Triggering the latest round of consternation over height limits in Old Town is Messenger Place, a five-story, 94-unit apartment complex that stands 65 feet at its highest point. Built on the Church Street site of what was the News & Messenger newspaper office, the complex was completed last year after the city council approved a rezoning of the lot.
The lot is now zoned B-3.5, a mixed-use designation only found in the city center that allows building heights of up to 65 feet, with an additional 10 feet allowed for mechanical equipment. The zoning was created to allow “increased residential development at urban densities” near the city’s VRE station, according to the 2015 zoning ordinance. The vast majority of the Old Town area, though, is still designated B-3, which caps building heights at 55 feet.
Supporters say the increased heights around the VRE station make the city center more attractive to commuters working in Arlington, Alexandria and Washington. And if density is added near the train, they say, it reduces the need for daily car trips to and from the station.
“We need a couple more apartment buildings [like Messenger Place]. We have a vibrant historic downtown that a lot of people want to enjoy,” said Ross Snare, director of government relations for the Prince William Chamber of Commerce. “We can have a workforce that lives here, works [in D.C.] and comes back.”
There’s a clear demand for that arrangement, he said. According to a VRE development plan published in February 2019, the Manassas station is one of the system’s busiest. In 2017, an average of 836 passengers a day boarded a morning train from the station, third highest among the 19 VRE stations. A platform expansion is already funded and set to be completed in 2022. That number should only grow, according to Snare, with the planned VRE service expansion announced by Gov. Ralph Northam in December.
“We’re looking at an area where we’ll eventually have VRE going back and forth all the time,” Snare said. “It’s going to be fantastic for us.”
But critics argue that the five-story buildings don’t fit with Old Town’s historic nature, where most buildings on Church and Center streets are two or three stories tall. The fear for people like Judi Molinelli, who started the citizen group Preserve Historic Manassas, is that if the city rezones more lots to the taller heights in Old Town, the neighborhood’s historic charm will be lost and the area’s streets will get less sunlight.
Molinelli, a retired attorney who moved to Manassas six years ago, argues that bigger apartment buildings should be built farther from downtown, suggesting neighborhoods like the Mathis Avenue area are ripe for increased density that wouldn’t affect Old Town. Couple development with pedestrian improvements, she said, and people can still walk from home to the train station.
“We’re not against the Messenger building per se, except that it’s ugly and we just don’t think it belongs there,” Molinelli said, adding that she collected over 100 signatures for a petition opposing the development, although city council approved the rezoning unanimously.
Molinelli and her group are concerned that similar rezonings will soon be carried out in and around Old Town. In the city’s draft of its new comprehensive plan, planners identified a series of “Opportunity Areas,” including the site of the Old Towne Inn on Main Street, which the draft says provides an opportunity for a new hotel or a “mix of retail, restaurant, residential, and lodging uses.”
Officials from the Community Development department said there has been no movement to rezone the Old Towne Inn site.
The comprehensive plan is set for a public hearing Jan. 27 and a council vote in February.
Mayor Hal Parrish takes a different view. He said people might think that an older politician who grew up in downtown Manassas wouldn’t want to see too much change, but he sees benefits in adding density downtown, including limiting sprawl and allowing people to commute car-free. At the same time, the mayor argues that the city’s architectural review process can preserve Old Town’s aesthetics.
And as far as the city’s historic nature is concerned, Parrish said building around the train station is true to Manassas’s roots.
“Some of our citizens do not want to see Old Town grow,” he said. “We’re here because we’re a rail town and we need to continue to take advantage of that. And in fact if we don’t, I think it’s a shame.”