For years, Westover Shopping Center sat along Washington Boulevard in North Arlington, a rag-tag relic of 1950s commerce struggling to survive in the shadow of the county's modern high-rise office and retail complexes.
This spring, however, a new Westover Shopping Center opened, displaying provincial store facades, brick walkways, a landscaped plaza and expanded parking. The renovation exemplifies what county planners say is a renewed commitment to upgrading small businesses that serve Arlington neighborhoods and small communities.
The county already has begun to work with merchants and owners of shopping areas that serve the Dominion Hills, Cherrydale, Fort Myer Heights, Addison Heights and Arlington Village communities. A bond referendum this fall is expected to raise $610,000 to help finance improvements in such neighborhood shopping areas.
The need to upgrade neighborhood centers, however, comes at a time when major office and commercial development is booming in Arlington. Redevelopment of the Parkington and Shirlington shopping centers and commercial strips along the county's Metrorail corridor and plans to build new office and commercial complexes along the corridor have taken much of the county's attention.
But county officials say support of the major developments that are expected to bring 70,000 new workers should not overshadow efforts to upgrade the small centers that help keep neighborhood and, indeed, the county vital and growing.
County Manager Larry J. Brown said the attention to neighborhood shopping facilities in the midst of the major development boom is a matter of balance. "The overriding concern is balancing the projected new office and commercial development . . . along with the quality of life for the people who live here," Brown said recently.
Balancing the two is especially important in Arlington where, Brown said, "we've got two groups of people: those who work here and those who live here."
Arlington Office of Economic Development specialist Diana Wahl said upgrading neighborhood centers is a matter of practicality if Arlington wants to continue to lure new residents and keep sales tax dollars within the county.
"This is a wealthy community," Wahl said of Arlington, which has the third highest per capita income in the nation. "If it's a choice between going to a shopping center where , it's a little dark inside the stores and the aisles aren't real wide, and driving 15 minutes to a place in Fairfax where the prices on many items are comparable," Wahl said, "people are going to go."
Arlington has more than a dozen commercial strips, districts and shopping centers targeted by the County Office of Economic Development as neighborhood centers--as opposed to community centers, which attract shoppers from throughout the county. Many of them sprang up more than 30 years ago when Arlington was young and growing.
Now, as one of the older suburban jurisdictions in the Washington area, Arlington is beginning to experience a suburban blight, evidenced by the aging of the small shopping areas that were once as new as the neighborhoods they served.
Before the start of renovations in 1981, Westover was a prime example. "The whole place needed a facelift. It was old and it was looking old," according to Jim Morgan, president of the Westover Business Association and operator of Morgan's Heads-Up Hair Design salon.
Westover supplies the staples of daily life to hundreds who walk or drive to it from the enclave of older, modest homes and apartments close to its nine shops that line the northern side of the 5800 block of Washington Boulevard. It is one of the first neighborhood shopping areas to complete a much-needed facelift with help from the county's Business Conservation program.
Operated by the Office of Economic Development, the program offers limited technical and financial support to the owners and merchants of small shopping areas that, like Westover, put basic services and products only a few minutes away from one's doorstep.
At Westover, the county spent $100,000 for new brick sidewalks and sewer facilities while the center's owner and merchants spent more than $1.6 million.
Westover merchants, who contend the center always has had a faithful clientele, say more new shoppers are coming to the center since the complex had its grand opening in April.
James Snyder of the Business Conservation program calls Westover the "best example of the redevelopment of a small shopping center." He applauds Westover merchants, who initiated talks with his office about the project, for taking the lead and major role in the project. "We try to work with people who're already trying to do something," Snyder said.
Last year, the county helped merchants, mostly restaurateurs, upgrade the streets and exteriors of shops along a stretch of South 23rd Street between Eades and Fern streets. Other projects, which Snyder says are considered pilots, include the renovation of a complex of restaurants, dry cleaners and convenience stores on Columbia Pike. The county is also working with the merchants and owners of a dozen shops on the southern side of Washington Boulevard.
Snyder says fixing up the centers is the county's way of making the best of existing facilities.
"In Arlington, you don't have any new neighborhood shopping centers. All you've got is what you have," Snyder explained. "You either live with it or fix it up."