Ballston Mall Poised for Massive Makeover
Ballston, the once-and-future shopping destination, is turning things inside out.
Tina Leone runs out of breath as she lists all the changes that have recently swept Ballston, along with others that are still to come. As the CEO of the Ballston Business Improvement District, it is her job to know, and she is thrilled to talk about it.
Buildings are going up all over the neighborhood, and engineering is currently underway for a series of street and plaza improvements. The streetscape and bus stops surrounding the existing Metro station at Fairfax Drive and North Stuart Street will be completely renovated in late 2015 in an effort to smooth traffic patterns and keep buses from blocking drivers.
Along that same stretch, sidewalks will be transformed with more room for outdoor cafés, a small amphitheater and new landscaping. The existing Metro station canopy will be jazzed up with integrated colored lights that will turn on and off as users enter the station. Welburn Square, located on North Taylor Street across from the Metro station, will continue to host art exhibits and a weekly farmers market. Construction of the West Ballston Metro entrance, which will pop above ground at the intersection of Fairfax Drive and North Vermont Street, is slated to begin in 2018.
Over the summer, a form of “found word poetry” was projected on various buildings, including the walls of Metro elevator shafts. Created by artists Chongha Peter Lee and Blake Turner, the “Missed Connections” art installation culled words from the “missed connections” page of Craigslist, then reassembled the words into poetic statements about romantic chance encounters and near-misses.
There’s even a “Ballston BID” iPhone app to help users navigate the neighborhood using auditory clues (each block has its own theme music).
Ballston’s restaurant options are also multiplying, with many eagerly anticipating the arrival of Kapnos Taverna and Pepita, two new spots by celebrity chef Mike Isabella that are scheduled to open in 2015. (Isabella isn’t the only big-name chef who is new to the neighborhood; Robert Wiedmaier chose Ballston as the location for his third Mussel Bar & Grille, which opened in August 2013.)
At the same time, Brookfield Office Properties, which owns 1110 North Glebe Road, will give seed money—along with free space for a year, followed by reduced rent for a decade—to aspiring restaurateur Christiana Campos, the winner of the Ballston BID’s recent “Top Chef”-style Restaurant Challenge.
Campos says the name of her restaurant, SER (Spanish for “to be”), is also an acronym for the vibe she is hoping to cultivate: Simple, Easy and Real. (Though her prototype was originally called Casita, she feels the new name is more fitting.) “People [can] be whoever they want to be when they come to the restaurant,” she says.
YET, NONE OF this news in Ballston gets people more excited than Forest City Washington’s unveiling this past June of its plan to redevelop Ballston Common Mall.
This is a mall in such need of renovation that it has only one constituency.
It’s not the middle- and upper-middle-class residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, who go to the mall to see a movie, or to skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex atop the parking garage. They rarely stay to shop.
It’s not the members of the Sport & Health Club, who typically work out and leave. And it’s not the area’s daytime office workers, who might stop at the mall for lunch or a cup of coffee, but rarely linger.
Nor is the Latino community in the Buckingham neighborhood, just to the south of the mall, shaken up by the impending changes to the brick monolith that dates back to 1986, says Lois Athey, a civic activist who works with various tenant associations in the neighborhood.
The only locals who seem the least bit interested in keeping the mall as is, according to testimony at a recent Buckingham Community Civic Association meeting, are carless residents of one nearby apartment building. They like that the mall—along with the covered, above-street walkways that connect it to adjacent buildings—provides a comfortable, dry walking route to the Metro station in bad weather.
This isn’t stopping Forest City from moving forward with its plans to turn the mall “inside out” by removing certain roof sections and opening many of its dark interior spaces to sunlight and sky.
“It’s the game changer for Ballston,” Leone says of the impending mall makeover. “This is our town center. It’s one of the final pieces that we needed for Ballston.”
Forest City says its plan for a new “Ballston Center” will leave the core of the mall intact, though thoroughly renovated. Meanwhile, a portion of the roof will come off the Wilson Boulevard side of the building and some spaces will be reoriented to the outside, creating new places for windows and balconies. The large atrium that houses the current food court—the space where a Christmas tree is set every year—will become an outdoor, terraced plaza. Restaurants will surround the plaza so that people can eat outside in nice weather.
At the same time, the developer plans to replace the corner of the mall at North Randolph Street and Wilson Boulevard with a 29-story residential tower of 393 units. An office building above the mall on Wilson Boulevard also will be renovated. Laurel, Md.-based Buch Construction will remodel the old, unused Hecht Co. headquarters space at the “point” of the mall, near where Glebe Road meets Wilson Boulevard.
