It was a common problem that brought some of the most powerful and successful members of the Washington-area development community to a cramped upper-story room at Arlington's central library one morning this past February.
Sitting around metal folding tables in the room were men who are used to meeting in their own command posts atop their own high-rise buildings, men such as developers Oliver T. Carr of Oliver T. Carr Co. and Giuseppe Cecchi of International Developers Inc. "It was a breath-taking scene I wasn't prepared for when I walked into the room," Richard A. Barton, chairman of the county's economic development commission, said of the assembly, which also included Robert E. Buchanan, president of Radnor/Buchanan, the local real estate arm of Sun Oil Co.; representatives of May Co., parent company of the Hecht Co. department store chain, and Paul Cali of Stafford Development Co.
They had gathered to discuss what to do about their shared problem -- Ballston, a 200-acre area in central Arlington that had yet to realize much of its highly touted promise for becoming a model urban mecca for shoppers, office workers and financially comfortable residents.
Many of the developers who met in the room that day with county employes, residents and business owners had committed their firms to millions of dollars in projects in Ballston, but now were concerned about the area's image, or lack of it.
"The problem was that Ballston had no image," said Joel R. Cannon, executive vice president of Leggatt McCall & Werner Co. Inc., a real estate firm involved with Radnor-Buchanan Inc., which has one $20 million office building under way there and another multimillion-dollar complex in the works.
"If you said 'Ballston,' people wondered if you were talking about Boston," said Cannon, who county officials said first broached the problem that led to the meeting at the library.
Out of that session came the Ballston Partnership, a coalition of more than 80 developers, county residents and owners of small businesses who have joined with Arlington County to promote and coordinate the current development explosion in Ballston.
"We all recognized there was a great potential for development there, but that that potential had been in a dormant state," Cecchi said. "Somehow the market had not focused on Ballston. To exploit that potential, you have to show the future users that Ballston is an ideal place to live and work."
Ballston "definitely has the potential of being a good model of urban planning for the nation," said Cecchi, who soon will submit plans to the county for a $75 million office-residential project at the site of the Ballston Metro station.
Taking a cue from similar private-public efforts to market King Street in Alexandria and to clean up the redeveloping 14th Street corridor in Washington, the estimated 60 persons at the meeting outlined a plan that would focus on marketing Ballston and coordinating such urban design features as trees, sidewalks and light fixtures.
The county and the private sector have agreed since to put up $100,000 each in cash or services to support that effort. The county also has set aside almost $300,000 for capital projects to improve the area's road and sidewalk system.
"Someone said that, if we did nothing, just let everything proceed at its own pace, we'd get a B- or a C+ community," said Kenneth Ingram, a partnership member who is a former president of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association and now is president of the Arlington Civic Federation. "But if we made a concerted effort to make sure we'd have quality redevelopment with citizen involvement, we'd have a chance to get an A or an A+ community."
Thomas C. Parker, chief of the county's economic development division, said, "What was interesting about that meeting was that the developers were not talking about zoning or increased height or increased density or any of the other issues you'd expect developers to talk about."
Instead, they discussed "urban design, the quality of life and marketing Ballston -- building the image of a dynamic community," Parker said. "They were not talking about promoting their individual projects."
Eleven commercial projects are under way or approved in Ballston -- a total of more than $1 billion in construction work in an area roughly bounded by Washington Boulevard, Interstate Route 66, North George Mason Drive, North Henderson Road and North Quincy Street.
They range from the $8 million three-story motel and town-house complex of Misner Development Corp. at Washington Boulevard and Glebe Road to Carr's $175 million Ballston Plaza project of three high-rise office buildings, two high-rise residential buildings and 84 town houses on a 10-acre tract on the opposite side of the same intersection.
At the centerpiece of the building boom is the $100 million Ballston Common shopping center and office complex that the development community widely credits as being a major catalyst for Ballston's renaissance.
Those projects and pending ones are expected to make dramatic changes in the county's skyline and tax base when they are fully developed, perhaps 10 years from now. The commercial buildings already there yield the county almost $2 million in taxes annually, a figure that is expected at least to triple in a few years, when current and approved commercial construction is completed, according to Phyllis Fordham of the county's economic development division.
That does not include income from real estate taxes on property whose value is skyrocketing because of Ballston's enviable location, one made more tantalizing by a special zoning category the county created for the commercial core of Ballston and the easy access to the area from the Ballston Metro subway stop and I-66, Fordham noted. The new high-rise zoning category requires an equal split of housing and commercial development.
Nor do the figures include income from other taxes, such as the state sales tax and the county's business license tax, or revenue from the dozens of upscale town-house projects spawned by the 1979 opening of the Metro station and planned commercial projects.
Until recently, those town-house projects were the only sign of building activity in Ballston, which the county's Parker said "attracted a spate of interest when Metro opened, but died then because of an absence of any well-defined, dynamic image."
Part of the problem is the county's reluctance to market itself, said Barton of the economic development commission. "The county's effort to market itself has been very weak and sporadic," he said. "I have a feeling some of the people in the county think redevelopment is going to happen anyway. But that's not entirely true. Yes, we are getting a lot of redevelopment, but we have to take the steps to get good quality tenants in here.
"If you go there now, you can't see what it's going to be like two or three years from now," he said. "All you see now is a low-rise, unimpressive-looking area without a real focal point."
Larry Burrows, a Carr official and cochairman of the partnership with Leggat McCall's Cannon, said, "It's one thing to say there's a billion dollars in development going on there. It's another thing to say it's all being orchestrated very carefully."
Burrows said that all of the partners have contributed money and staff time to the partnership. They have hired former Fairfax County employe Krista Amason as executive director, and are producing video tapes and scale models of the Ballston of the future. The materials will be displayed in store space donated by Cali, whose Stafford Development Co. has submitted plans for a $200 million office-residential complex across Wilson Boulevard from the Ballston Common Shopping Center.
"You can't sell an office tenant 30,000 square feet in Ballston for a place to put his people during the day unless you can tell him what's going to be there in terms of shopping, housing, the quality of life," Cannon said.
Partnership members expressed extraordinary confidence that their efforts will be successful, a sentiment shared by County Board Chairman John G. Milliken, who said it is a "very exciting cooperative public-private effort."