Eighty-one-year-old William G. Miller has lived at 1117 Taylor St. in Arlington since 1936. "I got a bargain when I first moved in because the house didn't have water or sewage or siding," he says. "I think I paid about $3,000 for it." He says the house now is worth about $75,000.
Water, sewage and siding aren't what makes the property so valuable today, though. Miller lives about three blocks from the Ballston Metro station in an area that's become a prime target for redevelopment in recent years. With the coming of Metro and Interstate 66, land values throughout Ballston have skyrocketed.
Miller's small, light green house is being surrounded gradually by modern town house condominiums. Miller is the last holdout on his side of the block, and he isn't interested in selling.
"I've lived here for so long, and I've got to have a place to live, so why should I move?" he asks rhetorically.
A major problem in Ballston's redevelopment has been that what's acceptable to one group often is anathema to another. Plans for redeveloping the area are laid out in the Ballston Sector Plan, right down to the type of brick recommended for sidewalks. While some groups in Arlington County support the plan, others would like to see changes made.
"Generally, I think people are happy with the land-use plan as it stands," said Ramsay Selden, president of the Ballston-Clarendon Civic Association. "The biggest problem is constant pressure by developers and property owners for upgrading which deviates from the land-use plan."
Such upgrading, Selden says, usually violates the plan for tapering from high-density areas of development around Metro stops to lower-density areas. Tapering is part of the county's "bull's-eye" plan to encourage high-density redevelopment around the Metro stations along the Orange Line, in what is known as the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor. Developers often fret, however, over the loss of floor space that tapering entails.
In an effort to encourage consolidated, high-rise development around the Ballston Metro station, the county has established two mixed-use zoning ordinances. Mixed use means that buildings are used for both commercial and residential purposes.
The Commercial, Office and Apartment ordinance was enacted to encourage high-density development in the area bordered by Fairfax Drive. Glebe Road, Wilson Boulevard and Quincy Street. The ordinance contains a variable-density factor known as the floor-area ratio, which ties the amount of floor space permitted on a given site to the size of the site. The larger the site, the greater the density allowed.At least half of the space constructed under the ordinance must be residential, however. Interest in this type of development has been slow in coming because of the difficulty in consolidating large pieces of property and because developers have preferred to invest in financially less risky office buildings.
The Residential Commercial ordinance also ties density to the floor-area ratio and the site size. Under this ordinance, however, the maximum density permitted is less than it is under the commercial, office and apartment plan. While a few proposals have been made under the residential commercial ordinance, to date nothing has been built.
Builders often want the right to build large amounts of office space while the county wants to ensure there is adequate residential construction, and civic groups want to protect the character of their neighborhoods. Satisfying all of these demands has proved difficult and may be impossible.
Jim Marshall, chairman of the county's Economic Development Commission, which advises the county board on land use and overall development goals of the county, sees himself as a mediator among the opposing groups.
"Somebody has to step in and be a mediator between the developer, the citizen and the county board," Marshall said. He said he feels this has not been done so far. "We're just trying to get people to start talking to each other," Marshall said. "I want that citizens and the developers to get so excited they will say, 'Let's go!' Wouldn't that be great?"
Marshall, who took over chairmanship of the development commission in January, said he envisions Ballston as the "new downtown" of Arlington. The county, he says, loses too much business to suburban shopping centers such as Tysons Corner.
Ballston's Parkington shopping mall, one of the first suburban shopping centers in the country, is nestled in a triangle sided by Wilson Boulevard and Glebe Road and pales in comparison to the mammoth Tysons. It is being redeveloped, and the extent to which the overhaul is succesful will greatly influence the realization of Marshall's plan for a new Arlington center. The May Co., which owns The Hecht Co., Parkington's major department store, is considering alternative ways to redesign the shopping center. John Moore, project manager for May, said that architects should have designs ready for his consideration by mid-June.
Members of the Arlington County Board, caught between opposing factions, often find themselves divided on development issues. Board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler and member Walter L. Frankland Jr. are generally supportive of development proposals in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, while members Ellen M. Bozman, and Dorothy T. Grotos are more often opposed to development. John G. Milliken, the newest board member, is the wild card, and he could prove to be the swing vote on a variety of Arlington's significant development issues.
"Development ought to be encouraged, but I think it has to be done in a way that is consistent with plans we have developed to protect the neighborhoods," Milliken says. He notes, however, that there is room for compromise.
C. Daniel Clemente, general partner of Taylor and Clemente Developers, says the current zoning plan is not workable.
"The reason they [Arlington County] don't see any development under the [residential commercial] plan is because the numbers don't work from the developers' viewpoint," he said.
