If all the plans for the rebirth of Clarendon had come true, this business and shopping district along Wilson Boulevard in Arlington would have had more lives than any cat in its back alleys.
Now, seven months after Clarendon became an intermediate stop on Metro's Orange Line, there are new plans for a rebirth. And this time, business owners hope it will be more than just a pipe dream.
Last month, the Arlington County Board approved a $12,000 grant for the Clarendon Business Association (CBA) to hire an urban design consultant to suggest ways of giving Clarendon a face lift.
The study, to be completed by January, will consider everything from the design of storefronts and landscaping to sidewalks, lighting and parking according to John Gessaman, who is in charge of economic development for the county planning division.
When the plans are complete, Clarendon hopes to have a blueprint that will bring the area back to life.
"We in Clarendon want to create a theme, but we don't know what the theme is going to be yet," said John F. Schiller, CBA president.
"We're real proud of our international flavor. We've got Greek, Vietnamese, German, Mexican, Argentinian, Italian businesses here that could provide a base for an international theme."
Finding a way to produce that theme, or any theme, in the hodge-podge of Clarendon could be a major problem.
"The one thing that Clarendon lacks is a common thread," said county planner Suzanne Fauber, who is Arlington's liaison with the CBA. "Most of the buildings are different and they've changed a lot over the years. Each one that comes in has a different identity.
"Some of it is like 50s art deco and there's a little colonial, but mostly it's a bunch of non-styles. It's become more strip-commercial than anything else."
There are more than 200 businesses in the district, and only 20 percent are owner-occupied. In addition, planners will have to overcome a crazy-quilt development that began during the post-war boom of the late 1940s.
Until the late 1950s, Clarendon was known as the Downtown of Northern Virginia. The business district, in a triangle bordered by Wilson Boulevard, N. 10th Street and N. Danville Street, drew customers from all over Northern Virginia with its variety of shops and its lively community festivals.
But the suburban growth that brought residents to Clarendon eventually took them away to the larger and more modern shopping centers.
Businesses in Clarendon hoped that the opening of the subway's Orange Line in December would mark a turn-around in the area's fortunes.
But because of several factors, county planners speculate, Clarendon could be the last area on the Orange Line to be redeveloped.
The county land-use plan calls for "bulls-eye" development around subway stops: high-density office-apartment-hotel uses at the station, tapering off to less dense residential areas.
But, unlike other Metro station business districts, Clarendon is a patchwork quilt of properties, with leases that vary from 2 to 15 years. The ownership is so fragmented that assembling an attractive piece of land large enough to appeal to prospective developers has been virtually impossible. l
"You can't get these small businessmen to get together and sell a block that's large enough to be good," said Russell McKeen, manager of Cole's Ethan, Allen Gallery at 3021 Wilson Blvd., one of the larger and more profitable stores in Clarendon.
"The ownership is just too diversified and there are just so many absentee landlords that you can't convince them to get together and agree," echoed Lawrence Underwood, owner of a dry cleaning shop. Underwood's family has owned the shop and the building where it is located for 50 years. The building houses three stores and nine offices.
The diverse ownership has stymied leading business figures, whose support observers say could be crucial to any redevelopment plans.
Preston Caruthers, who managed to assemble a package of land at N. Highland Street and Fairfax Drive, has proven it is possible to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. His firm, the Preston Construction Corp., transformed an old furniture warehouse into a modern office and retail complex that is a tangible sign of faith in Clarendon's potential.
"I would like to do more," said Caruthers, a former Arlington school board chairman and one of Arlington's leading businessmen."But I feel a little like a bandleader who's out in front of the band. I've gotten three to four blocks ahead of the band and the people down the street are wondering, 'What the hell is he doing?' I had hoped the others would go along, but the ownership is so fragmented . . . It sort of makes you cry to see people try to hold on to these miserable little shops which constitute a blight on the area.
"The area is ugly and needs to be torn down and I hope it will be."
Redevelopment of Clarendon is inevitable, Caruthers contends, because "there are economic pressures that will force certain changes. Just how soon, I don't know."
The subway station, Caruthers said, was the crucial factor in his decision to refurbish the Clarendon Center.
Other business owners say, however, that the subway has not brough the boom that was promised.
"It hasn't done one zip of good as far as I'm concerned," said Blair Osborn, manager of Cupboard Antiques at 3157 Wilson Blvd.
