Behind Albert Small's office chair hangs a 1965 aerial photo of his Arlandria Shopping Center. One can easily pick out a peoples Drug Store, a Giant Food store, packed sidewalks, a crowded parking lot. "Was it properous?" Small asks. "I should say so."
Today, he shouldn't and doesn't say so.
It was not a newer, bigger shopping center that put Arlandria behind the eight ball. Nor was it crime, or decay, or racial fears or poor cash flow.
It was floods.
Five times since the early 1960s, Four Mile Run has overflowed its banks during heavy rainstorms and has come cascading down Alexandria's Mt. Vernon Avenue, disrectly at Arlandria.
Each of those times, shoulder-deep water filled the center's eight stores and ruined their contents. After each of those times, at least one tenant weighed the cost of insurance and the risk of another wipeout against the benefits of staying - and left.
Peoples and Giant left four years ago. They were the biggest and highest-volume store in Arlandria Shopping Center, and as the center's "anchors," they "spilled" customers into neighboring shops, as they do in so many other centers.
Today, their places have been taken by a carpet store and a door store. Although all the storefronts are rented, it is impossible to buy a quart of milk or a bottle of aspirin at Arlandria. A local realtor calls the shopping center "a ghost town."
The metaphor does not seem excessively farfetched on most weekday afternoons.
Four-fifths of the shopping center's 115 parking spaces are usually empty. Although the eight stores are full of stock and employees, customers are few. In addition, neighboring stores along the 3700 and 3800 blocks of Mt. Vernon Avenue have seen better days - and better effort.
Across the street, the front awning of a restaurant mistakenly reads, "Wafle Shop." Down the block, the Psychedelic Record Shop still sports the sigh of the previous occupant, a shoe repairman.
At 3834 Mt. Vernon, an excellently located small office building, only two of the nine suites are rented. Across the street, the former Vernon Theater is cold, dark, closed and dead. A sigh in the lobby reads: "Theater Closed. Goodbye."
In addition to such indicators of trouble, Arlandria, unlike more successful and better planned shopping areas, is competing with itself.
In a two-block stretch, there are three beauty shops, three barber shops, two laundromats and two carpet shops. While some "duplicates" serve a mostly trade, one longtime Arlandria businessman doubts that all can be making a profit.
It will be two more years, according to the latest timetable, before the Army Corps of Engineers at long last finishes its $49 million flood control project along Four Mile Run.
Until it is finished, tenants can get either no conventional insurance or insurance at four-and-a-half times the premiums paid elsewhere.Federal government relief insurance is available, but it is limited to $100,000 and does not insure a tenant against interruptions of business.
So everyone in the Arlandria equation waits for 1979, and the bonanza the completion of the flood-control projects is expected to bring.
Albert Small is the head of the line.
"I'll never be a great shopping center, but it'll be a good shopping center again," said Small, who built Arlandria in 1946 and still owns it. As soon as the flood control project is finished, "I expect to triple the rents," Small said. "Hell, this is eight minutes from the Pentagon building, 15 minutes from downtown Washington. It can't miss."
Small said he is "not particularly interested in selling it now," and added that he has not had a serious offer in years. "Why should I have? Until the flood business is settled, you'd have to be crazy to go in there," he said.
But there is doubt about Arlandria's future even after floods are a thing of the past.
Adrienne C. Masterson, a Commercial realtor in the area, said she has been in contact with "some developers who are interested" in buying the shopping center. Their plan is "a complete renovation of the entire area" that "doesn't necessarily mean bulldozing," Mrs. Materson said.
But there are "problems of funding and financing," she said. Not only are the nearby Lynhaven and Del Ray neighborhoods far below the rest of Alexandria and most of Arlington in average family income, but population density is much lower than in nearby Crystal City, or along the Shirley Highway corridor.
In addition, any developer would face other financial difficulty, Mrs. Masterson said. Most would want to construct high-rise apartments close by, as well as remodel the shopping center. "Very few have that kind of money," she said, "What we need is a big insurance company to get excited about this area."
Caution, not excitement, characterizes the merchants who have endured.
Pat and Morris Shweky have endured longer than any. Now in their 30th year at Arlandria, they own and operate Robcyn's-Young Fair, a clothing and department store. They have stayed for the same reason they plan to go on staying: "We've built a reputation here," as Morris Shweky put it.
"Maybe we're foolish to hold out," said Mrs. Shweky, as she supervised the stocking of girls' back-to-school fashions. "We keep losing people whenever we have a flood. But we have old customers who have left the area and keep coming back - from Woodbridge, Lorton, everywhere. If we had to depend on the (immediate) area, we wouldn't make it."
The Shwekys rent approximately 20,000 square feet, but about one-third of that is the basement. They don't use it because of the threat of flood damage, but they must still pay rent on it. When asked if they are making money, Shweky replied, somewhat wearily; "We have our good days and our bad days."
Other merchants in the center and nearby report much the same.
"If I could afford to move anywhere else, I would," said a barber who pays only $1.15 per square foot in rent (the Washington-area average is about $4). "It's a week to week thing with me," added the proprietor of a nearby restaurant and carryout.
One factor that may compound the difficulties of even a flood-free Arlandria is the dependence of customers on cars. Parking, while adequate, is not expandable, and the shopping center is more than a mile from the nearest projected Metro stop.
But Albert Small is enthusiastic.
"When I built it, it was a good investment, and it still is," he said. "This is not a Seven Corners, and it was neversupposed to be. You just can't talk about them in the same breath. It's some neighborhood stores with parking that serve the neighborhood and always did. There's no other shopping center closer by or better."
For now, though, flooding remains "the thing that's hurt me and everyone. Lets get on to 1979. Then it'll be a rejuvenated area."