In the middle of Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, at the point it meets North Court House Road, is a minipark, complete with gray park benches and a sculpture many residents mistake for a madonna and child.
The park is little more than a traffic island, set in the middle of the heavily traveled streets a block from the Arlington County Court House.
Few of the people who live or work nearby can recall seeing anyone using the park benches.
And even fewer seem to know that the concrete sculpture gracing the park is actually a man hugging a young boy, a testimony to brotherly love, donated in 1969 by the Arlington Jaycees as part of a county beautification program.
If the sculpture could be said to have an identity crisis, it's in good company with the rest of the neighborhood -- a mish-mash of small commercial establishments, banks and parking lots dwarfed by the omnipresent tower of the court house.
But by 1985, if an ambitious county plan materializes, the heart of official Arlington will be transformed by a dazzling, $100-million Court House Plaza, surrounded by high-rise offices and apartments and a generous dose of fountains, parks, outdoor theaters and chic commercial establishments.
"The courthouse is one of the first places you come to when you move into the county or if you open a new business," says Thomas C. Parker, chief of the county economic development division, which has made Court House Plaza a top priority. "Numerous civic groups feel this is a real opportunity to make the courthouse area a source of civic pride, to give it a special identity, to dramatically improve and enhance the visual image of the area."
And a most unusual transformation it will be for Arlington, which over the last several years has made little progress in developing cohesive plans for the other four subway stops in Arlington.
In Arlington, the Metro Orange Line runs from Rosslyn to Ballston, and development of the Rossyln-Ballston corridor has been a major concern since the first stop -- Rosslyn -- opened in 1976.
So far, however, the county has been able to exercise little control over development at the stops, where most of the land is privately owned.
Only in the courthouse area will the county be able to dictate future development, since all the 5.8 acres envisioned for Court House Plaza are owned by the county.
The land, bordered by N. Adams, N. Veitch, N. 14th and N. 15th streets, currently is the site of two parking lots for county employes and is valued at $7.5 million to 8 million, according to Parker. Court House Plaza, as seen through the eyes of county planners, would be the centerpiece for overall transformation of a larger, mile-square area near the Court House Metro stop, where redevelopment already is under way.
"Because we would be the landlord, we can control this, get any kind of development we want," said Parker. "We can set new standards of quality that will serve as a benchmark throughout the corridor. So it's expremely important for reasons that go beyond the courthouse area."
County planners and the economic development staff have recommended that the county develop the plaza property in partnership with a private firm, then sell or lease the finished project to the private partner. The completed development, which would leave the courthouse untouched, then could remain on county tax rolls.
In exchange for the developer's right to build the complex, Parker said, the county would insist that the developer provide certain amenities: 500 to 600 underground parking spaces, an underground link between the Plaza and the Court House subway stop and "true community spaces" -- sculptures, fountains, outdoor stages.
"This is exciting. It has tremendous potential and the whole area is so ideally suited to this kind of project," said County Board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler, a long-time advocate of a plaza-like plan. "And because we would be joint partners, we can say, 'This is the way we want things done.' We couldn't do that elsewhere on the corridor and I don't think we'll have another opportunity like this."
Board member Ellen Bozman adds that the proposal "will give us an opportunity to establish the tone and quality we want for the county, to develop a livable community."
Last month, the County Board agreed to change the land-use plan for the area to permit retail stores, open space and high-density office and residential development on the 5.8 acres, although the board would have to approve several zoning changes before construction could actually begin.
County officials estimate the plaza would bring more than 450 new residents and 1,900 new jobs to the area. The current proposal calls for an even mix of apartment and office building spaces. Under county policy, the apartment buildings -- most likely condominiums -- could be as high as 16 stories while office buildings could go up to 14.
But the county is also considering another formula that would result in more, if smaller, apartments. County officials hope some of the apartments would be rental units, to augment the dwindling supply of rental property in the county, although officials acknowledge that rents probably would be expensive.
"We need to tilt in the direction of residential units. If we don't have a lot of residences in there, we'll have another Rosslyn," said Bozman. "Smaller units are presumably the coming thing and are popular with younger people and those who are more oriented toward" using Metro.
Although the county planners have built a scale model of the proposed plaza, the final design will depend on the imagination of the developer -- and the approval of the County Board, according to planner Terry Russell. The county hopes to open a design competition sometime this fall.
The plaza is only part of the plan for the area. A proposal known as the Court House Sector plan maps out a design that would complete overall development of the larger courthouse area.
The sector plan calls for high-density commercial, office and residential development in the area bounded by Rte. 50, Lee Highway, N. Rhodes Street and N. Danville Street. The plan leaves intact the single-family neighborhoods of Lee Gardens, Fort Myer Heights, Lyon Village and Colonial Village.
And in an unusual twist, residents of the predominantly single-family Courtlands neighborhood sought and won a higher-denisty classification for much of their community.
"All of these outside pressures from developers have led us to conclude that redevelopment is inevitable," said Thomas A. Clary, president of the Courtlands Civic Association.
As a result, nearly 52 Courtlands homeowners in a 3 1/2-block area bordered by Fairfax Drive and N. Veitch, N. Barton and N. 14th streets have banded together and assembled their own land package. Already, according to Clary, they have had offers from several developers.
But the most unusual development is the lack of citizen opposition to either the Court House Plaza or the sector plan. County officials say support for the plans may stem from citizens' perception of them as a way to improve and revive the area.
And Clary suggests that after years of watching unchecked and often unsatisfactory development, residents may finally have learned a few lessons.
"It's just plain savvy development," Clary says. Court House Plaza "can be a true architectural monument unlike anything else." CAPTION: Picture 1, Intersection of Court House Road and Wilson Boulevard; Picture 2, A sculpture symbolizing brotherly love and a historical marker, noting a famous Civil War battle where brother fought against brother, adorn the minipark at the intersection where Court House Road meets Wilson Boulevard.; Picture 3, Thomas C. Parker, chief jof the county economic development division, shows off a model depicting the Court House Joint Use Plan, with its centerpiece, the $100-million Court House Plaza. Picture 4, The focal point of the project, expected to be finished by 1985, the Arlington County Court House. Photos By John Dwyier For The Washington Post