Miniature golf and auto dealers are the major attractions at Ballston these days, but as developers break ground for a series of mixed-use projects around its Metro station, planners and business people alike are confident that Ballston can blossom into Arlington's downtown.
"It will have the flair of a mini-Georgetown," predicts Washington Corp.'s senior vice president, John Wolf. His company has won approval to build three office buildings and a condominium project totaling 485,000 square feet around the Ballston station.
But for that to happen, county officials and developers agree that Ballston lacks one critical ingredient: image.
Now it's a jumble of commercial development hugging the major thoroughfares of Wilson Boulevard, North Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive, with tattered garden apartments and a few bland 1960s office buildings between.
So a group of developers, local business people and residents have formed a coalition to promote the virtues of Ballston. Modeled after similar groups that helped to rejuvenate King Street in Alexandria and MacPherson Square in Washington, the Ballston Partnership is promoting the 200-acre area as a "special place to live, work and play," according to its literature.
The partnership's job is to do for Ballston what Mayor William Donald Schaefer did for Baltimore's inner harbor, according to Joel Cannon, a partnership member and executive vice president of Leggat, McCall & Werner Commercial Brokerage.
In some ways, it appears an obvious place to develop. Ballston has a major interchange with I-66, placing it 10 minutes from downtown Washington and 10 minutes from Tysons Corner. It also has a Metro station and excellent bus service.
But the ball didn't start rolling until the May Co., parent of the Hecht Co., resolved some legal difficulties, decided to renovate the old Parkington shopping center in Ballston and, last year, announced it would locate Hecht's corporate headquarters there, said the acting head of development at Metro, M. Richard Miller.
At the same time, some of the largest development firms in the area -- Oliver T. Carr, Radnor Buchanon and International Developers Inc. (IDI) -- started accumulating interest in properties in Ballston. The result is a bubble of speculative activity there today, Miller said.
Currently, the Ballston area has 1.8 million square feet of office and commercial space available or under construction. Site plans have been approved for another 2.07 million square feet, according to figures from Arlington's Economic Development Authority. That makes it the fastest growing office market in Arlington.
But it's not just the office potential that excites developers. Rather, it's the mix of office, retail and residential that makes Ballston unique and totally different from places such as Rosslyn or Crystal City, developers say.
"We want an urban-downtown type of development," said Thomas C. Parker, division chief at Arlington's economic development office.
Construction of upscale town houses and condominiums such as Summerwalk and Randolph Towers is under way around the Ballston Metro station, attracting affluent young professionals, Cannon said. Today there are 2,150 residential units in central Ballston, another 612 are planned, and more are expected with new applications.
Developer after developer cites the importance to Ballston's growth of a regional shopping center two blocks from the Metro stop.
"It's a classic draw for development. Look at Tysons Corner, Springfield Mall and Fair Oaks," said Paul Cali, principal in Stafford Development Co., which plans a 1.5-million-square-foot office, residential and retail complex on land between the mall and the Metro.
The former Parkington shopping center at Ballston was the first regional shopping center in the area when it was built in 1951. But it went into decline in the late 1960s as new malls opened around the Capital Beltway.
Once renovated, the mall -- under its new name, Ballston Common -- will have 800,000 square feet of retail space, including three department stores -- Hecht's, J. C. Penney and a third one yet to be announced.
Bethesda developer Rozansky and Kay Construction Co. also sees potential for Ballston. The company is constructing 315,000 square feet of office space above and beside the mall. One office building with a towering atrium will fit next to today's Hecht's building, providing an entrance to the mall.
Despite this lively activity, Ballston must struggle to create an upscale identity to lure tenants to its buildings, developers say.
As Wolf puts it, developers such as Oliver T. Carr are "the pioneers," ready to move into a depressed neighborhood with a vision for its future. "They're really creating the tenant base," he said.
Carr has broken ground on a project between I-66 and Glebe Road that will have 690,000 square feet of office space in three buildings, 55,000 square feet of retail space and 344 town houses. Next door, Radnor Buchanon is building a 250,000-square-foot office building.
Cannon agrees there is an image problem. "It's an old area that's languished, and people don't think of it with high regard," he said.
Developers and real estate agents say the identity problem exists because none of the office space under construction or planned has been leased. In response to the problem, the Ballston Partnership has raised $30,000 within three months for a promotional campaign, and it is considering hiring an executive director to coordinate its activities. The partnership has a turn-of-the-century house in central Ballston that it plans to use for a headquarters and visitors center where slide shows will promote Ballston. It is working with county staff, developers and civic groups to promote quality design for buildings and the streets, including types of sidewalks that should be constructed and the variety of trees to be planted.
"What we envision is a living and working environment . . . with library, theater, offices and restaurants," said Joseph Miller, spokesman for the group and a vice president of IDI. His company is developing the site above the Metro station in a joint venture with Metro and landowner Clarence Dodge.
Although most people seem enthusiastic about Ballston's renaissance, some longtime Arlington residents are less pleased. "It's great to have the upgrading, but there is too much of it. I don't see any space for people," said nearby resident Phyllis Llisfurnari.
She moved to the Ballston area 32 years ago for its tree-lined streets. Now she fears Ballston will turn into a concrete city. "If that's progress, it's progress for people to make money. But what does it do for the people living here? Beauty has been taken away from them," Llisfurnari said.
The Ballston Partnership says its goal is to bring beauty back to Ballston, albeit in an urban setting.