The development would have been one of the city’s biggest in recent years, and a relatively staid downtown Manassas would have seen an influx of new residents, shops and restaurants.
But that was 2006, and plans for the Van Metre development, calling for nearly 200 condos and thousands of square feet of commercial space, went out the window with an economy that went belly up, among other factors.
So the Fairfax-based developer is back, asking the City Council to approve a scaled-back plan: 59 upscale townhouses that would sit near the center of Old Town Manassas, on the city block bounded by Zebedee and Center streets, Fairview Avenue and Quarry Road.
Manassas officials want to increase the number of residents who can walk to shops and restaurants, and the new plan is in line with those goals. Still, it’s not the larger community that the city hoped would be a boon for Old Town.
“We think it’s unfortunate” the bigger project was retracted, said Elizabeth Via-Gossman, the city’s director of community development. But the new project is in line with Manassas’s goals of becoming more attractive to younger homeowners who are “looking for a little bit of an urban vibe but . . . can’t afford Arlington.”
“We think there’s a good market for that type of resident,” Via-Gossman said.
The project, and development in general in Old Town, is far from embraced by all residents. The project has raised issues, chief among them are saving two historic trees on the property and pushing the developer to offer more proffers — voluntary contributions that offset the price of development — for the school system.
A historic house on the property, known as the Iden House, was also supposed to be preserved and relocated from its Center Street location. But a fire occurred there — allegedly set by vagrants — and the structure had to be demolished last year.
Nancy Emanuel, a Manassas resident and member of the beautification committee, said the city hasn’t been transparent enough and too easily gives in to the whims of developers. That has led to a “degree of resignation” about development among many residents in the city, she said.
“I think, originally, there was this concept that city development was going to lead to this old town Alexandria feel, and people could live and walk and do everything in the city,” Emanuel said. That hasn’t come to pass, she said. “I’m not sure if it’s the right mind-set for what’s going on right now in the community.”
For some residents, one of the main issues is ensuring that the development pays its fair share for city schools. Developers have offered $4,100 per unit for the school system. It’s the same amount the company offered in 2006, when the project was originally approved. However, since then, the city has changed its policies regarding the amount it would like for schools. The requested value is now $15,480.
School official Dave Schauer said in an e-mail to city development officials that Van Metre should offer the new amount.
The $4,100 per unit is “a number that’s been used recently in other applications; it was the number that was applicable at the time we did the original approvals,” said Roy Barnett, a Van Metre group president. The project also had to comply with strict building standards, Barnett said, because it sits in Old Town. For example, the townhouses are brick structures — making for a more expensive development, among other upscale enhancements, he said. The project also probably won’t bring in many school-age children, he said, based on studies of those who buy similar townhouses in other communities.
“The profiles of the buyers we see in other communities usually don’t have as many school-aged children,” Barnett said.
Whether members of City Council agree is another matter. “I’m hopeful they’ll look at that issue closely,” said Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R).
A fir tree on the corner of Zebedee and Center would be saved because of the project’s redesign, Barnett said. A second sycamore tree’s status is up in the air, however.
“We are reviewing our designs in relation to that tree to look at any possibilities of saving” it, Barnett said.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the the project Dec. 12.