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February 21, 2018 · OPINION

An idea for Old Town’s mixed-use redevelopment

Photo/Google Earth
Moving government offices to the 18-acre Warrenton Middle School campus would create opportunities for redevelopment, under the scenario.
By Tyler Ross
Warrenton

How do you “fix” Warrenton’s parking, library, school and empty storefronts problems?

I don’t know the answer . . . but I have an idea. This idea’s specificity is not intended to diminish or restrict other concepts; it’s merely to deliver the message to the community for feedback, interest and collaboration.

A quick primer on my perspective: I live in Warrenton, I was born on “Hospital Hill.” Both my parents own longstanding small businesses inside the town, as do I. I believe that growth or death is inevitable, so we must grow in a smart, considerate way. I want Warrenton to be a thriving, vibrant place that attracts thoughtful, deliberate, community-oriented people who are supportive of small, local businesses.

Now that you know where I’m coming from, here’s my pitch:

Let’s move the town and county government offices out of the urban core and redevelop the government buildings (with exception to those that deserve historic consideration), to allow for mixed and residential use. Here’s why:

• It may provide immediate relief for parking, both hourly and daily.

With the government employees no longer absorbing parking spaces, parking would become available for taxpaying businesses and consumers. Any new residential uses would typically be parking overnight, creating little impact to day time parking.

• Relocating government offices may reduce the incentive for other service businesses to locate or stay in Old Town Warrenton.

Services such as real estate offices, attorney’s offices, insurance agencies and accountants generally are able to pay more rent than retail and restaurant uses. This drives up rent and creates a barrier for more “fun” uses that most of us believe Main Street should be reserved for. With fewer incentives to locate offices in the urban core thanks to a new government location, rents may drop to improve the economy for preferred uses like retail, entertainment and restaurants.

• Redevelop the old government buildings.

Redeveloping the non-historic government buildings for mixed and residential uses would bring new vitality to an otherwise stale set of city blocks. By nature of its location, residential uses would be a premium, bringing with it a well-heeled consumer base to support Old Town’s existing small businesses and increase demand for new small businesses.

It would be important that the redevelopment be done tastefully and in the spirit of Fauquier/Warrenton’s brand, but such redevelopment may incentivize other Old Town business and building owners to step up their game and improve their spaces, services and offerings and give them an opportunity to provide their services to more people, new downtown residents and tourists.

Residential growth, inside an urban core, is “smart growth” to me. I believe that we should preserve our area’s rural nature, but I’m talking about the center of town here: Redeveloping and enhancing Old Town Warrenton. I am not suggesting we upzone farmland to high density residential outside of a service district.)

• Where do the government offices go?

How about one of the middle schools under consideration? Last I read, the intent would be integrating each student body into an improved Taylor Middle School facility. So, that would make Warrenton Middle School, an 18-acre campus with a 94,000-square-foot building and 103 parking spaces, available for use (along with room for expansion). It happens to be walkable to Main Street, as well.

Consolidating the visitor center, land records and town and county offices may provide some economic and logistical efficiencies. Let’s not forget the library and Path Foundation’s grant. Why not include that in the plan? I expect repurposing an existing, government owned building would be “greener” and more cost effective than building new, especially if other subsidies, grants and proceeds from real estate sales are available.

I’m curious about the impact to Main Street businesses if government employees were relocated to Warrenton Middle School. I’d expect a net positive impact after a transition is complete.

Let’s also not forget about enhancing the work environment for our public servants. I would think culture and morale and their daily lives would be improved simply by being in newly renovated, modern space.

It’s easy to arm-chair this whole idea, but I am just a citizen who likes to think outside the box, I’m not an authority on the subject. My hope in writing this pitch is merely to open up discussion on whether the idea deserves exploration. As a lifelong resident with no plans to leave town, I simply want Warrenton and Fauquier to be the best it can be.

The writer owns a real estate brokerage in Warrenton.
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