The E-Trade office tower, Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Regal Cinemas, Sport & Health Club, CVS and Macy’s (which are not owned by Forest City) will remain.
Otherwise the mall’s retail makeup will change. Forest City officials say they are looking to upgrade the mall’s tenants, though they won’t be competing with Tysons Corner Center, which is now accessible via Metro’s Silver Line. Rather, the plan is for roughly half of the new tenants to fall in the restaurant and entertainment categories. Local and regional retailers will be targeted to fill other storefronts inside the redesigned mall.
Troy Palma, the regional economist for Arlington Economic Development, an arm of the county government, sees this as a smart move that should appeal to the educated professionals who live nearby or work for government, private sector and university employers in Ballston. “I think the future of Ballston is great,” he says. “[The neighborhood is] probably one of our most balanced submarkets” in Arlington, with a good mix of residential and office space.
“They have a population that’s there day and night,” so businesses can take advantage of daytime lunch traffic and have a different crowd of people returning home or for a dinner out, he adds.
As these and other changes continue to reshape Ballston and fill in its vacant spaces, the county’s neighborhood plan, which was first drawn back when Jimmy Carter was president, will finally see fruition.
ACCORDING TO THE writings of Arlington historian Eleanor Lee Templeman, Ballston earned its place on the map in the 1700s when two Ball family men—possibly grandsons of settlers John and Moses Ball—built Ball’s Tavern at the corner of what is now North Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard. Soon after, Mortimer’s blacksmith shop opened on the same corner.
By the late 1800s, the area had grown into a village-like setting with the addition of the Walker school, a local store and a Presbyterian church. As the tavern gained notoriety, the name of the intersection evolved from Birch’s Crossroads to Ball’s Cross Roads. People started calling the surrounding area “Ball’s town” or Ballston.
Beginning in the 1890s, the neighborhood was served by not one, but two train lines. The Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) line came from the north, connecting Rosslyn to the Maywood neighborhood before it crossed what is now Fairfax Drive en route to Bluemont Junction, says Bernie Berne, a local history buff and train enthusiast. Eventually, that train’s route was paved over to create I-66.
The Washington-Arlington-Falls Church line, meanwhile, traveled from Rosslyn along Fairfax Drive (a street so named because the train line ended in Fairfax City), Berne says. However, both trains were out of business by the 1930s, as roads proliferated and cars became the preferred mode of transportation.
In 1951, the supremacy of the automobile was confirmed with the arrival of Parkington, a shopping center whose moniker referenced the multistory parking garage that was attached to it. Anchored by The Hecht Co. department store (which would later be acquired by Macy’s), Parkington presided over the southeast corner of North Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard—the same spot that is now occupied by Ballston Common Mall.
“It was always an outing” going to Parkington, says Sandy Flourance, a retired Arlington County librarian who still works part time at the Arlington Central Library’s Center for Local History. She remembers her mother driving her in from Vienna, which “was much smaller then,” to buy new school clothes for the fall.
Parkington’s attached garage was new, Flourance says, in that most shopping districts at the time still had street parking.
Parkington never amassed enough economic might to spark a neighborhood-wide renaissance, though it certainly became a harbinger of what was to come, observes Katherine Freshley, a Ballston resident since 1973. “There was a real sense that with a shopping center here, development [was] possible,” Freshley says.
In the ’70s, most of the single-family homes located north of 11th Street were rental properties owned by investors who sensed a gold mine in the pending arrival of Metro.
To protect their community, Freshley and another neighbor, Don Alexander Hawkins, co-authored “Ballston: A Community Plan,” just as county officials were writing their own proposed plans.
She says that she and her neighbors wanted to make sure their properties were protected from the bulldozers that would soon enter the scene to build Metro’s Orange Line and I-66.
By the time the Ballston Metro station opened in December 1979, the county had already redrawn its General Land Use Plan along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor with an eye toward higher-density development. Citizens including Freshley asked the county to protect their blocks of single-family homes from demolition.
Within a year, the county had drawn a new Ballston Sector Plan through a public process—one that kept the tallest development between North Fairfax Drive and Wilson Boulevard, while preserving the low-profile character of adjacent residential neighborhoods.
In 1982, I-66 opened (albeit with a narrower footprint than originally planned—the result of land-use concessions by county planners in the wake of lawsuits and complaints filed by local residents), creating another major access point for Ballston.
