The people who live near the East Falls Church Metro station share a secret they've kept from developers: Their neighborhood is in Arlington.
They don't want their quiet community -- with its gingerbread houses and towering oaks and poplars -- to be consumed by the construction boom that has transformed other Arlington neighborhoods since the arrival of the subway.
Dotted with parks, tree houses and basketball backboards, this is a neighborhood of and for families. And the federal workers, lawyers, teachers and other professionals who live in East Falls Church have gained the promise of Arlington and Falls Church officials to keep it that way after the Orange Line station opens Saturday.
Perched in the middle of I-66 on North Sycamore Street, the station is expected to draw heavily from Arlington's East Falls Church and the Broadmont neighborhood in Falls Church, a few minutes' walk from the station.
"I think people, in general, are looking forward to its opening up," said Russell Bernt, president of the Arlington-East Falls Church Civic Association. "The concerns people have are the usual concerns at every subway station: the possibility of dense development at the commercial areas and the potential encroachment of those areas into residential areas."
"This is one of the more stable communities I've run across in Northern Virginia . . . . People observe Ballston and say, 'Boy, I hope that's not going to happen here,' " said Tom Carlin, a past president of the Broadmont Citizens Association.
Carlin, who plans to abandon his car pool for the subway, predicts that his neighbors in Broadmont and the residents over the Arlington line will welcome the subway's arrival. But they are concerned about development, traffic through their residential streets and the possibility that commuters will try to convert those streets to parking lots.
With a little help from the Arlington County Board and the Falls Church City Council, the residents say, they will be able to preserve the family ambiance.
County and city officials and residents say they may have to institute a parking permit system to keep residential streets from becoming commuter parking lots. The two governments already have put developers on notice that the neighborhood will not be fertile ground for skyscraper-dreamers.
Falls Church, where high-rises are an anathema, does not allow buildings taller than 75 feet, or about seven stories. The zoning on the Washington Street commercial corridor near the station, where office parks are springing up, allows heights of 45 feet, or about four stories.
"The sky is not the limit," said Falls Church Mayor Carol W. DeLong. "So I think development will be particularly slow and not intense."
Although Arlington targeted its other Metro station areas for high-rises that have considerably increased the county's income, County Board Chairman Mary Margaret Whipple said: "There was never any intention to develop the East Falls Church area as a high-rise commercial or industrial area, but to maintain the character of that community as it is."
Last month, the County Board reaffirmed that longstanding policy by adopting a general land use plan aimed at preserving the low density, low-rise character of the residential area.
The board will not adopt exact height limitations for the commercial sector until a joint task force of Arlington and Falls Church citizens and officials submits its recommendations on the area's future development. But a citizens committee that studied the area for more than a year recommended maximum heights of 45 feet along major roads while the county staff suggested 65 feet.
Maurice Flagg, who headed the citizens' group and lived in the neighborhood at the time, said the board's action "means that the area is going to remain residential, that the county is committed to helping the neighborhood control commuter parking, that neighborhood streets are going to be protected from commuter shortcutting."
Flagg, who also heads the County Planning Commission, said he expects the county will "keep development down to a low roar" and that the task force's report will contain zoning recommendations that will "make the neighborhood feel comfortable."
Henry G. Bibber, Falls Church's planning director, said the Arlington Board's commitment to low densities and low-rises in the commercial core "is very much in agreement with the city's vision of the area at this time."
Rowland Bowers, acting president of the city's Village Preservation & Improvement Society, said he expects that developers will consolidate parcels and press for higher densities along the commercial areas. But any new development, he said, should be "consistent with the village character" of the tiny city.
While there will not be any 22-story glass and concrete office buildings as there are at the other Metro stops in Arlington, the small commercial and light industry area that straddles the two jurisdictions will be redeveloped. The planning departments in both jurisdictions already have received numerous inquiries from developers about the strip.
The area contains a smattering of neighborhood-oriented businesses -- a hardware store, a convenience store, restaurants, a gasoline station. There also are a handful of light industries such as a warehouse, concrete-batching plant and a lumber yard.
Many of the area's residents hope that other neighborhood-oriented stores will come in if the current ones are forced out by redevelopment. The first sign of the inevitable redevelopment came a few months ago with the opening of an Econo Lodge hotel at 6800 Lee Hwy.
"I can't wait until it opens. It'll bring more customers," Sandy Becker, the hotel's desk manager, said of the subway. Bookings are already brisk because of the hotel's proximity to the station, she said.
Some of the merchants are not greeting the station's opening with joy. "I want to stay here, but I think the county, tax-wise, will drive us out," said Fred Ayoub, owner of the Ayoub Rug Cleaning Co., which has been at 6840 N. Fairfax Dr. for 26 years. "We're going to try to hang on as long as we can because this is our livelihood."
"I just believe the economy is going to force the retailers out of the area," said Martin Simon, owner of Snyder's Hardware Store at 6847 Lee Hwy. "The land is underutilized for retail businesses."
He is critical of the policies to limit heights and maintain the residential character of the area. "All these visions of keeping it residential are absolutely ludicrous," he said.
Many of the small businesses there now, he said, won't be able to afford the higher rents and will have to move to Fairfax County or other suburbs that have more industrially zoned land than Arlington.
"The only way to increase the tax base is to go up, not out. If Arlington County wants to be foolish enough to say to shoppers , 'Go out to Tysons, go out to Fairfax,' then the local resident is going to have to pay the tax burden."
If the merchants have mixed feelings, real estate agents apparently don't. Irene Otto, an Arlington agent and East Falls Church resident, said listings there are snapped up because of the coming of Metro and the fact that the area is "not a cookie-cutter neighborhood."
A house that sold for $153,000 six months ago could command probably $170,000 today because of the station opening, she said.
"Arlington is hot again and, if you live in a Metro neighborhood, it's even hotter," she said. "People are looking at it with new eyes. If we advertise something as being near Metro, we get a tremendous response."
Elmo Kerp, who lives in one of the handful of houses on Washington Boulevard opposite the station, sat one day recently beside a fruit and vegetable stand some of the neighbors own, working on a crossword puzzle.
A resident of the neighborhood for 30 years, he remembers when Sycamore Street was a stream and the town house development behind him was five acres of woods and a favorite spot to grow corn, tomatoes, squash and peppers.
"The changes don't bother me too much . . . . I've gradually gotten used to it," said the 66-year-old retiree. "I won't have much use for the subway myself. But my neighbors will probably use it."
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