By most accounts, there's nary a spadeful of dirt dug for a major development in Arlington that doesn't have Art Walsh's imprint on it.
Viewed by many as the zoning attorney in Arlington, the 38-year-old Walsh has represented dozens of clients building multimillion projects in every nook and cranny of the county.
Even if people do not always like the sometimes controversial projects he represents, few would argue that he is successful.
Walsh himself usually emerges unscathed from the countless scrimmages with the county and local communities over proposed developments.
Martin D. (Art) Walsh grew up in the Lyon Village area of Arlington, where he played basketball on neighborhood courts and competed with his twin brother Pat to see who could deliver the most newspapers each day.
Still a sports fan, Walsh admits to a "bad game of golf" that has gotten worse because he can't find time to play much anymore. Most of his exercise nowadays is intellectual and comes from his duties as the chief zoning and land use attorney in the firm of Lawson, Walsh, Colucci and Malinchak, where he has been since graduating from the law school of The College of Wiliam and Mary in 1973.
His list of clients is like reading a Who's Who of developers. Among them are the Charles E. Smith Co., Oliver T. Carr Co., Marriott hotel chain, Mobil Oil Corp., Hyatt Regency hotel chain, Stein & Co. and Gannett Co. newspaper chain.
"Without doubt, his firm is representing more developers in zoning and site plans than all the other firms put together," Arlington County Board member Dorothy T. Grotos said. "He knows Arlington; it's his town."
Walsh lived in Arlington 33 years before moving a few years ago to McLean, where he lives he lives with his wife Leslie Hoffmann, also a lawyer, and their two daughters.
Soon after he began practicing law, Walsh became a prote'ge' of senior partner Barnes Lawson, a respected zoning and land use attorney with more than 30 years of experience in such cases in Arlington.
After Lawson suffered a heart attack two years ago, Walsh assumed most of Lawson's cases -- cases that have helped reshape the Arlington skyline, particularly along the Rosslyn-Ballston and Rte. 1 Metro corridors.
Among the cases he and Lawson handled were Crystal City and the AMC building in Rosslyn for the Smith Co., the Western Pocahontas Tract near Balston for the Carr Co., River Place cooperative in Rosslyn, Colonial Village on Wilson Boulevard for Mobil and dozens of smaller developments.
Those cases and others have given Walsh a reputation among county officials of being one of the major forces behind development changes in Arlington.
"To the extent he represents a number of major developers," said Gary Kirkbride, county planning section chief, "he has significant input into the future development of Arlington."
Walsh described his role in reshaping Arlington as "very small in relationship to the role of the board, the planning commission and the developer. The people who deserve the credit are the board coming up with forward-thinking concepts as far as development is concerned and the developers putting in the capital, almost betting on Arlington County."
But County Board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler has a somewhat different view. "Whatever attorney represents the majority of developers' proposals coming before the board is certainly effectively having a hand in shaping the future of the county," Detwiler said, "at least in a very real physical sense."
" Walsh works toward meeting the concerns which the community, board or staff raise on these various projects," Detwiler added. "He does a very good of representing his clients, but at the same time he's very familiar with the process, the people, and he knows how far to bring things in order to get a decision."
Citizens who have come up against Walsh and his mentor, Lawson, describe them as formidable foes.
"Those guys don't play dirty, and they know their facts," said Kathy Freshly, a Ballston resident and former county planning commissioner. "I would hate to be on the opposite side of them on an issue that's really big for me. They have a way of working the audience. And Art has a tremendous sense of humor, one of those disarming 'I'm-just-a-simple-country-lawyer' things like Sam Ervin used to say. But throughout the questioning, he's always right on target."
Said county planning commissioner Tom Leckey: "He doesn't go at it in a win-loss fashion but to get the best results that can be reached by all parties."
Walsh avoids talk of wins and losses. "We've lost cases, just like anybody has," he said. "But I think that nothing is ever an absolute, total victory because there's also a dialogue involving citizens, a process where you are constantly making compromises, negotiating and trying to come up with something that may not accomplish everything you want to accomplish, but it accomplishes your major objectives and gives people who raised objections some consideration."
The tradition of strong citizen involvement in the county is something Walsh said he stresses to new clients. He said if a developer balks at that involvement, "you have to say [to the developer] you're not going to make out in Arlington County."
"I think he genuinely tries to understand [civic] associations' point of view, but he's talented enough not to concede," said Judy Freshman, a resident of the Waycroft-Woodlawn area near the Ballston, where many residents were opposed to some initial plans for the Pocahontas tract development.
"He did what we wanted very well," said Hugh Mulligan, vice president of the I. B. Realty Corp., the general partner in the partnership building the controversial Olmsted Building in Clarendon. "He was very good from the point of view of representing the feeling of the community, citizen reaction, and made several recommendations on what we could do to ease the opposition we had."
The developers wanted a 15-story building on the North Highland Street site beside the Clarendon Metro station. They won approval for a 14-story building that is still 31 feet over the county's height limit, in exchange for a tunnel to the Metro station, a plaza and a narrow park along Wilson Boulevard in front of the building. Area residents were split on the proposal, with some objecting strenuously to the height exception.
There also was controversy over the planned mixed-use development of the 9.1-acre Western Pocahontas tract at Washington Boulevard and Glebe Road, which the Carr Co. is developing. After dozens of meetings with a committee of community residents, a compromise was hammered out, said Judy Freshman, a committee member.
"He has a tendency to get in touch with people and acknowledge their concerns. . . . He is particularly gifted at trying to make everybody happy," said Freshman, who got a sample of the classic Walsh touch -- a thank you letter after she wrote a statement in support of the final decision.