House was a gathering spot for Reston's suburban liberals. It was a community institution where residents came for a cup of coffee, a bowl of chili, a long chat.
This week that all changed. The doors of the nonprofit organization were padlocked after the group fell victim to a 400 percent rent increase its leaders say they couldn't meet.
News of the loss drew angry threats yesterday from community leaders.
"They [the new landlords] may think this whold thing is over. But they've made a big mistake, a very big mistake," said Judy Ushio, president of the Reston Home Owners Association. "Reston is a very community-minded community where everyone wants to have a say in how the area is developed . . . They (the landlords,) have not kept an original promise to fulfill their community responsibility. They came in here with the intention of only making money.
"Things don't work like that here."
The object of Ushio's ire is the Bethesda-based Donatelli and Klein Inc., which bought the Lake Anne Plaza shopping center property in February. Company executives don't disagree the profit incentive is foremost, but insist that it is Reston community leaders, not they, who are unreasonable in their demands.
"We're not in the business of subsidizing rents," president Louis Donatelli said yesterday. "If they can't meet the rent then they should find someplace else . . . Our philosophy is consistent with other people who operate in the community -- we're here with the profit motive in mind.
"We have been subsidizing them [Common Ground] for almost a year now."
Until the doors were locked last week, Common Ground's rent ran only about a third that of other merchants in the community shopping center -- or $2.50 per square foot compared to other store rents of about $8. The new rent would have raised Common Ground's yearly costs from $7,000 to $35,000.
Community leaders contend it is unfair to charge the meeting spot, which scrimps along on restaurant receipts and donations, on an equal basis with commercil enterprises. The coffee house area, they said yesterday, always has been earmarked for community, not commercial use.
Fairfax County officials agree. Donatelli and Klein was informed two weeks ago by the county attorney that plans originally approved by the county's supervisors for the shopping center designated the spot for community use. Any attempt to use the space otherwise requires the supervisors' approval, officials said.
Supervisor Martha Pennino, who represents Reston, said yesterday she would oppose any such zoning change. "It's unfortunate for them [Donatelli and Klein] that they bought into Reston and didn't realize that when you buy in Reston you're not only buying property in the area, but also buying a concept . . .
"Reston is a place where people want to be directly involved in any community decision and feel that anyone who wants to do business there must be willing not only to take from the community, but to give back to it. The padlocking was a very negative act that didn't sit well."
Community representatives are scheduled to meet today with the new landlords to see if a compromise can be reached. Louis Donatelli, however, said little will change if the group cannot come up with the extra cash.
"Presently we are in the leasing mode and if someone wants to lease the space then we'll lease it," he said. "We've gone overboard with this thing, and the bending is going to stop."