By Logan Roddy, contributor
Magpie owner and entrepreneur Kirsten Moore plans to lease the building across Gay Street from her diner and repurpose it into a retail market called Liberty Street Mercantile on the ground floor with a multi-use event space on the second.
“I had a friend of mine approach me about putting her business in there, but she said ‘I don’t want to be the one to renovate it, and I’d love for you to be the one to do that,’” Moore said. “So, I started talking to the developers about some potential in there, and I’m going to take the whole building, renovate the building, and then put a variety of different businesses in there.”
The plan is in the design stage, and Moore received preliminary drawings from Blueline architectural firm just last week, and the plan is to open it in about a year-and-a-half.
The building was once an old time mercantile exchange called Harrisonburg Grocery. Most recently it has been used for tire storage. But it qualifies for a historic tax credit similar to the Big L Tire company building which now houses Magpie.
Moore will lease the building from Bismarck LLC, which owns the other buildings at in that stretch of Liberty Street between West Gay and West Rock streets. Bismarck owns the structure that houses Magpie, which has helped bring people to the north end of downtown since it opened last summer.
John Sallah, real estate developer of Bismarck LLC, said his work with Moore constitutes an unusual arrangement between the company and the restaurant owner.
“The ownership group is basically entrusting her with a lot of the things that we would normally be in charge of,” Sallah said. “Kirsten is probably better at a lot of the things that I do for a living than I am (laughs). And I have a lot of faith in her, so that’s why we’re kind of handing her the reins on this. She basically gets to determine the rents, handle all the maintenance. She’s going to do all the things that I as a building owner would normally do.”
And he said he knows it will be in good hands after working with her during Magpie’s development.
“It’s hard. It’s not easy taking a building like what sits there now [76 W Gay] and turning it into what it will be in a year and a half or so. It worked out great that Kirsten wanted control of all that stuff,” Sallah said.
Compared to Magpie’s building, which is essentially a concrete box, 76 W. Gay Street has a post and beam structure and is a more spacious building.
It also needs some TLC, Moore said.
“There’s been some fire damage on the top floor,” she said. “Wood deteriorates differently than a concrete building. So, there’s a little more renovation to the actual building that has to happen.”
Because the Magpie building is triangular with one side directly next to the railroad track, Moore said it took a bit of finagling to make the setup work for a diner. But because 76 West Gay is a more conventionally designed building, she said she hopes it will be a more straightforward renovation.
Converting that building into a marketplace will continue the expansion of downtown northward.
Moore said when she first proposed opening Magpie at its location, some people questioned whether it was too far from the center of downtown. But over the past few years other businesses and restaurants have opened along the Main Street/Liberty Street corridor, which are all attracting more people.
“I feel really proud of the fact that not only we’re doing well, but Bluetique has said that they definitely noticed traffic on the weekends from people waiting for brunch. Golden Pony gets overflow, as well. There’s a feeder line to Sage Bird, as well,” Moore said.
A new destination market
As for Liberty Street Mercantile, Moore says she’s focusing on creating a market similar to Agora Market on Main Street downtown, but with glass walls separating the separate businesses so they each have a distinct space and can conduct their business as they choose.
One business owner who is already working with Moore to help plan out the market floor is Abby Chick from Blakemore’s Flowers.
Chick bought the flower business in 2012, which is now on Evelyn Byrd Avenue but used to be downtown.
“Blakemore’s was downtown since like 1942, so thank god we are a call-in business or people order off our website because people still think we’re downtown. And this is not a high visibility building, it just sort of blends in and people barely even notice it,” Chick said. “I’ve always wanted to bring it back downtown from day one.”
Chick said she’s been looking for a space to return to downtown but couldn’t find a place that was quite right. The florist shop needed parking and direct access for loading and unloading, for instance.
But she said while driving by the old office one afternoon she noticed the “For Lease” sign and called the real estate agent, who told her that Moore had expressed interest in whatever was to end up there.
