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Where We Live: Walkable, dog-friendly Shirlington

By Rita Zeidner,

Tina Chovanec knew that moving to the D.C. area from the Pacific Northwest would entail some lifestyle changes. Shrinking her commute to under five minutes was not one she expected.

Chovanec didn’t have a job lined up when she and her husband, Stephen, sold their house in Oregon and rented a condominium in the Village at Shirlington, a 15-minute bus ride from Stephen’s new job across Arlington County in Crystal City. But she bested his travel time when she landed a job as a literacy educator with WETA, three blocks from their new home.

“Every day I am grateful for my commute,” said Chovanec, who can leave her apartment shortly before she is due at work and still have time to grab breakfast on the way. She can also up pick up groceries and run other errands without driving.

“We essentially don’t use our car all week,” she said. “We sometimes wonder if we need it.”

Chovanec’s penchant for walkability isn’t unusual. It’s what draws many residents to this three-block strip off Interstate 395, southwest of the Pentagon.

It hasn’t always been that way. Fifteen years ago, Shirlington was a mostly deserted shopping center kept barely alive by a few good restaurants, a movie house specializing in independent films and a now-defunct catalogue retailer. Despite the seemingly ideal location at the mouth of a major highway, many businesses were put off by the absence of steady foot traffic. Those that did open tended to shutter quickly.

Things began to change in 2000 when Arlington reached an agreement with Federal Realty Investment Trust to reinvent the shopping center and turn it into a neighborhood where people could live, work and find entertainment without getting into their cars. Today, Shirlington Village’s approximately 2,000 residents live in five rental buildings and one 11-story condo building.

To help lure visitors, Arlington officials aggressively wooed the Signature Theatre. With financial help from the county, Signature reopened in Shirlington Village in January 2007 alongside a new, state-of-the-art public library.

Irma Wheeler, who opened her hair salon, Illusions, in Shirlington in the early 1990s when many of the neighboring storefronts were empty, says she always believed the once-struggling downtown could be more than it once was. Today she delights in the diversity of businesses nearby and urges her clients to do the same.

“If I’m running late, I say, go get a massage. Go check out the olive oil place,” she said.

Her biggest complaint — inadequate customer parking — stems from the area’s success, and she has asked her landlord to be less aggressive about towing.

But her own parking hassles are over. Following the advice of her sister, a real estate agent, she bought a condo in the high-rise six years ago. When her car was totaled this year, she didn’t replace it. “Everything I need is here,” she said.

“Shirlington is to me a nearly ideal urban community,” said Raymond A. Warren, Arlington’s deputy commissioner of revenue, who moved into a top-floor two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in Shirlington Village with his partner, Tom Bond, shortly after the building was completed in 2005.

Initially reluctant to give up his home in the District, he has never looked back, he said. During the workweek, he reads or answers e-mail during the 30-minute bus ride across Arlington to his office in the Court House neighborhood. But when he’s not working, much of his life takes place in Shirlington. “I can walk to the grocery, my pharmacy, my bank, my dentist and my dry cleaner. We can have a margarita at Guapo’s or a beer at the Irish pub and not worry about driving home,” he said.

On weekends, he can go for a run or bike ride on a 45-milepaved trail that starts outside his door.

The couple’s half-million-dollar investment has appreciated by 10 percent, Warren said, despite a decline in housing values in some surrounding areas.

Although many of its amenities are aimed at grown-ups, Shirlington is an ideal place to raise a family, said Jinna Vidaurre, a teacher who lives in a one-bedroom-plus-den unit with her husband, Vladi­mir, and their two preschoolers.

“With two young children, not having to worry about upkeep is invaluable,” she said. “It was a shift in mind-set for me. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

A typical Saturday for the Vidaurres consists of walk across the street to Robeks for a smoothie before they head to the library or the playground at nearby Jennie Dean Park.

Shirlington’s large dog park, which attracts dog owners from across the community, was particularly attractive to business consultant Michael Spead, who bought his condo last year.

“I was looking for a dog-friendly kind of place,” said Spead, who also considered the Clarendon section of Arlington. Shirlington’s unusually lenient pet policy, which allowed for large breeds like Cleetus, his 50-pound blackmouth cur, helped seal the deal.

Dogs are so much a part of Shirlington’s culture that most of the businesses lining Campbell Street keep dishes filled with water at their doorways. Spead often brings Cleetus when he meets friends for a beer in the village or when he joins in weekly fun runs organized by the Shirlington Running Club.

For Adele Crump, the community offered an easier lifestyle as she ages. Although she had always assumed she would end up in a condominium, the back-to-back snowstorms in 2010 were a harsh reminder of the headaches that come with homeownership. Instead of buying a condo, she signed a lease for an airy two-bedroom apartment with a balcony overlooking the main street.

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Well, isn’t it going to be noisy?’ And I say, ‘That’s why I’m here. If I wanted quiet, I’d have stayed in my neighborhood in Springfield.’ ”

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer.

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