Entrepreneurs Who Changed Clarendon Find It Has Changed Too Much

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, August 3, 2006

For the past decade, as Clarendon has blossomed from a raggedy collection of car repair shops and empty storefronts into one of the Washington area's most vibrant urban suburbs, Rebecca Tax and her brother David have been among its biggest boosters.

Starting out as waiters while they were still in school, the siblings became serial entrepreneurs, opening one of the region's most beloved ice cream parlors, Lazy Sundae; a Mexican restaurant; a deli; and a seafood place -- Clare and Don's -- named for the Arlington community they worked so hard to turn into a people magnet.

Last week, Lazy Sundae closed its doors and moved to Falls Church. Later this year, Clare and Don's will also open in Falls Church; the original eatery on Wilson Boulevard may shut down, too.

Just up the road, in the section of Clarendon known for the past quarter-century as Little Saigon, one of the last remaining Vietnamese restaurants has gone out of business. Queen Bee joined Cafe Dalat and several other shops owned by Vietnamese immigrants in ending the first chapter of their American odyssey.

"All of Clarendon has changed," says Rebecca Tax. "When you bring in the big chains and charge $200,000 for 560-square-foot condos, it's going to bring a new kind of people. We talked a lot about building the 'urban village,' but Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel are not an 'urban village.' It used to be a lot of cool, young, down-to-earth families around here, and it's not anymore. It's a much richer, more singles crowd, more a drinking crowd now."

Ever since the Market Common, a 10-acre residential and retail complex featuring national chain stores, opened in 2001, Arlington County planners have sought a balance between big-scale development and the independent small businesses that built the foot traffic that then interested those developers in Clarendon.

"The development has put pressure on the inexpensive restaurants and small businesses, no doubt," says Arlington's planning director, Bob Brosnan. "Market Common put Clarendon retailing up front, but we don't want one big outdoor mall. We try to use urban design guidelines to encourage smaller stores, but there's very little we can do to control rents."

And it is a combination of rising rents, higher property taxes and landlords' attraction to the big money that national chains can pay for space that is pushing ever more of Clarendon's little shops to close or seek less expensive locations.

"When I first opened a decade ago, there was such a hodgepodge of little businesses that people were encouraged to wander around," says Dale Roberts, owner of the Java Shack on North Franklin Road. "In the last few years, the evening business is way down; the foot traffic goes to Market Commons. And with all the condos that have come in, we've lost a lot of our old clientele. The new people want really new and modern; they want another Bethesda, not the cool and funky that the old neighbors wanted."

When Roberts's lease expires next year, he could face an increase hefty enough to force him out of business, he says. His proposed solution: Do for small businesses what Arlington does for housing -- require developers to set aside space for those who can't afford market rates.

But even if the county wanted to support small businesses with that heavy a hand, it couldn't, not in Virginia, where state law severely restricts localities' ability to limit property rights.

And even if Arlington could support small businesses that way, would it help Clarendon's Java Shacks? "Me, with my patio and the funkiness of the shop, it wouldn't work to be in Market Common," Roberts says.

Brosnan sympathizes but says, "It's part of the inevitability of revitalizing an area" that funky, low-profit businesses that serve as pioneers in an emerging neighborhood are often victims of that area's success. Even as it approves big developments, the county has preserved historic buildings and provided help for small businesses forced out by the new projects.

"I still think Clarendon's a pretty cool place," Brosnan says, and it is: A long walk on Wilson Boulevard still means happening upon shops that reflect individual passions more than corporate research. Although Little Saigon may be gone, some businesses moving into those spaces are owned by newer immigrants; Queen Bee became India Curry House, for example.

"Suddenly everything seems to be from India, and that's okay. That's where the initiative is coming from," says Roni Freeman, director of the Clarendon Alliance, a public-private partnership that seeks to improve the area without mortgaging its soul. "It's been a struggle trying to ascertain what the breaking point is, how much height and density and granularity is right."

Rebecca Tax says Arlington may have passed that breaking point a while ago. "They are catering to fancy people," she says. "They decided they needed more taxes for more fancy water parks for overprivileged white kids. Maybe we don't really need fancy sidewalks and streetlights."

But although some places have tried to stop the process, with minimal success, a fact of urban nature is that neighborhoods evolve.

The new Lazy Sundae opened last week in Falls Church, where "it's still like Mayberry," Tax says. Soon, she'll open her restaurant there, and others will follow. And when the crowds thicken, the national chains will start sniffing around, and then . . .

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