What McLean residents want, many of them say, is a downtown similar to Old Town Alexandria, a pleasant place to walk and shop that is composed of low-rise stores with names like Telephant blane. The Coffee Bean and Mayan Etc. interspersed with professional offices.
What they've got is an inattractive and congested patchwork of businesses with names like McDonald's Jack in The Box nad Gino's punctuated with drives banks at least 12 gas stations and shopping centers, all of which is virtually impossible to negotiate on foot.
Nearly all residents agree that the existing downtown doesn't fit McLean's image as home to the wealthy and powerful. Many complain that they are tired of avoiding "gasoline alley" and showing visitors Hickory Hill, home of Ethel Kennedy, widow of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. However, exactly what should is a controversy that has polarized McLean.
Controversy surrounding the development of the 250-acre central business district around Old Dominion Drive and Chain Bridge Road is an issue that spans at least the last seven years and involves two major Fairfax County plans for the area.
The issue has split McLean citizens and business interests into two camps: those who favor increased growth and those who don't. It is an issue that John T. Hazel Jr. who represents many developers and landowners said, "McLean generates more emotionalism in land use than any other area in the county."
Citizen activist have fought hard to prevent the development of what they believe would be a mini-Tysons Corner in their community's downtown. What they say they want is a managerable business district that would serve McLean residents, not a regional commercial center.
Landowners, developers and their supporters say that fears and another Tysons Corner are ridiculous and have been used by the activist as "scare tactics" to discourage new development. Business interests and their supporters claim a controversial 1975 county has halted new construction and driven away developers.
At a recent public hearing the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors narrowly defeated a proposal for a new study of the business district that was supported by the landowners and business interests ans sponsored by Supervisor John P. Shacohis (R. Dranesville) who represents McLean on the County Board. The Proposal drew an overflow crowd of more than 200 residents to the hearing. Supporters of the restudy, which might have led to increased development, said they viewed the defeat as a severe blow but vowed to continue thie battle for more development in court.
Image is of considerable concern in McLean, the wealthiest area in wealthy Fairfax County. "I used to think McLean was a state of mind, not a place," one man said wistfully. Shacochis put it more bluntly: "McLean is unique and everybody in McLean believes McLean is unoque. We are snobs in McLean."
Carolyn R. Manchester, a Fairfax County planner, noted, "McLean is a well-educated erudite community. With affluence goes the time and energy to work on community issues."
Opponents of development say McLean 's appeals is its sense of community. * Lilla Richards presidents of the McLean Citizens Association and a leader of antidevelopment forces, said, "McLean has some of the qualities people associate with small New England towns. There's a feeling of store knows you by name, "She moved from Airlington 12 years ago.
Harriet (Happy) Bradley, a 24-year resident of McLean and former member of the Board of Supervisors, disagreed with that assessment. "You cannot stick your head in the sand and say you want a charming New England village. Fifty-five thousand people is not a village. We deserve to have some reasonable facilities. It's the Cadillac liberal here who says 'we don't want development because it brings a different kind of people," namely lower-income residents.
Richards and other citizen activits denied any suggestion of discrimination. What they oppose, according to Richards, is a high-density residential or commercial center that would exacerbate existing traffic problems, drive out local shoppers and leave are homeowners with a parking problem similar to the congested Friendship Heights community on the D.C. Montgomery County line.
"Clarendon (in Arlington) died because people didn't want to pay to park and shop." said Richards, who grew up near there. "The landowners say they want residential, but they all apply for commercial space. In fact there is a demand for office space. (The business district) is close to Washington and the CIA and doesn't have the congestion Tysons has."
Hazel said there is no potential for substantially increased development because only 25 acres of vacant land exists in the business district. He said there should be development of the remaining vacant land redevelopment of some areas of the business district.
"What is there in McLean? A bunch of dead-end residential streets and a hurly-burly of shops put in with a two-by-four because they wouldn't let anything happen. It's underplanned for the achievement of facilities they wish to accomplish," Hazel said.
At the heart of Hazel's argument are two prior county plans adopted in 1970 and 1975 that have dectated McLean's development. The plans have become rallying points: advocates of development favor the 1970 plan, which called for high density and use, while opponents support the 1975 PLUS (planned and Land Use System) plan.
One result of the 1970 plan was McLean House, a 12-story condominium that was bitterly opposed by many residents. Citizen activist say the advents of McLean House was the catalyst that united antidevelopment forces and resulted in the 1975 PLUS plan.
In McLean, the plan represented a 50 per cent reduction in density, in part through a limit on building heights. The plan phased out major commercial development and provided for a rerouting of traffic around the overcrowded Chain Bridge Road Old Dominion Drive intersection and provided for an annual plan review.
At the recent public hearing several developers and business testified that the lower densities mandated by the PLUS plan have made new construction economically unfeasible. They said the result has been economic stagnation.
Richards testified that the PLUS plan is unfairly blamed for construction slowdown that is due instead to a combination of tight mortgage caused by the nationwide recession and a sewer moratorium. She noted that six projects are currently under construction and 15 are pending, some of which will be started before the end of the year.
"Out of 23 zoning eases last year the McLean Citizens Association supported all but nine," she said. "The developers feel that if they could get the kind of density allowed in downtown Washington they could get higher rates for their land," Several landowners conceded in interviews that they were not losing money in McLean.
No matter what is built, traffic congestion remains a severe problem, especially on Saturdays. Small business men said that traffic is their chief concern. Many independent store oeners also said they losing more business to Tysons Corner.
Richard Hinkle, owner of McLean Hardware, the oldest independent retail store in McLean, said, "I'm not opposed to more density if they can figure out a way to take care of the traffic."
Owners of small shops said a compromise between the citizens and the landowners and a solution to the traffic problem are essential to the continued existence of the shops.
Richards is the most optimistic about a relatively quick solution to the long-simmering controversy over development. "We're being to continue to negotiate with individual landowners. We're not that far apart," she said.