(NOTE: from the November, 2003 Prince William Community Report)
Much of the U.S. is rediscovering the benefits of traditional town centers and main street communities. Old Town Manassas is enjoying a renaissance. Other regional examples include Old Town Alexandria, Warrenton, and the City of Fredericksburg. Many architects and developers around the country are creating new neighborhoods with real town centers.
There are many advantages to incorporating traditional town centers throughout the county. First is the benefit of not having to drive far to go shopping, run errands, and eat. When fewer folks have to hop into the car for a day of cross county shopping for necessities like groceries and banking, and when we can park just once to accomplish many errands, we will all benefit from less traffic.
Town centers connected to surrounding neighborhoods make it possible to walk or bike for many errands, and can consume far less land than big-boxes with their massive parking lots. Libraries, government centers and churches together with community parks, provide high-value places for families.
The Tackett's Mill Center is an almost perfect example of this. Located on the eastern side of Prince William County between Old Bridge Road and Minnieville Roads, Tackett's Mill combines the charm of a traditional Town Center with the modern conveniences demanded by today's society.
A large community, mainly townhouses and single-family homes on quarter-acre lots, is located within a half mile of Tackett's Mill. With easy access to I-95, this area is a prime location for both office and retail. Tackett's Mill also is also a commuter hub for both buses and slug lines. There's plenty of commuter and pedestrian traffic to support a thriving mixed-use town center.
The upper section of Tackett's Mill is perfect for the type of retail that provides the day-to-day services needed by the surrounding community, such as a grocery store, florist, bank and coffee shops. Because parking is located in the front, it's perhaps less attractive than a newly built center. A focus on infill development, with incentives to develop the empty and underused areas fronting Old Bridge Road and Harbor Drive, would go a long way to creating a more inviting appearance.
The lower section of this Center was originally planned to be a restaurant destination. Centered around a beautiful lake, complete with a covered bridge, the design included space for a cinema and a variety of restaurants. This could be a terrific place to see a movie, enjoy a quality dining experience and a stroll around the lake, observing blue herons and other wildlife.
Although Prince William is currently smitten by the town center concept, newly approved projects fall short on the mixed-use component and are located too far from transit to meet the needs of a walkable community. Belmont Development comes close, but the large parcel of vacant land that separates the community from the VRE keeps people in their cars. Belmont Development is gearing up for construction of the office and retail components, so Prince William can learn as the town center moves forward.
Prince William is also susceptible to piecemeal planning efforts. What we really don't need is a lot of "big-box" stores placed at opposite ends of the county from residential neighborhoods. It is just this type of poor planning that causes increased congestion on our roads and, as the media has recently pointed out, increased inches around the waist. What we do need are builders, developers, government officials and county planners who are willing to work with residents to build places where jobs, housing and shipping are concentrated.
New is not a synonym for better. Prince William communities could reap significant benefits by focusing on true infill development and incentives to upgrade older areas, rather than subsidizing new sub-divisions in rural areas. The Tackett's Mill area has all the components of a mixed-use community, located near a major highway and with access to bus transit. East Prince William needs quality open space not more construction projects on virgin land. . . especially with areas like Tackett's Mill right under our nose.