When Tim McGrath, 29, grew up in Herndon, he said, "it was a small town. Everybody thought it was far out in the country, not near anything. When we played other high school sports teams in other parts of Fairfax, they thought we were farmers from the sticks."
Today, Herndon Mayor Rick Thoesen said, "Herndon is now the front door to Fairfax because of its proximity to Washington Dulles International Airport." Herndon, he says, is the first thing many people see when they come to Washington.
Herndon, abutting the Loudoun County line between the Dulles Toll Road and the Rte. 7 corridor in western Fairfax County, is a community trying to preserve some of the characteristics and traditions of a small town while at the same time making room for high-technology employment centers. Workers daily flock to building after building of high-tech operations that line the Herndon Parkway.
In recent years, Herndon has been overshadowed by neighboring Reston, with its high-profile advertising campaigns and national corporations. But commercial real estate brokers say the spillover from Reston and Herndon's closeness to the airport have helped the financial stability of Herndon and increased land values.
While commercial developers recently have concentrated on new construction, deterioration has taken its toll on the 5 1/2-acre core of the town. It is a trend that new and old residents want to see reversed.
On Tuesday night, the Herndon Town Council will decide whether to adopt the Herndon Central Area Plan, which would permit redevelopment to take place. The plan is the result of efforts by the Central Herndon Commission, created by Thoesen in September 1984, to devise a plan to help maintain the character of the older parts of town, attract new retail tenants, spur construction of multi-family housing and help "create a hometown atmosphere."
The town's planning commission already has approved the plan, which was developed by commissioners and consultant Patrick Kane of KRS Associates in Reston.
McGrath said, "Herndon wants to maintain as much of the old area like it used to be as possible and then let the high-tech development go up around it, away from the center of town." McGrath is now head of Progressive Equities and a developer and real estate broker with offices at Tysons Corner. But he lives in his hometown of Herndon.
McGrath and two of his friends from Herndon High School's class of 1974 -- Andrew Schaffer and Joe Camarda -- are part of a major effort to redevelop the core of Herndon. "We are trying to bring the old and the new together," McGrath said.
The prospect of redevelopment also has caught the attention of McLean-based developer Robert A. Young, who has preserved several old houses as part of other developments in Northern Virginia.
Young recently agreed to buy what many Herndon residents consider to be the main eyesore in the community, the 3.8-acre site of a former concrete plant. Developer Jack Andrews moved his Herndon Concrete operation to a Sterling location in Loudoun County, leaving the remnants of the abandoned plant near the core of Herndon.
Young sees the forelorn site as a golden opportunity, ". . . a chance to participate in the redevelopment of a town center and the chance to preserve and restore old buildings."
Young said he wants to provide places for people to live in the core of the town. Although he still is conducting market studies, he said he hopes "to have a combination of relatively medium- and high-density housing, including some housing for the elderly. There may be a mix of rental apartments and possibly some condominiums," Young said.
He promised to include "as much retail and as little office space as possible."
James DeVille, a developer and builder who lives in Oakton, owns five acres next to the old concrete plant. His plans are unknown and may hinge on what Young and others do with land in the core area.
The boundaries of the downtown core are loosely drawn, town planning commission members said. Generally, the core area includes land bounded on the north by properties along the north side of Willow Street, on the south by Oak Street, on the west by Center Street and the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail and on the east by Monroe Street. The mayor and developers said they favor new construction that will encourage pedestrian access to new and older facilities.
Thoesen said he wants to "create a central gathering place for the people who live in Herndon" who already attend regular outdoor concerts in front of the existing town hall. A transplanted New Yorker who likes the life style of western Fairfax, Thoesen said, "Herndon is a nice place to live. I'm committed to the downtown area."
The old train depot already has been restored as a town museum. It was once a busy place when trains from the District brought those seeking relief from the summer heat to the rural Herndon area along the Old Dominion Railroad.
"Herndon used to be a resort community," Thoesen observed.
McGrath and his partners recently purchased the old Atlantic Building Supply, a landmark hardware store to longtime Herndon residents. The wooden boards on its sides attest to the age of the building.
McGrath said he plans to try to move in old buildings, such as log houses, to help set the tone for the redevelopment around the store, which abuts the bicycle trail. McGrath said he plans to turn the building supply store into a restaurant and other shops. The Ice House Cafe on Elden Street has been called the only "Yuppie restaurant" in the area.
Plans to develop are obviously dependent on next week's vote. Thoesen said he supports the study except for two proposed new loop roads in the Spring and Elsen street areas. However, he said he supports proposed loop roads that would connect Monroe Street, Willow Street and Center Street.
While they wait for the vote, McGrath, Camarda and Schaffer said they are banking on getting the chance to "leave their mark" on the town where they grew up.