Clemente says although he supplied the County Board with a formula for determining realistic costs of high-rise construction, the board has continued to pass unrealistic zoning ordinances. On one on the county staff pays attention to the numbers, he said.
"If you're really interested in redeveloping an area, then you've got to get involved with the economics," Clemente continued.
Clemente's interest in the development of Ballston is not academic. His is one of two development proposals recently considered by the Arlington County Board. His was rejected, and the other plan, submitted by the Ray Sims Construction Co., was approved.
"We did a lot of homework on this, and we had a lot of support from a wide sector of the populace," Clemente said. "I was really shocked we didn't get approved."
According to Alan Schwarte, a planner on the county planning staff, the board had at least two reasons for not approving Clemente's plan. The first was that plan violated the tapering concept for the district.
The second reason for rejecting the proposal is that the plan calls for a floor-area ratio considerably higher than the 3.24 currently permitted under the zoning ordinance. A comparable site size in the commericial, office, apartment district would not permit the density that Clemente proposed under the residential, commercial ordinance, Schwarte said.
Clemente says he needs 100,000 square feet of office space to make his project profitable.
The approved residential-commercial proposal did not request any office or commercial space. The project would consist only of condominiums, a proposal Clemente said may not be economically feasible.
"There is some kind of conflict between the two that just doesn't make sense," Schwarte said. "On the one hand you have a developer [Sims] who is going ahead with a project like that. On the other hand you have a developer [Clemente] saying. 'I need 100,000 square feet of office units to make the project work.' Now, that kind of makes us scratch our heads."
The county planning staff currently is working on a compromise proposal that would allow Clemente a 3.8 floor area ratio and a 50-50 residential-commercial split. This proposal would allow Clemente to build his 100,000 square feet of office space.
Local businessmen have mixed feelings about the prospect of high-density development in the Ballston area over the next few years.
"I feel very strongly that if the county doesn't give developers the kind of things they need, we are going to do away with urban sprawl and end up with suburban sprawl," said Mason Green of Mason Green Realty in Ballston. "I think they [members of the county government] are listening too much to anti-growth groups and not doing what's best for the country. Nobody is selling growth," he said.
C. O. North, owner and president of the Ballston Square Co. in the 4100 block of Wilson Boulevard, said he feels the climate is not right for redevelopment because of current prices, interest rates and density restrictions.
"The county thinks they can turn on and off development . . . while ignoring the economics of development," North said. "I'm prepared to continue renting stores forever, just as we are now," he said.
Citizens in Arlington County are given considerable opportunity to voice their opinions about proposed development projects, and those interested take frequent advantage of those opportunities.
"The way the county has handled site plans is working to the developer's advantage more than to the county's," says Kathryn Freshley, a civic activist and a former member of the Arlington Site Plan Review Committee. Freshley and others like her have been instrumental in influencing the county board's decisions on a number of development proposals.
This situation irks Clemente, who maintains that development decisions should be based on economic considerations rather than politics. He said he is not against public participation, but added, "I object to citizen input that is not tied into numbers. To have some housewife come in and say she is against 3.24 FAR [floor area ratio] is just ludicrous," Clemente said.
"You really can't nail down exactly what your costs will be before you start a project. The risks a developer runs in building a high-rise are tremendous. Imagine what you are faced with when you can't tell what your interest rate will be on a $12 million loan," he said.
Government is caught in the middle of this struggle between residents and developers and so far has failed to take a firm stand. Jim Marshall is concerned that failure to develop a comprehensive development plan for the county will result in incremental construction which, in the long run, will not be beneficial to the community as a whole.
"County board members must have an image, a concept that they can agree on, because the buck stops there. They make the decisions," Marshall said. "I really don't think they have one right now."
In an effort to develop such a concept, the county is joining other groups in Arlington in sponsoring a symposium on May 30 to discuss the issues affecting county development.
The upshot of all the controversy is that high-rise development is either not taking place or is taking place very slowly in Ballston. Even the nine-acre Western Pocohantas site, the largest piece of undeveloped property in the area, remains vacant despite builder interest. The EDC would like to see high-density development on the site, the county planning staff prefers medium-density development, and the civic associations support low-to-medium density. As a result, the Economic Development Commission has established a committee of interested parties to study the alternatives for the Pocohantas site.
If they cannot agree on anything else, all parties concerned seem to agree on at least one thing: They don't want another Rosslyn at Ballston. "Decisions of the next two or three years are the ones we are going to have to live with for the next 50," Marshall said. The immediacy of redevelopment is now here, and if opposing groups cannot agree on the form it will take, redevelopment could take place one building at a time. No one wants that, he said.