While other neighborhoods surrounding Metro subway stops in Arlington are being redeveloped at an almost dizzying speed, Clarendon has lagged. Once the vibrant "downtown" of Northern Virginia, Clarendon today is kept barely alive by an eclectic collection of small businesses.
Although the core of Clarendon is often dismissed as an "eyesore" and an "embarrassment," there are signs that the area's long-touted rebirth is slowly materializing.
It was that promise that brought out more than 100 persons to a meeting at the George Mason University Law Center last week to form "The Clarendon Alliance."
James M. Wright, a member of the county's economic development commission and the organizer of the alliance meeting, said the group was taking a cue from the Ballston Partnership, a public-private coalition founded to promote and coordinate Ballston's development.
As in that partnership, Wright said, the alliance hopes to form a strong bond among nearby residents, store owners and developers who will take an active role in guiding the area's redevelopment and, he said, "be a pusher for Clarendon."
Part of that job will require lobbying for increased funding for public improvements before the Arlington County Board, which has already agreed to pour $400,000 into improvements for streets and sidewalks there and for an upgraded traffic light system to make travel easier.
The money is just part of an overall plan the board adopted to make the area more "liveable," and spur its revitalization through such tools as new commercial zoning categories created especially for Clarendon.
County Board member Albert C. Eisenberg, speaking at the beginning of the session, said the board welcomed the alliance's formation: "It is the first important, practical step . . . to help the county's plan for Clarendon unfold, to take shape as we want it to . . . . We want an urban village that would coexist peacefully and harmoniously with the rest of the county."
One building that isn't doing that now, several speakers said, is the old G.C. Murphy department store on Wilson Boulevard, which has been vacant for more than six years. It is owned by the Westminster Corp., a subsidiary of the B.F. Saul Co.
"I think the alliance, together with the county, may want to focus on getting that building back into use," Wright said.
Among other issues the alliance plans to address are ways to improve Clarendon's appearance, the supply of parking and the mix of future office and retail space so there will be a heavy emphasis on retail.
"We have a choice between shaping changes for the common good or being shaped by them. One way or another, it's going to happen," said William W. Gearhart, a Lyon Village civic leader and one of several representatives from nearby civic groups at the meeting.
The success of the Ballston Partnership, and its ability to secure public funds to complement developers' contributions to public improvements, appeared to make some of the Clarendon boosters more confident of their prospects.
"I'll volunteer our support. I'll pledge our cooperation and come up with some money with the others," said prominent Arlington developer Preston C. Caruthers, who several years ago renovated one office building there and now is involved in the construction of the new Clarendon Square office building at Wilson Boulevard and North Highland Street.
The alliance, he told the meeting, "is probably the 300th 'what-to-do-with-Clarendon' study committee . . . . But I really think this is the first one that has a chance to do something."
Caruthers said his optimism was rooted in his belief that Clarendon is just becoming ripe for redevelopment. For decades, a series of plans to revitalize the area collapsed because most of the land was divided among dozens of individual owners with tenants on long-term leases. Today, he said, developers have assembled almost all of the land into large packages and many leases are about to expire. But developers have been reluctant to build, Caruthers said, because they see so little activity by others in Clarendon.
"The best thing to speed it up would be leasing space in buildings going up there now," he said.
That, however, has been a problem. Thomas C. Parker, chief of the county's economic development division, said only three new projects are under way in Clarendon: Caruthers' Clarendon Square, the Olmsted Building across the street, and the Portsmouth Construction Co.'s commercial town house development at North Irving and North 10th streets.
The three represent 460,000 square feet of office space and none of it is leased yet, Parker said. More disturbing, he said, is that none of the 7 million square feet of office space approved but still unbuilt in the county is in Clarendon.
"Your competition is going to be intense. There's a lot of space in Arlington competing with Clarendon and a lot more space in Fairfax and Alexandria," Parker said, urging alliance members to adopt an aggressive marketing strategy.
" Clarendon's development is slowly creeping along at a pace that concerns us," said Harvey Borkin of the Portsmouth Co., who described Clarendon as a "sleeping giant" that is going to need substantial county support.
"Some of the negatives about Clarendon are true," said Guy Martin, the Olmsted Building's architect. "People feel nothing else is happening in Clarendon . . . . The best way to bring about change is to work in partnership with the county.
"We believe Clarendon still has the potential to be as it once was -- a first-rate retail center," Martin added. "It has the potential to beat the heck out of Rosslyn, Crystal City and Ballston combined."