Orange construction signs block Main Street in Old Town Manassas, parking spaces stand empty and passersby are assailed by the cacophony of heavy machinery.
The usually serene flag-lined thoroughfare was empty on a recent weekday morning, except for the construction workers beginning a months-long effort to upgrade and relocate utilities and widen sidewalks. The nearly $1.1 million project, which started this month, is expected to last until November.
The replacement of Baldwin Elementary School and an associated real-estate tax increase took up most of the airtime in this year’s battles over the city budget. Part of the package, though, was long-debated improvements to Main Street, a testament to the city’s push to revive its historic Old Town and attract visitors and residents.
Matt Brower, owner of Main Street’s Grounds Central Station coffeeshop, is pleased by the city’s investment. The construction’s effect on business hasn’t been as bad as he anticipated.
“Our regulars still find us,” he said.
Brower said that a wide sidewalk is a simple proposal but a potential boon for his coffeeshop, which sells sandwiches and ice cream. Outdoor patio seating means he can extend his hours well into the evening. More seating and a longer day, he said, will spur the demand for an expanded menu.
He has seen the “mobs of people” who come on weekends to hear live music on nearby Battle Street, which had a similar sidewalk makeover in 2009.
Customers’ primary concern about the new project is parking, Brower said. As it is, customers can pull into one of many angled spots on the street directly in front of the shop. They will be replaced by fewer parallel parking spots.
“I think they’ll be happy once they see the end result,” Brower said of his customers.
Battle Street is the latest in a line of city investments to help establish Old Town as an entertainment destination. Since the sidewalk widening project, dining revenue on Battle Street has climbed more than 50 percent, according to city officials.
Charles Gilliam, who established Okra’s restaurant on Battle Street in 1998, said he has seen a big difference since the sidewalks were widened. When he moved in, there were “tumbleweeds coming down the street” and dozens of vacant storefronts.
“There wasn’t much to do,” he said.
Since then, the city has built Old Town’s Loy E. Harris Pavilion, a common gathering space about three blocks away, and widened sidewalks on Battle and Center streets. There are more businesses and restaurants in the area, and crowds have followed, especially on weekends.
The project on Battle Street, Gilliam said, has been criticized by some for benefiting businesses at the expense of taxpayers. But he said the additional tax revenue generated by more customers has made the project well worth the investment.
Gilliam wants residents to know that they can come to hear weekend music acts, when Battle Street is blocked off, without necessarily patronizing any of the businesses that line the street. Lawn chairs and “appropriately stocked” coolers are welcome, he said.
“You can’t get less expensive than free,” he said.
The Main Street project underway is similar to the one on Battle Street. Sidewalk width will be doubled, and officials plan to plant 19 Allee Lacebark elm and green vase Japanese zelkova trees in the area, as well as brick crosswalks, the city said in a news release.
Mayor Harry “Hal” Parrish II said the Battle Street project was a boon for business; restaurants followed suit with their own investments, improving storefronts and upgrading interiors.
“The success is shown by the fact that you’ve got an economy there you did not have before,” Parrish said. “We hope Main Street will do the same.”