Throw a dart dead center at a map of Arlington and you have Ballston, a community where a visitor can still see traces of turn-of-the-century charm, heavily overlaid with the unmistakable signs of development.
In the lengthening shadows of modern high-rises, small wooden houses with picket fences and spacious porches stand as reminders of Ballston's heyday. But today, many of the porches sag with age, and peeling paint and windows hanging by rusty hinges point to years of neglect -- signs that homeowners have left the area to developers waiting to cash in on Ballston's promise.
Among the hodge-podge of old and new are signs of rejuvenation in this 250-acre community: new and expensive townhouses; a few new shops seeking to capitalize on the area's anticipated growth; old homes and stores spruced up with fresh coats of paint, and a sleek new subway system running into the heart of Ballston.
Ballston has become the focus of county plans for massive, if carefully paced, redevelopment. Its location next to both the subway and I-66, now under construction along the northwestern edge of the community, leads planners to believe that Ballston can be the "new downtown," the primary shopping area, of Arlington.
In the early 1800s, when Moses Ball opened a tavern at Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard, Ballston quickly became a trade center for the surrounding community. Ballston is still the site of a major commercial center known as Parkington, and planners hope that the revitalization of that shopping area will be a central part of the plan to make Ballston the "new downtown." But plans for Parkington are far from a reality, a casualty of today's economy.
Even without the immediate rebirth of Parkington, planners and community activists contend that Ballston has a solid base for building a thriving community. The county already has plans to redevelop the two-mile urban corridor stretching from Rosslyn to Ballston along Wilson Boulevard and Metro's Orange Line.
And, like the other four subway stops along the corridor, Ballston is targeted for "bull's-eye" development -- a plan that calls for tapered height and density requirements, starting with the most intense development at the subway stop to lower and less dense development in surrounding residential areas.
The area most likely to be affected by redevelopemnt is Central Ballston. As defined by county planners, Central Ballston is a community of single-family homes and small businesses on 130 acres bordered by Glebe Road, Quincy Street and Wilson and Washington boulevards. Parkington, on the southern side of Wilson Boulevard, is considered part of Central Ballston, as is the Pocahontas tract, nine acres of vacant land at Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive.
North and West Ballston, two primarily residential areas, are not expected to be substantially affected by redevelopment plans.
Developers already have started snatching up parts of Central Ballston -- leading to the decline of some parts of the neighborhood as owners sell out and renters move in. In 1970, for instance, 71 percent of the homes in Central Ballston were occupied by owners; by 1978 that figure had dropped to 38 percent, and is still dropping, county planners say.
The heart of residential Central Ballston -- between Washington Boulevard, Quincy Street, Fairfax Drive and Glebe Road -- is made up primarily of either rented homes or luxury, colonial-style townhouses -- which frequently stand next to some of the worst eyesores in the neighborhood. But, because most of the homes are no more than a five-minute walk from the subway, developers have had little trouble selling townhouses that range from $108,000 to $171,000.
In an effort to prevent this trend and preserve the family-oriented character of the 26-acre area, the Arlington County Board last May approved a plan that encourages a mix of single-family homes and high-density townhouse development.
"It's a very considerate plan," said Ramsey Selden, president of the Ballston-Clarendon Civic Association. "Most people are reasonably happy with the townhouses and the (zoning) along Fairfax Drive. It's careful, compatible development."
Katherine T. Freshley, a former member of the county Planning Commission who coauthored a study of Ballston in 1976, is pleased that the townhouse zoning allows for a buffer between high-rises and homes. At the same time, Freshley fought to prevent the destruction of the older houses in the area to preserve the community's character and to provide moderate-income housing for young families.
"There's so much blandness in contemporary architecure, so it's sad to see some of the old houses go and the people who lived in them," she said. "When you have places that are brand new, like Rosslyn and K Street, there's a sameness I think is boring.It takes a long time for those areas to develop a special feel in any kind of positive sense."
Like Selden, she is convinced that the soaring prices of the new townhouses will mean fewer young families can afford to live in the neighborhood.
"We're not getting the families we hoped we would get, which is one of the reasons we urged the townhouse (zoning catgegory)," said Freshley, who owns a large post-Victorian home just north of the area undergoing redevelopment. "We thought that (zoning) would attract more families. But with the prices they're charging in Ballston for townhouses, it's not family housing that's being created.
