Some Old Town Manassas merchants and residents are scratching their heads over plans for a new four-story retail and apartment building in the area.

Last week, the Manassas City Council narrowly approved construction of a brick building on Battle Street, near Center Street, with one floor of retail and three floors above for 12 apartments -- with one caveat.

To address officials' worries about Old Town's parking crunch, owners Mohammed and Najia Azim agreed not to build until a new parking deck in Old Town is under construction. And that's not likely to happen until spring 2006 -- at the earliest, city officials said.

Regardless of the timing, some fear that the two construction projects will cause the parking situation in Old Town to go from bad to nightmarish. Liz Via, the city's community development director, said each project could take 12 to 18 months to complete. During that time, construction crews could take up precious on-street parking and business could fall off, some have said.

Also, the Azims' project is situated where a narrow, 18-space parking lot is now.

"Everyone complains about parking anyway," said Lauri Fletcher, 20, who lives in an Old Town apartment near the site of the planned building. "If people are going to have to walk even farther, they aren't going to come [to Old Town] anymore."

Although parking will be affected around each construction zone, those zones won't likely overlap, Via said. The $6 million Virginia Railway Express commuter lot is on track to be built between Main and Battle streets south of the railroad tracks across from the Manassas train station.

"The biggest impact is you're going to lose spaces on the street," Via said. "Construction crews will have to find parking."

Despite the short-term parking woes, several shop owners, including City Square Cafe's Robert Barolin, said they're in favor of the new building.

"I think it's good for Old Town," Barolin said. "I understand construction is a pain. When they built The Washington Post building [on Battle Street], it didn't put me out of business. . . . This will bring more people into the community, more people into Old Town."

When The Post building was under construction next door to his restaurant, Barolin said he took measures to encourage business. He put up signs saying "We're still open for business" and asked crews to arrange barriers in a way that was more conducive to business.

"You have to look outside of the box," he said.

What Barolin and others said they don't understand is why some City Council members wanted to delay the Azims' project until a parking deck is underway. Doing so sets a dangerous precedent, said Orsini & Frost Inc. owner Mike Frost.

"At what point do you say, yes you can build or no you can't?" Frost said. "Where do you draw the line? And under what other circumstances do you defer building? What if Opera House Gourmet wanted to expand? Is the City Council going to say, 'No you can't expand your business?' "

Council member Jackson H. Miller (R) voted against the project, despite calling it "exactly what we want for Old Town." The council approved the project, 3-2, with member Judith S. Hays (R) absent.

With a lot of shop owners "barely making it month to month," Miller said he wanted to see a parking deck completed before this project began.

But it's possible that the Azims will wait for the new deck to go in anyway. The Azims don't want to jeopardize their relationship with their tenant, Harris Insurance, whose building the Azims own, said former Manassas mayor John Weber, a lawyer representing the couple. Harris employees park on the site of the proposed building.

"The key is to take care of the tenant," Weber said.

Council member Steve Smith (R) said the short-term inconveniences are worth the long-term boost to the city's economy. And Vice Mayor Harry J. "Hal" Parrish II (R) reminded other council members that when he first took office, 30 Old Town buildings were vacant.

"It's important for us to remember economic development is good for Old Town," Parrish said. "People staying overnight is good, and retail development is good. . . . I hope this moves forward, but I'm also thoughtful about parking issues in Old Town."