Like many an Arlington nook, the Kabul Caravan restaurant is an ethnic feast, crammed with Afghan samovars, rugs and antique guns.
Owners Khalil and Najia Rahmani, who fled Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, boast a few celebrities among the clientele: Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright drops in as does former White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff.
But good food and famous patrons may not be enough. After fleeing Afghanistan, the Rahmanis are preparing to flee Arlington.
Their landlord wants to renovate the Wilson Boulevard strip mall that the Kabul Caravan calls home and replace it with a new chain eatery--Chicken Out. The Rahmanis fear they will never find another affordable space nearby.
The couple has plenty of company, area planners say. Washington's inner suburbs are gaining cachet as more livable and convenient than traffic-clogged exurbia. Add to the mix an economic boom, and the result is redevelopment. Aging commercial areas in Fairfax County, Silver Spring and Arlington are getting face lifts--new lighting, fancier storefronts, more parking--and rents that fewer small, independently owned businesses can afford.
"There's an interest in new development in old neighborhoods," said Jim Todd, president of Peterson Cos., which developed much of Northern Virginia and now is part of the redevelopment of Silver Spring. "Usually the costs of that redevelopment are so high that tenants who can't pay the new rents are forced to look elsewhere. I don't know what the answers are."
Arlington is on the hunt for solutions because it expects a tide of stories such as the Rahmanis' as the county's older commercial neighborhoods see a resurgence in popularity.
"These are issues that we are going to have to face more and more over the next few years," said County Board member Jay Fisette (D), who is pushing county action on the issue. "It's at that point in the development process."
Fisette said many ideas are under discussion, from small-business grants to temporary rent subsidies. Instead of giving money for parks or schools, as a condition of rezoning approvals, some developers might be asked to assist small-business tenants.
Similar anxieties are brewing in Alexandria, whose Old Town district is fabled for its one-of-a-kind shops. But national chains, including a Gap Outlet, Restoration Hardware and Ann Taylor, have trickled in.
The sale of a group of buildings in the heart of Old Town to a Washington-based developer, Starwood Urban Investments, means the imminent displacement of The Pineapple, an upscale gift shop that has called King Street home for 19 years. In its place, said Starwood Chief Executive John Richman, there will soon be a Starbucks--just four blocks from Old Town's other Starbucks.
Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) said city officials want a mix of national chains and distinct shops, but have little control over market dynamics. What the city can do through its Old Town design controls, Donley said, is maintain the original Colonial architecture.
"The easiest way that we can preserve some of that charm and some of those retailers is by providing a smaller scale," he said. "It's hard for [national chains] to come in without having a larger store to occupy."
So far, maintaining the look of Old Town's small storefronts has kept Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores at bay, officials say.
The David-vs.-Goliath business story is not a new one, but revitalization in older suburbs is reawakening it. The Northern Virginia Planning District Commission made it the theme of its 1996 conference, and this fall, the National Trust for Historic Preservation will address the topic at its 50th anniversary conference.
The trust's National Main Street Program, conceived in 1980 to help small-town America keep family-owned businesses and historic landmarks, increasingly is reaching into established suburbs. Kennedy Smith, director of the program, said efforts are underway in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Chicago, and most recently in Silver Spring, to prevent redeveloping areas from becoming home only to chains and "big box" stores.
"There are so many things local government can do to help," Smith said, mentioning tax breaks for preserving commercial diversity and help with financing.
Because parts of downtown Silver Spring are run-down, state and local subsidies are available to small-business owners for redevelopment. The funds allowed Barry Soorenko, a commercial photographer with a handful of workers, to buy and refurbish some 60-year-old buildings that had housed auto repair shops. He now leases space to 11 small businesses, including a furniture designer, an architect and a glass art center.
So far, nothing so distinct is moving into Baileys Crossroads, and that worries Bonnie Bielski and Tom Chapman, both small-business owners who are among the last holdouts in the remaking of the bustling Fairfax County neighborhood.
Their tired strip mall changed hands in February, and the new owner has courted Trader Joe's and a grocery store, among others. Across the street is a new mall, housing Borders, Safeway and Filene's Basement, and driving up the area's cost and appeal.
Lease negotiations are underway for Bielski's 44-year-old, family-owned art supply company and for Chapman's 38-year-old Electric Razor Shop, famous not only for its obvious market niche but also for appliance sales and repairs.
"With the property values here nowadays, these landlords want to put these demolition clauses in their leases" giving them carte blanche to kick out tenants and tear down the building, Chapman said.
Bielski said the owner, H&R Retail Inc., by phone offered her a lease extension at one point but now won't return calls.
David Ward, vice president of H&R Retail, said the company wants to retain the "older, community-oriented tenants," but also acknowledged the pinch. Baileys Crossroads is a valuable retail area, he said, so his company paid a steep price for the mall.
"The smaller tenants tend to be victims of competition," Ward said. "And when you have an extremely strong regional area like Baileys Crossroads . . . it can be very difficult for the niche mom-and-pop retailers to compete."
Discussions are underway about what, if anything, Fairfax County should do about the phenomenon. After all, the redevelopment of Baileys Crossroads and other ailing areas has been a high priority for county government.
Some of the county's economic development officials say it's not their business to meddle with the market. It's a dilemma, said County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr.
What the county doesn't want to do, he said, is "cannibalize existing business areas to create new ones."