John Afentakis, owner of Fine Arts Jewelry at 3016 Wilson Blvd., opened his shop there three years ago in hopes Metro would bolster business. Since the station opened, he said, business has dropped off, although he concedes the general economic downturn is partly to blame.
If the subway has not yet had the anticipated major impact on business volume, there's no denying the double-whammy it has given property values.
Because Metro construction devastated business for a few years, the county lowered assessments in 1979. But the relief was short.
In 1974, Samuel Friedman's shoe store, which he had owned since 1938, was razed for the Metro stop. That same year, he moved across the street to 3137 Wilson Blvd., where he is one of the few owner-occupants on the block.
Friedman said he doesn't need the subway to support his business because he has built up a steady clientele over the years. Nevertheless, he said, he is paying for progress: When he bought the new store in 1974, it was appraised at $35,000; it now is appraised at $95,000.
The nearby house he owns at 3156 18th St. was built in 1961 for $45,000. The land cost $5,000. Today, he said, the property is assessed at 189,000.
Randomly selected county assessment records show the before (1978) and after (1980) effects of Metro on residential and business properties.
On N. 17th Street, for example, the assessment on one house went from $69,600 to $105,400 and another, from $92,900 to $138,000. A house on N. Key Street jumped from $116,200 to, $115,700.
"Whenever you have single-family housing of that quality that close to mass transit, property values are going to go crazy," said Bill Thomas, coordinator of the county's neighborhood conservative programs.
In the busines district, the assessment of the Aleman Jewelry Store went from $348,200 to $404,700 while the nearby Little Tavern jumped from $77,900 to $91,700. The Pacific Oriental Department Store, perhaps the largest single store on the block across from the subway stop, went from $333,900 to $378,800. And Han's Shoe Store leaped from 391,300 to $559,100.
The Sears complex, the largest block of properties with a single owner, jumped from $4.49 million in 1978 to $5.20 million in 1980.
Like a handful of other stores, Sears has been faithful to Clarendon. That, merchants suggest, is because its customers have been faithful to Sears easily the biggest drawing card in Clarendon.
Clarendon needs other magnet stores, the merchants agree. A few boutiques here, a drug store there, maybe a book and record shop and more restaurants.
"Clarendon needs a posh spot to draw the younger crowd," said Al Underwood, who owns PhotoSonics at 1116 N. Hudson St. "But it's not going to be easy to convince (such businesses) to invest in Clarendon because of the way economic conditions are."
"We need to build a better mousetrap here," suggested John U. Downs, a salesman at the Capitol Hill Men's and Quality Shop who has lived in the area since 1946.
"In the long run, the construction of high-rises is probably the best thing that could happen," said Lloyd O. Moore, who owns a tailor shop at 3165 Wilson Blvd. "But it would probably force out the business here now and everything would be too expensive to move back in."
Ashton Jones, perhaps the biggest landowner in Clarendon with 10 acres that includes the Sears complex, doesn't foresee the area becoming a large retail shopping center rivaling Tysons Corner or even Parkington where a $100 million renovation has been proposed. Instead, he expects to see more apartment buildings.
"Clarendon isn't going to wither and die -- no question about it," said Jones.
But how -- and whether -- it will be reborn is another question.
Business association president Schiller envisions a combination of highrises and small shops.
"We don't want to discourage large buildings, but we don't want to see displacement either," Schiller said. "I'd like to see the stores on the ground level kept and then have a mixed use of offices and residences."
The future of those ground-level stores may hinge on their ability to develop a common identity, such as an international motif Schiller has suggested, while capitalizing on their variety.
One part of the international community comes from the newly opened Vietnamese businesses in Clarendon. About 20 stores are run by Vietnamese and most are clustered in a two-block area opposite the subway.
For many of those owners, who resent the characterization of Clarendon as heavily Vietnamese, the international theme holds great attraction.
"Rather then be called a Vietnamese area, we want to push for international identity, to have Clarendon have a personality for itself -- which it doesn't have now," said Hoan D. Nguyen, owner of the Pacific Oriental Department Store and treasurer of the business association.
"With a little bit of effort and help from the county, we think we (Lclarendon) can make it, put some personality into our area. In a few years, when people talk about Clarendon, they'll know what it is and what it's like."
The consultant's recommendations, county planner Fauber says, should lead to a "revitalization of the area that will set the stage for redevelopment. We just don't want to wait 15 years for (the area) to look good."