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More Urban, Less Village

A Barnes & Noble  bookstore anchors the Market Commons shopping center in Clarendon. As big chains move to the neighborhood, small-business owners worry about their future.
A Barnes & Noble bookstore anchors the Market Commons shopping center in Clarendon. As big chains move to the neighborhood, small-business owners worry about their future. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

The tiny Museum of Modern ARF was always proud of its eccentricity. Located in the heart of Clarendon since 2002, it was a friendly place where locals would stop by to view offbeat art or homemade documentaries.

This week it's being gutted to make way for a swanky restaurant with a bar on the roof.

Farther down Wilson Boulevard, on a building that for years hosted a bustling weekend flea market, there used to be a giant mural of a single eye, below the motto: "Keep Clarendon Weird."

That was replaced four years ago by a La Tasca tapas restaurant and a Palm Beach Tan salon.

And two blocks east, in an outdoor mall that was a parking lot only a few years ago, residents of $2,000-a-month apartments can pick up an iPod at the Apple store downstairs. But if they need a hammer and nails, they might have to get in the car: Clarendon's only hardware store has been turned into a Ri Ra Irish Pub & Restaurant.

Clarendon, which over the past few decades has become the prototype of a modern urban village, is at a crossroads. Today, the Arlington enclave is a walkable medley of quirky shops and premium national retailers, older tree-lined neighborhoods and soaring new condominiums, a few office buildings, a wide selection of restaurants and a Metro stop. Tucked between the mini-metropolises of Rosslyn and Ballston, it combines homey friendliness with convenient commerce and a 20-minute commute to downtown Washington.

But the neighborhood's character is changing, both driven by and reacting to a shift in its commercial real estate. More affluent, less workaday, more trendy, less mom-and-pop, Clarendon has become such a retail and residential magnet that it may be losing the ambience that made it such an appealing place to live, work and shop.

It's starting to look a lot more urban and less village.

"This isn't a place for hobby businesses anymore," said Terry Holzheimer, director of Arlington Economic Development. "It's gotten more expensive, but the revenue potential is also much higher."

Annual retail sales have increased nearly $200 million in the past five years, Holzheimer estimated. Meanwhile, the number of households has more than doubled in that time -- the steepest rate of growth in Arlington County, according to county planners.

Big-name retailers spotted Clarendon's potential early. Crate and Barrel moved its store from Pentagon City to the outdoor mall at Market Common when it opened four years ago. "Clarendon has that wonderful presence about it that just makes people want to shop there," said Bette Kahn, a Crate and Barrel spokeswoman. She said national chains help local retailers because they draw more shoppers to the neighborhood.

They even draw more residents. Last year, Lynn Mulroney bought a Clarendon condominium in part for its proximity to major stores. She enjoys walking to the Whole Foods and shopping at Ann Taylor Loft without trekking to Tysons Corner.

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