Bundled against the cold, Jack Wilson waited outside two empty storefronts in the main arcade of Arlington's Parkington Shopping Centr while his wife Lois Completed a purchase at a health store there.
"Arlington doesn't really have anything major" in the way of shopping malls, the Washington-Lee High School guidance counselor said. "If it did have something, we'd shop here more than any other place. There are lots of people leaving Arlington to shop, that's for sure."
"This center's a losing battle," added Lois Wilson, who works for the Social Security Administration in the nearby Ballston Tower building. "I only come here for convenience's sake."
Harriett Blank, rushing through the arcade with her daughter Ellen, seemed to agree. "Ordinarily I avoid this place because I think it's so ugly and the grade of stores is not great," she said. "It's really sad that there is nothing of quality in this area."
The Wilsons and Blanks were reflecting the sentiments of many shoppers at Parkington, at the Glebe Road-Wilson Boulevard intersection in the heart of the Ballston neighborhood. A recent League of Women Voters' survey on the shopping habits and preferences of 403 Arlingtonians found that 379 of them have shopped at Parkington at some time, but less than half do so frequently.
The shopping center's owner, May Centers Inc. of St. Louis, hopes to change that with some help from the county and the state. Early this week, the national shopping center developer gave the county detailed plans of what it described to the County Board last week as a $100 million redevelopment of Parkington.
County officials, shoppers and most merchants received the proposal with enthusiasm. But several merchants, numbed by almost a decade of Parkington renewal promises, also expressed skepticism that the plans would get off the ground.
"I think most of us are thinking it's in the pretty far distant future," said Louise Kitti, manager of the Bennett-Hallmark store. "I've got a feeling they're going to start with a big proposal and chip away at it."
May Centers plans to transform the 31-year-old center into "Ballston Galleria," a glittering, 1.5 million-square-foot "flagship for urban revitalization," as the company's spokesmen describe it. If built as proposed, it would generate 3,700 jobs and an estimated $3.5 million annually in extra revenue for the county, May representatives and county officials estimate. May wants to begin renovations early next year and open the first phase in late 1984, according to John D. Moore, company development manager.
"Without this redevelopment, your goals for the Ballston sector may be jeopardized," May Centers executive vice president Gregory R. Glass said, referring to the planned revitalization of the area around Parkington.
Ballston's long-sought transformation is already under way, spurred by the opening two years ago of the Ballston Metro stop, a block from Parkington. Older houses are being renovated or torn down to make way for luxury town houses snatched up by younger, more affluent residents, who May officials presume will spend more at a Ballston Galleria.
County officials tend to agree. Thomas C. Parker, chief of the county's economic development division, said the proposal is "a really significant signal to the development community that Ballston is going to be what we've been saying for many years--Arlington's new downtown.
"The key element for the desired mix of residences and offices is a strong retail magnet, and Parkington is it. . . . The Ballston plan calls for significant development of apartment units, and there is no question the successful approval and actual construction of this proposal will be a real stimulus to development.
"It's going to help the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor as a whole. Ballston is the major beneficiary, but the project on the drawing boards is more than a Ballston project. . . . Any time you have a major corporation willing to invest in the county in that magnitude, I think it will be felt throughout the county."
Plans call for razing everything in the 14-acre center except the five-level parking garage and the May-owned Hecht's store, which would be remodeled inside and out. The single-level shopping area would be replaced by a three-story enclosed mall with 100 shops and a nine-story office building atop part of it. Plans call for the addition of two more, as yet undetermined, department stores.
In the front, street-level parking lot abutting Glebe Road, May proposes to build a 12-story office building, with the first two floors set aside for retail space and restaurants. A large, triangular, glass-walled atrium would separate Hecht's from the 12-story building; other, smaller "open spaces" would be included elsewhere.
Even if the plan should fall through for some reason, county officials say, May Centers already is legally entitled to build seven-story office buildings on the site.
In return for its investment, May Centers wants the county and state to share an estimated cost of $3.5 million for improvements to surrounding roads, sewers, sidewalks and traffic lights--improvements already slated under the county's Ballston redevelopment plan.
The company also wants the county to back an estimated $20 million renovation of the parking garage, expanding it from five to eight levels and doubling the parking to 3,000 spaces. The $20 million could be financed through revenue bonds, so that garage parking fees--instead of the taxpayer--would eventually pay off the cost.
The county, which would only lease the garage from May Centers for 40 years, does not need voter approval to sell what would be Arlington's first revenue bonds, according to Anton S. Gardner, county budget director, who negotiated for the county with May Centers the past two years.
The Galleria, which would be nearly twice the size of Fairfax County's Seven Corners Shopping Center, "clearly will not fly without involvement of the public and private sectors," May Centers' Glass warned.
But County Board member Dorothy T. Grotos urged careful deliberation. "Everybody wants a retail shopping center in Arlington, including myself, but the price may be too high," Grotos said. "We have to proceed with caution. It's a lot of local money we're talking about."
Still, Vernon Smith, manager of Parkington Florist, which would be temporarily displaced during renovation, is excited by the plans. "It will probably be a gold mine if there's something here to please everybody," Smith said. "There's nothing that Arlington needs more than a good shopping center. It will probably keep people here rather than having them go to Tysons Corner, Landmark and the others."
Jack Sun, owner of the House of the Peking Duck, said he is willing to close the restaurant for the renovation if he can mobe back. "The subway is not helping us that much," he said, "but with more businesses and more stores and shoppers and the office buildings going up, we'll be able to draw a bigger lunch crowd."
Many of Parkington's stores are owned by chains, and most store managers said they expected the parent company would want to return after redevelopment. But James Sutton, owner of the Monique Beauty Academy, said many of the small, independent businesses -- including his -- would not be able to pay the higher rents after redevelopment.
"We have a lot of older ladies who live in the neighborhood and come in here to get their hair done because it's close and it only costs a dollar," Sutton added. "Some of them this morning were complaining about their assessments going up, and that it would be bad for them. So I think some of the [Ballston] residents are going to fight this because it would raise their property taxes.
"I think that's where the big aquash [of the plan] is going to come."