During coffee breaks and over lunch tables for six hours last Saturday in Arlington, the same theme emerged over and over again: "We blew it in Rosslyn and we blew it in Crystal City. Now Ballston is our last hope."
The theme, couched in zoning eupemisms and architectural renditions, referred to the "shotgun development," as one citizen called it, that resulted in Rosslyn and Crystal City: centers of high-rises, offices and apartment buildings void of shops, parks and pedestrian amonities.
The discussions were the unifying force during Community Development Today, a symposium sponsored by the Arlington Civic Federation, Economic Development Commission, Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters. Nearly 150 citizens, business and political leaders and county staff members gathered to discuss future county development and the impact of Metrorail on that development.
Rosslyn and Crystal City may be "economically sucessful," said Tom Parker, chief of Arlington's new economic development division, but nearly everyone else dubbed them "aesthetically ugly."
And as Arlington County Board Chairman Stephen Detwiler put it, "There is unanimous agreement among County Board members that the quality of development is measured by its public aspects -- its people spaces."
Philadelphia artchitect Steven Izenour, brought in to give an outsider's perspective, drew the economic-versus-aesthetics argument another way. He sees it as the classic fight between "planning for cars versus planning for people": a fight he says should not become "an all-or-nothing battle."
Instead he advocated a mix of pedestrian-oriented development, including wide sidewalks, outdoor furniture and stores that can be seen from the street, and vehicle-oriented land use, with adquate streets and parking and signs and architecture that can be "read" from a car.
"Most architecture tells you the nature of the building -- a hotel looks different from an apartment house or an office building," Izenour said. "Part of your problem with Rosslyn is that the buildings are so hard to read."
The problem Izenour saw as central to Arlington, however, was it lack of "a sense of identity -- you need a sense of place."
Local architect Richard Newlon, former president of the low-income-oriented Arlington Housing Corp., agreed with this perception. He characterized Rosslyn as having "no distinguishing feature -- no lakes, no parks, no great cathedral." While agreeing with other speakers that the 38-acre office complex is economically successful, he spoke disparagingly of its "shotgun development, where the linear plan rules."
What is needed, Newlon asserted, is a centerpiece and he suggested plans for a new courthouse complex that would include a plaza, fountains, moving sidewalks, a historical museum and an observation tower.
He also envisioned new plans for the Virginia Square area, taking advantage of the George Mason University Law School there to produce an "education and arts square" with studios, galleries, bookstores and similar shops."
Sidewalks, green spaces and outdoor furniture would be added to both Clarendon and Rosslyn according to Newlon's plans, and the six-lane highways through Rosslyn would be narrowed to provide land for small, two-story shops.
But the real shopping, according to all the symposium's prophets, is to take place in Ballston, an area targeted for a "mixed-use shopping mall."
Clyde Newman, spokesman for the Oliver T. Carr Co. which plans to develop the western Pocahontas Tract on the edge of Ballston, talked encouragingly of mixed use.
"Amenites need not be the 20th-century equivalent of the Holy Grail," he said, declaring that it was in the developer's best interest to advocate mixed use. For example, he said, "a high-rise residential development is just not marketable by itself."
Housing was a topic very much on the minds of these residents, whose county has lost nearly 40 percent of its low- and moderate-income housing in the last nine years, according to the Arlington Housing Corp. Newman recommends a method employed by Montgomery County to encourage housing. Last year 1,100 units of 1,700 rental housing units in the metropolitan area were built in Montgomery County, he says. That county's approach gives developers a higher density zone change if they agree to set aside a certain percent of the news housing for moderate-income rental property.
Panelists also suggested that Arlington tends to attract small stores and the so-called three A's -- associations, attorneys and accountants.
John Quinn, who lives in Crystal City, tied this directly to Arlington's assessment rate, which at 96 cents per $100 is the lowest in the metropolitan area.
"The price we pay for this rate is high-density zoning," said Quinn, "and underfunded schools, police and fire departments. The only reason we can afford the assessment is the existence of Rosslyn and Crystal City. But just look at them -- where are the green spaces? Where are the pedestrians?"
Arlington has some leverage over its developers, Quinn contended, and must be "much more sensitive to the aesthetics, to the quality of life" along the areas targeted for redevelopment.
His sentiments were echoed throughout the symposium, and are expected to surface in subsequent planning discussions. These include:
Consideration of the development of a courthouse plaza scheduled at the June 20 County Board meeting.
Possible implementation of plans to upgrade the landscape in Rosslyn, plans that were adopted in April.
Expected consolidation of sites around the Ballston Metro stop.
Further talks with developers over changes to the Parkington Shopping Center.
Developent of the western Pocahontas Tract as a mixed-use area.
A study by the Arlington League of Women Voters on "Planning in Arlington" focusing initially on the Ballston triangle.