With its picturesque main street, outdoor tables, wide brick sidewalks and petunias in flower boxes, Shirlington is a popular weekend destination in South Arlington.
People come from all over on Friday and Saturday nights to catch a movie at the Cineplex Odeon multiplex theater there and then stroll up and down the pleasant strip of restaurants and shops deciding where to eat. There's the often-packed Carlyle Grand on one end of the strip, Charlie Chiang's on the other, and a dozen more restaurants beneath brightly-striped awnings in between.
During the day or on a Tuesday evening, it's a different story altogether. There often aren't enough people on the shopping street, called the Village at Shirlington, to keep the businesses happy.
But that could soon change. In about a year and a half, Shirlington, just off Interstate 395 south of the Pentagon, will get an infusion of housing -- about 650 rental units and for-sale condos -- new retail space, a new grocery store, a new library and a new home for Arlington's award-winning Signature Theatre.
Its beloved main street will be more than doubled in length, ending in a pedestrian-friendly plaza in front of the new library and theater. Developers have begun construction on several sites.
The developers' goal is to increase the number of people in Shirlington to create a round-the-clock environment there. Although Shirlington is a popular destination for Northern Virginia residents, it has struggled with a high turnover of shops and restaurants largely because so few people live and work there.
The new condos and apartments will bring in full-time residents. At the moment, only a few hundred people live in the two apartment buildings near the center of Shirlington.
In addition, the new theater and library are meant to attract more people to Shirlington from surrounding areas. Arlington County officials estimate that the library and the theater will draw an added 200,000 people per year.
"The only knock about Shirlington is that it doesn't have enough density," said Don Briggs, director of development at Federal Realty Investment Trust, the developer of the Village at Shirlington. "We're bringing in residential to try and create more density. We're bringing in more retail to get to critical mass. And we're bringing in more arts to try to make it an arts entertainment destination. What we're trying to do is make Shirlington active at all times of the day."
Rockville-based Federal Realty, an owner, manager and developer of shopping centers and street retail properties, runs several of what it calls its "main street" retail properties, mixed-use town-center-like developments. In this area, they include Bethesda Row, Pentagon Row and Rockville Town Center.
Federal Realty and Arlington County teamed up in 1999 to develop a plan to try to make Shirlington more successful.
"Shirlington was extremely successful from a design standpoint and panache," said Rod Irwin, a strategic projects manager in Arlington County's Economic Development office. "People really liked going there. But from a storeowner standpoint, the volume just wasn't there. We wanted to create a real quality urban village."
The two entered into a development agreement that included beefing up the area's entertainment venues.
"We thought cultural amenities were a strong way to attract people," Irwin said. "Moving the library there and relocating the Signature Theatre there became the draw."