Herndon Town Councilmember Pradip Dhakal discusses the challenge of balancing housing affordability and historical preservation with the need for development to accommodate a growing population at a community roundtable.

During informal discussions with citizens at a community roundtable at the Herndon Municipal Center on Mar. 2, Herndon Town Council members expressed a general sense of optimism in the town’s ongoing efforts to redevelop its downtown area, despite developer Comstock’s decision to withdraw applications for required heritage preservation certificates in July.

Comstock Herndon Venture LC, which has partnered with the Town of Herndon to construct a mixed-use development on 4.7 acres of town-owned land, was initially granted three certificates of appropriateness from the Herndon Heritage Preservation Review Board on June 18, 2018.

However, appeals to the board from town citizens led the developer to withdraw its applications with the intent to resubmit them at a later date.

Comstock has now submitted its fourth site plan for review and “will begin looking for comments within the next few weeks,” Comstock Companies senior vice president of communications Maggie Parker said on Monday.

Herndon Vice Mayor Sheila Olem said on Mar. 2 that she was “very optimistic” the Herndon Downtown Redevelopment Project will ultimately become a reality.

“We came up with the materials we wanted used in the downtown development and the buildings,” Olem said. “We feel like finally, for the first time in about 30 years, we have something moving forward that we have a lot of positive support for.”

Herndon has sought to revitalize its downtown for close to a decade after the town council adopted a master plan in 2011 that called for mixed-use retail development on Elden Street along with a conversion of Center Street to residential buildings.

However, community concerns about how the new development will affect existing businesses and the historic nature of Herndon’s downtown have made this project particularly fraught as the town contemplates what identity and direction it wants to adopt in the future.

“I’m confident we’ll move forward,” Herndon Town Councilmember Cesar del Aguila said. “Development is going to happen. Everyone wants infrastructure, but no one wants it to affect them.”

Herndon’s redevelopment plans have become increasingly urgent as the town prepares for the arrival of Metro’s Silver Line, which includes a Herndon station and is currently expected to open sometime in 2020.

In addition to the downtown redevelopment, the Town of Herndon hopes to turn the 38 acres of land north of the new Herndon Metro Station into a mixed-use urban center called the Herndon Transit-Oriented Core.

While the town no doubt anticipates an economic boost from visitors and businesses, Metro’s potential impact on traffic, housing prices, and other issues in the surrounding community is less certain.

“We have to create a balance so everyone can afford housing,” Councilmember Pradip Dhakal said. “[Yet] other places are developing, and we can’t just stay the same. It’s important to preserve history, but we also have to be ready for an influx of people.”

As the Herndon Downtown Redevelopment Project currently stands, Comstock plans to build a mixed-use center with approximately 17,600 square feet of retail space, about 281 apartments, an 18,000 square-foot arts center, and a parking garage with 761 spaces.

The project is expected to produce an estimated $300,000 per year for the Town of Herndon in property and meals taxes as well as business, professional, and occupational license fees. Fairfax County is also projected to receive approximately $800,000 annually in property and sales taxes, according to the town.

Some participants in the community roundtable organized by the Herndon Town Council expressed skepticism regarding the prospect of having an arts center integrated with a mixed-use development instead of building a standalone structure as originally envisioned.

“It seems like the arts is not as supported as well as it should be,” Herndon resident Paul Olsen said. “From that perspective, the arts and small business community in general is not really being brought into the fold and looked at from that holistic point-of-view.”

A parent with children in Herndon High School as well as its elementary and middle schools, Olsen owns Weird Brothers Coffee on Sunset Park Drive and says that, as a small business owner in Herndon, it is frustrating to see so many vacancies around town.

He also believes that town regulations and processes sometimes make it more difficult for prospective entrepreneurs to start their new businesses.

Aslin Beer Company, for instance, has struggled to get a planned tasting room and bar approved after the brewery was forced to vacate its old location on Sunset Park Drive in 2017.

“Those businesses are hitting roadblocks and having issues getting up and running,” Olsen said.

Dan Fisher, who resides in Junction Square in the heart of downtown Herndon, mostly hopes that the Town of Herndon has a concrete vision for the future that its leaders are willing to follow through on.

“They need to come up with some type of long-term strategic plan and then follow it and understand that, with every decision that’s made, there are going to be…give-and-takes, things like the cost of property, traffic,” Fisher said. “If we do that, we should be able to move forward in a more efficient manner without constantly changing gears and changing directions.”

Olem said that she was pleased to see the turnout for the town council’s community roundtable, which was designed to allow citizens to interact with their elected representatives in a more informal way than a traditional public hearing forum.

The town council plans to make these roundtables a regular occurrence with the next one expected to take place sometime this summer.

“I say it frequently from the dais that any time someone wants to meet with me, I’m happy to do it,” Olem said. “But by advertising this, a lot of people showed up just to chat with us and just to talk about things on their mind.”

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