Gary W. Kirkbride, of the county planning division, estimates that there is one child for each of the 10 townhouses, which are being purchased primarily by childless couples -- young professionals or older "empty-nesters."
The newcomers are a boon to families who have owned businesses in the area for years. Michael Petrosky and his family have owned The Safeway Barber Shop on Fairfax Drive across from the Metro station for 37 years.
"The neighborhood has changed so darn much I don't know where to begin," says Petrosky. "Metro, of course, brought the big change. This place has gone from a small, quiet shopping area to one of confusion and a mass of people."
Petrosky remembers when Ballston was a middle-income area, with most of his customers coming from the young families and construction workers who lived in boarding houses.
Today, he still draws many neighborhood customers. But the increased affluence of new residents has changed the barbershop business. Instead of a quick, 25-cent haircut, he says, "we've gone more into styling now."
Petrosky's shop is one of several small businesses on the north side of Fairfax Drive, across the street from the Metro stop, in an area zoned for high-rise commercial and residential development. The maximum allowable height would be about nine stories, dropping to about five or six stories in the area just behind Fairfax Drive and to about three to four stories in the residential area around 11th Street.
Fairfax Drive itself is planned as a major landscaped boulevard with ramps connecting to I-66.
The most intense development would be just south of Fairfax Drive, between Glebe Road, Quincy Street and Wilson Boulevard -- the area immediately surrounding the Metro stop. County land-use plans call for 2.4 million square feet of commercial-office space and at least 2,100 residential units.
To avoid another Rosslyn, the county envisions a 50-50 split of office and apartment buildings by allowing developers to construct residential units with higher densities than commercial buildings. Commercial buildings, in general, would be limited to 14 stories, while apartment buildings could be as high as 21 stories.
"From a business point of view, the higher densities should be good," said Lee Russell, who helps run the Super Garden Deli at 4233 N. Fairfax Dr., a "mom and pop" grocery that his father-in-law Aaron Thaler opened 40 years ago. "So far (the development) has been great because we're getting in upper middle-class people, professionals. That's been good for the area and business."
With the progress, however, have come a few problems. Police report that crime is up slightly in the area, particularly armed robberies of businesses.
Police note, with some irony, that many thieves try to make a quick getaway by racing to the subway, where they usually are just as quickly arrested by Metro or county police.
One sign of the times, says Russell, is that the landlord "has not been talking lease," and Russell's father-in-law has rented another building across the street, in case his current lease is not renewed.
The landlord, Charlie Jacobsen, also owns four other pieces of property along Fairfax Drive, including Monticello Cleaners, a few doors from the deli, which his family has run for almost 31 years.
Jacobsen says he may want to get in on the development boom in Ballston, and says several developers already have discussed buying his properties. Jacobsen would like to do some development on his own, but says his cleaning shop would have to go elsewhere because a small business simply would not bring the profits needed to keep up with rising tax rates.
"There are so many little lots around here that it's hard for builders to consolidate them," Jacobsen said, "and a lot of the land around here is being underutilized."
Jacobsen suggests, somewhat whimsically, that all of Ballston, including Parkington, be razed and rebuilt from scratch. But May Stores, which owns the 12-acre Parkington Center and the Hecht store there, is not about to accede to that wish.
William Harding, executive vice president of the May Stores, and Gregory Glass, executive vice president for development, said the company recently hired a Baltimore architectural firm to draw up plans for an enclosed mall at Parkington.
The May Stores hope to attract another major department store, besides Hecht's, to Parkington and to replace some of the smaller stores with higher quality shops.The project, expected to cost $50 million to $70 million, could be contained on the present site at about the same density, Harding and Gregory said.
But, they emphasized, the May Stores needs help from the county if the project is to get off the ground.
"We do need Arlington's financial help for parking or whatever and they're helping. We've been talking," said Harding.
Some progress should be made by mid-year, Harding said, to justify time spent in continuing the project.
One area that has been the focus of community debate is the Pocahontas tract, which abuts I-66 at Fairfax Drive and Glebe Road. Some want medium density development, including a hotel-apartment-office complex, while others call for lower density.
Whatever the outcome for Ballston, many residents say they are resigned to change.
"I accept the changes," said barber Petrosky. "You could see them coming and it's definitely a necessary change. You know, New York City, I'm sure at one time, was very much like this. . . ."