Where We Live: Williamsburg, an Arlington neighborhood driven to unity


Neighbors and long time friends Patricia Frazier and Leilani and Robert Henderson share gardening tips in front of the Henderson's recently renovated stone Cape Cod. (Susan Straight)
June 8, 2012

In Williamsburg, an influx of speeding vehicles turned a once-quiet community into a danger zone.

Heavy traffic on Sycamore Street made it difficult for some residents to get into and out of their driveways. Residents grew concerned about near-collisions and were fearful of letting their children cross the streets by themselves to go to school.

Rather than just grumble among themselves, they took action: They formed a traffic and pedestrian safety committee, conducted surveys to identify particular problematic safety areas, drafted reports that they submitted to Arlington County officials, and provided recommendations on how to address the issue.

The county is now constructing a traffic-slowing median on Sycamore between Williamsburg Circle and 26th Street North, and the street will be reconfigured from a total of four lanes to two lanes with a bike lane on both sides, said Sonia McCormick, a former president of the neighborhood civic association.

“We are very engaged with the county on working through these issues. Not only do they respond to us, but they welcome us into conversation,” said Ruth Shearer, the civic association’s current president.

“We’re now working with the county on related traffic and pedestrian safety issues on surrounding streets,” she added.

Williamsburg, a neighborhood of roughly 1,100 homes on the northwest edge of Arlington, identifies as much with east Falls Church as with Arlington. Its Colonials, Cape Cods, ramblers, split-foyers, split-levels, townhouses and, in recent years, Craftsman-style homes lie along curving suburban streets between Arlington County’s western boundary, North Kensington Street on the north and east, and 27th Street North and North Trinidad Street on the south.

Home construction in the neighborhood started in the 1940s, and there are houses that date to every decade since, the more recent years being primarily tear-downs.

The neighborhood’s civic association started in 1951 and, aside from a dormant period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has been run by a group of highly active and motivated residents. In the late 1990s, the threat of the construction of a cellphone tower in the middle of the neighborhood spurred residents back into action and revived the association.

The association not only works on neighborhood issues but also partners with the adjacent Arlington-East Falls Church civic association and stays closely involved with Arlington County government, Shearer said. County board members are always invited to association meetings, and Williamsburg residents are active in Arlington’s working groups regarding sign and lighting ordinances, for example.

While recent county-wide discussion of allowing backyard chickens “has sparked a lot of interest and a lot of concern,” among Williamsburg residents, said Shearer, in terms of neighborhood priorities, “number one is traffic and pedestrian safety.”

The community, like many in Arlington, has undergone rapid transformation over the past 10 years. The neighborhood has seen many tear-downs — smaller original homes replaced with large new ones — and an increasing number of children in the public schools, Nottingham Elementary, Williamsburg Middle and Yorktown High.

“There has been a tremendous amount” of turnover, in terms of homeowners, said longtime resident Patricia Frazier. On a number of streets such as a section of 30th Street North, “there are maybe six original houses out of 30,” she noted.

Some of the last original owners of the 1940s-built homes — the oldest in the community — are no longer there. When Frazier moved in, “there were mostly retirees and a few young families,” she said.

“All of the old owners, which had been here for years, have gone and there are so many new families,” she said. “The neighborhood is now on the third round of new children,” she said.

One of those new families is the Burtons. Fred and his wife, Danielle, needed to move from their one-bedroom condominium in the District when they were expecting their first child in 2008. “We like Arlington County as opposed to Fairfax County because we were coming from D.C.,” said Fred Burton. “We were looking for something not too far from the city, a kind of quiet neighborhood,” he said. “And Arlington had a good reputation for public schools,” he added.

They settled on their 1948-built Cape Cod and learned that they were buying from the original owners. “The Marshalls were here for 60 years,” said Burton.

The retail establishments (drugstore, restaurants, craft store, services) at Williamsburg Shopping Center in the center of the neighborhood are a quick walk for most residents. More substantial shopping opportunity lies a mile away at Lee Highway and North Harrison Street, including two major grocery stores, a coffee shop, several restaurants, two pet supply stores, an automotive store and a host of other services.

Leilani Henderson says she regularly bicycles or walks a mile across the neighborhood to the Safeway supermarket. She sees many other people doing the same, or walking for fun. “This is the walkingest neighborhood I’ve ever been in,” she said.

Henderson and her husband, Robert, have lived in Arlington since 1975. When they were ready to downsize, they discovered their current Williamsburg home through a friend who lives in the neighborhood.

“I’ve always loved these little stone houses,” Leilani Henderson said of her 1948-built Cape Cod. The 1,700-foot home with partial basement “was a real fixer-upper,” but the original French doors onto the patio and the interior features such as arched doorways charmed the Hendersons. With the number of tear-downs in the neighborhood, there are just six of the stone Cape Cods left, she said.

“I just love it. This neighborhood is perfect,” Leilani Henderson said.

Susan Straight is a freelance writer.

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