The planners behind Arlington County's Ballston community created a city of high-rise office buildings and condominiums, and now they're orchestrating a retail renaissance.
Already, efforts to draw popular stores and restaurants are beginning to pay off. Starbucks, the symbol of a neighborhood's "arrival," has set up shop. Restaurants such as Tara Thai and Memphis Bar-B-Q have opened up to the sidewalks. Over the weekend, Regal Cinemas debuted a 12-screen theater as part of Ballston Common mall's expansion.
Perhaps the strongest example of Ballston's retail revival is choosy grocer Harris Teeter's decision to open an upscale store on Glebe Road this fall.
"If the economy holds strong and demand holds strong, the retail train will continue," said Bill Condo, executive director of the Ballston Partnership, an economic development group that counts dozens of area residents and merchants as members. "Then this will be another Adams-Morgan."
This is Ballston's second chance to reinvent itself. In the late 1970s, civic and government leaders started to transform Ballston, then a run-down community of discount mattress stores and one-story wooden buildings. They hoped to create vibrant street-level development by requiring abundant underground parking and mandating space for stores and restaurants on the ground level of all office buildings.
It didn't work.
Larger merchants shunned the available space because developers failed to outfit buildings with freight elevators and other basic amenities. And instead of luring popular restaurants and retailers, office building owners brought in dry cleaners, hair salons and other service businesses that targeted their employees, not residents.
The use of street-level space "seems to be an afterthought to them, and it seems to be the same afterthought: a deli, a dry cleaner and a travel agent," said Paul Chapin, who lives and works in Ballston.
As a result, Ballston never developed as a bustling urban retail strip like those found in Northwest Washington's Adams-Morgan neighborhood and Old Town Alexandria.
But this time, Ballston residents, who have long been involved in their community's development, want things done right. They have pressed county officials, developers and property owners to recruit a mix of merchants. They're demanding more mom-and-pop restaurants along with national chains such as Cheesecake Factory, Borders Books & Music, Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware.
In response, county officials have been more aggressive in ensuring that the new office buildings include fixtures that will accommodate larger retailers. They point to plans for the 13-story Hines office building to include enough room for a large, yet-to-be-named restaurant.
"We're getting a lot better at it," said Adam Wasserman, director of the county's economic development office. "Developers are starting to realize it's valuable space."
Next year, he added, economic development officials will head to the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas, where national retailers are wooed by developers, local officials and real estate brokers.
"We're spending a lot of time on retail," Wasserman said.
Ballston has several things working in its favor. First and foremost is a long history of attracting residents who become involved in the community. These activists say they have a keen interest in attracting suitable retailers and developing the downtown as a retail destination.
"We have very high civic involvement," said Condo of the Ballston Partnership. "Residents and civic groups played a key part in the development of Ballston in the '70s, and they still have a key role in what's happening here."
Ballston may also benefit from a healthy economy, both locally and nationally. Retailers continue to look for more growth opportunities, and now that national retailers have filled the suburbs with stores, they're turning their attention to underserved urban areas. More important, retail growth tends to follow office and residential development, and Ballston has a lot of both.
"Just count the cranes in Ballston," said John Asadoorian, a local commercial real estate broker. "People are licking their chops, waiting for the retail."
Although Ballston is one of Arlington County's wealthiest neighborhoods, most of that money goes to stores and restaurants outside the area. A recent study showed that residents of Ballston and neighboring Virginia Square shopped elsewhere for virtually all hardware purchases and 95 percent of food expenditures. More then half of their restaurant spending was done outside their neighborhoods.
But new neighborhood restaurants are winning raves. Tara Thai, which opened a large restaurant last year on Fairfax Drive, continues to draw large crowds. The Car Pool billiards bar on the same street has become so popular that patrons often have to wait an hour or more for a pool table.
Although Harris Teeter and other big names have yet to arrive, they already have a large following among residents who have had to drive far from their homes to shop.
"People are looking forward to this," said Eileen Williams, a retired teacher who lives in Ballston's Hyde Park condominiums.
County and community officials acknowledge that Ballston faces several challenges. For example, the retail district is scattered across several streets. And a strip of older restaurants, officials say, looks dingy and badly needs a make-over.
Furthermore, retail revitalization plans often require sizable pieces of land, something that's hard to find in Ballston. Economic development officials cringe at the number of used-car dealerships in the community, but most of those property owners don't want to sell. Officials have been eyeing the large Metrobus yard in Ballston's center, but Metro had trouble relocating because no one wants a fleet of buses in the back yard.
Ballston Common mall has its own issues. It is a small enclosed mall that looks like a giant concrete slab, boxed in by Wilson Boulevard and Glebe Road.
But the mall's owner, Forest Enterprises Inc., is spending millions of dollars trying to dress up the 13-year-old shopping center and open it up to the streets. It added Memphis Bar-B-Q about three years ago. As part of an ongoing expansion, the Rock Bottom Brewery and a yet-to-be-named restaurant will build patios on Glebe Road.
Although Ballston's business community welcomes the new retailers and restaurants, some merchants wonder whether they will fit into the new Ballston.
"The area around us has changed so much," said Yasameen Karimi, manager of the Food Factory. "It's either a new building or a new hotel place. . . . Hopefully, we'll stay in Arlington."
A LOOK AT BALLSTON
Number of residents:
58,410 (includes neighboring Virginia Square)
Median household income: $64,074
Total resident spending:
$515 million annually.
CAPTION: Construction is booming in Ballston, and unlike when the community tried to reinvent itself in the 1970s, officials are trying to ensure that buildings will accommodate the retailers they want.