These Cape Cods are typical of the houses in Penrose. (Photo by Amanda Abrams FTWP/PHOTO BY AMANDA ABRAMS FTWP)

Inside the Santa Ana Restaurant on Columbia Pike, Roger Coronel and his mother tend to the cash register and grill, respectively, from behind a handwritten menu board featuring Bolivian specialties such as pique a lo macho and trancapecho. Whoever walks in, whether a newcomer or a regular, gets a smile.

The place — tiny, boxy and painted bright red — is nothing if not homey and unpretentious. But take a few steps back and the picture changes. Looming over the restaurant is a massive new apartment complex that includes a shiny, upgraded supermarket and space for ground-floor retail. Coronel, 26, says the family is planning on switching from Bolivian to burritos next month, marketing to new potential customers. But Arlington County would prefer to use the land it sits on for a park.

It’s a metaphor of sorts for Penrose, the South Arlington neighborhood that covers that section of the pike and runs several blocks to the north. Filled with affordable apartments, duplexes, a few condos and a bunch of medium-size single-family houses, the community is a tight one that has long prided itself on its economic and ethnic diversity. But in the past few years, the area has become popular among young families impressed with its convenient location and services within walking distance, a phenomenon that will probably accelerate, if planners’ hopes for Columbia Pike materialize.

For now, most Penrose residents seem happy that the community is finally being recognized as a great place to live. The possibility that it could be the next Clarendon — that is, much more expensive and far less diverse — seems years into the future.

To an outside observer wandering around the neighborhood, the area is a cute one, but not particularly remarkable. Some of the streets are shaded by large trees and lined with garden apartments, bungalows, Cape Cods and Colonials. But other streets reveal basic ranch houses surrounded by little vegetation.

Still, it’s hard to find a resident who doesn’t sing the neighborhood’s praises: its close-knit community vibe, good (and ethnically mixed) schools and, above all, convenient setting. “It’s an unbelievable location,” said Susan Minnick, an agent with McEnearney Associates and a six-year neighborhood resident. “Route 50 has what, one stoplight into the city from Penrose? And I can bike to the Kennedy Center in about 15 minutes.”

It’s easy to underestimate the location, given the lack of a Metro station, but the Columbia Pike corridor is well served by buses, with lines running directly into the District and to the Clarendon and Pentagon Metro stations.

And when it comes to goods and services, everything’s nearby. Columbia Pike may not be the hallowed Rosslyn-Ballston cor­ridor to the north, whose bustling pedestrian-oriented development has earned it national acclaim, but residents say Penrose has a lot to offer, including restaurants such as Bangkok 54 and
P. Brennan’s, as well as the Arlington Cinema N Drafthouse.

And it’s growing. Two large, glossy apartment buildings, Penrose Square and Siena Park, were recently erected along the pike; both include street-level space for restaurants and shops, including a new Giant supermarket that opened in June. That’s just the start: The road has been the target of several county-level planning efforts to encourage the rapid growth of transit-oriented, mixed-use development, and a streetcar connecting the area with Pentagon City may be coming around 2016.

The Penrose Neighborhood Association has been closely engaged in the planning process, supporting new amenities including Penrose Square Park, a public green space slated to accompany the new apartment complex. But many people involved acknowledge that it will be a challenge to add quality-of-life enhancements while maintaining a mixed-income population.

“Diversity doesn’t grow on trees; we have to manage it,” said Takis Karantonis, director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. He’s optimistic that it’s possible for the area to grow without supplanting lower-income residents, but he acknowledged that a two-bedroom apartment in one of the new buildings starts around $2,400, considerably more than the $1,400 rent in one of the older garden complexes.

Stefanie Pryor, 38, a federal employee and president of the Penrose Neighborhood Association, said, “Yes, there are concerns about gentrification,” describing several older homes on large lots that were recently torn down and replaced with bigger houses on smaller lots. “Some people were extremely upset.” Still, though such infill development is well underway in some North Arlington neighborhoods, it hasn’t yet gained a serious foothold in the Penrose area.

And while there are some who voice concerns — “I think it’ll all be condos here one day, a continuation of Washington, D.C.,” said Thierry Constans, 57, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years — others say they are pleased that the area is attracting younger families who bring a sense of dynamism with them.

Dan and Jennifer Rothschild, who have a new baby, fall into the latter group. Now in their early 30s, the couple bought their duplex unit almost five years ago and say they love the area. “For a young couple, it’s a really good place — the sweet spot of being a walkable community with a suburban feel, just minutes away from a big city,” Dan Rothschild said. While he’s glad to see new developments along the pike, Rothschild said they’re not looking to live in another Clarendon. “We like having a bit of space and quiet.”

As for the little Santa Ana Restaurant, Coronel and his family appear to be safe for the moment. While the county would like to use the parking lot that the establishment sits on as an extension of the planned Penrose Square Park, there aren’t any designs to move forward at the moment. For now, the family’s biggest worry is a competitor, Taqueria Poblano, which is scheduled to move into one of Penrose Square’s ground-floor spaces later this year.

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.