“So I just called her and said ‘Hey, I don’t really know if this is weird, but I wanna be where you are. Can we talk?’” Chick said. “And that’s how it came to be. She didn’t necessarily want to take it on herself, but she knew what she didn’t want going across the street because she’s put a lot of money, blood, sweat and tears into Magpie.”
But returning the florist to its roots gives her the opportunity to expand it into a more open air flower market akin to those popular in Europe.
While she said the current business model of call-in and online ordering for large arrangements won’t change, she’s hoping that the exposure to customers coming to the north end of downtown to businesses like Magpie and Sage Bird Ciderworks will make it a retail destination as well.
“I want it to be a much more interactive experience, where there’s somebody up front all the time, there’s something to see and feel and touch and do and there’s a lot more that’s ready to go that you can take with you,” Chick said. “I think we’ve seen people really start to appreciate flowers again. As a societal thing in Europe, people have flowers in their homes at all times.”
A metropolitan event space
As for the upstairs, Moore and Chick said it’s time Harrisonburg got an event venue with a more urban and industrial feel as opposed to the abundance of barns and vineyards in the area.
“I catered weddings for five-to-six years and the kind of space that people are starting to look for doesn’t exist here,” Moore said. “A lot of people wanted to look for a spot downtown so they can go to all their favorite breweries afterwards or go out to breakfast, and that’s a big trend in lots of other cities and metropolitan areas.”
Entrepreneurs in those cities have embraced historic, old buildings.
“They have these sort of urban cool warehouse-y venues for events, and we just don’t have that anywhere. Everything’s either super small or super big,” Moore said.
Chick said she’s interested in seeing a space similar to that of Old Metropolitan Hall in Charlottesville or some of their downtown music venues.
“It would be a good place for a more intimate wedding and when I say intimate I mean no more than 150 [people]. Possibly even 100,” Chick said. “Somewhere you can have everything in one room, where you have tables at the back and you’re getting married up front and it’s just one really cool venue. It’s gonna be big but it’s not gonna be expansive.”
Moore is taking the Field of Dreams mentality that motivated her to open Magpie to Liberty Street Mercantile: “If you build it, they will come.”
“[At the diner] we get so much lunchtime, weekend waiting time for a table and for a long time we got questions like, ‘What’s around here to do, I don’t wanna go far,’ and my big idea for that came from, ‘Well, I can make you something to do!’” Moore said.
New traffic pattern … because of so much traffic
The revitalization of the block between Rock Street and Gay Street over the last year has attracted so much new foot traffic to the area that the Department of Public Works determined it was time to transition that southbound section of North Liberty Street to a one-way stretch.
City Public Works Director Tom Hartman said this change first arose in 2019, when construction began on the upscale apartments Sancar Flats at West Rock.
“Traffic volume-wise there wasn’t very high movement going north bound because it’s not a very easy section of roadway to get to (in order) to go northbound,” he said, noting that Liberty Street and West Rock Street/Noll Drive come together there.
By changing it to one-way traffic, pedestrians crossing the street will only have to look in one direction, Hartman said.
Along with the addition of a bike lane, Hartman said the city can more efficiently and clearly designate on-street parking.
“And we’re currently constructing the bump outs at the intersection of Liberty and Gay to shorten the pedestrian crossing across the intersection to make it feel a little safer and more of a traffic calming approach as you enter this block of the roadway,” Hartman said. “And we’re going to do a little bit of modification to the pedestrian crossing of Liberty, Noll and Rock in the near future.”
Economic Development Director Brian Shull said in an email that the changes also are in anticipation of an increase in activity on that side of downtown as “many people, Valley residents and tourists, are ready to come out of hibernation and enjoy the restaurants and retail spots that have offered limited access over the past 15 months.”
“We do anticipate that the new developments along North Liberty Street will be particularly popular,” Shull said, “as first-time visitors will be anxious to try the many new options along this revitalized corridor.”
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