But what really set the stage for wholesale change in Ballston was the county’s decision to run Metro’s Orange Line underground. This left the above-ground spaces primed for urban-style development, without subway tracks bisecting the pedestrian landscape, Freshley says. She credits former county board members such as Joseph Wholey and Joseph Fisher as being among “a very enlightened, very, very bright group of people.”
Routing the subway line underneath Arlington’s neighborhoods (as opposed to aboveground, along the I-66 median) also ensured that Arlington would not become a mere cut-through route to points farther west.
BALLSTON’S NEXT MAJOR milestone came in 1986, when Parkington was replaced by Ballston Common Mall. At that point, the developer and current owner, Forest City, tore everything down but The Hecht Co. department store and the parking garage.
“It was really high-end [at the time],” says Eric Dobson, a board member with Preservation Arlington, a group dedicated to preserving Arlington’s unique and historic architecture. “They had some beautiful stores.”
Anchored by The Hecht Co. and JCPenney (which moved from a previous location in Clarendon), the shiny, new mall featured trendy retailers like American Eagle Outfitters, Britches Great Outdoors and The Limited. But it never became the economic juggernaut that county officials hoped for.
The mall flourished for a time, but was soon overshadowed by the expanded offerings at Tysons Corner Center, combined with the 1989 opening of The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.
Ballston has since seen its share of new residential and office construction, though many projects have been slow going. Liberty Center, a property just east of the mall that the Shooshan Co. has been redeveloping for the past 10 years, is one such project. At 2.2 million square feet, the eight-building complex, developed on both sides of the 4000 block of Wilson Boulevard, is by far the largest project in the local developer’s arsenal. The latest buildings are filling in a parcel that, until recently, served as a parking lot for Metro buses.
“Like a sunrise, it’s sort of evolved over time, but it’s been a very pleasant evolution,” says John Shooshan, president and CEO of the privately held firm that bears his name.
He adds that the “Arlington Way”—shorthand for the long series of meetings and presentations developers must hold with county staff and community members before a project can move forward—can be a challenge. “But on balance, it’s great to have all those voices. And the process generally leads to a better end result.”
The View, a high-end apartment building that is also part of Liberty Center, shares a block with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) building on North Randolph Street. Contiguous to both of those properties is the site for 4040 Wilson at Liberty Center, an office tower project designed to achieve LEED-Gold, a green-building certification. Once completed, it will stand as Ballston’s tallest building.
Construction is currently underway on the parking garage, on top of which the Shooshan Co. will build the full 20-story tower.
John Shooshan describes the decision to break ground on the garage as “a leap of faith,” as his company has yet to find an anchor tenant for the tower building. Once the garage is finished, he says, the office tower should take about a year to build. But that’s contingent on finding a suitable anchor. If that doesn’t happen by spring, he says, the company will pause construction until one is found.
In the meantime, Shooshan has already paid the first of three $2.2 million payments to Arlington County for the redevelopment of Mosaic Park, a green space one block east of 4040 Wilson that will include a water structure, playground, trees, sitting areas and a fulbito (“small soccer” court), along with other amenities. (The developer agreed to spend $6.6 million to build the park in exchange for taller height allowances on 4040 Wilson when the project was greenlighted by the county in 2008.)
“We’re hoping by 2015 to put a shovel in the ground [to build the park],” says Scott McPartlin, a senior park and open space planner in the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
OTHER NEIGHBORHOOD redevelopment efforts are pushing into points west of North Glebe Road. In 2008, JBG Cos. redeveloped the 800 and 900 blocks along the west side of Glebe, including the long-standing Bob Peck Chevrolet dealership. That block is now home to Virginia Tech’s Research Center and the business consulting firm Accenture, as well as restaurants such as Robert Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar & Grille. In a nod to the site’s history, the blue diamonds from the original car dealership sign were re-created to form a stylized awning on the building facade at 800 North Glebe Road.
Now the southwest corner of Carlin Springs Road at 650 North Glebe Road is under development—soon to be home to a six-story residential building with one retail storefront. Plans are also in the works for the Penrose Group to redevelop the contiguous block to the north of Carlin Springs Road—which currently holds an Exxon gas station and a small used-car lot—into a mixed-use building with retail stores at street level and residences on the upper floors, a project known as 672 Flats.
The next block to the north, currently home to Rosenthal Mazda and Enterprise Rent-a-Car, has also been targeted for redevelopment, though plans have not been made public.
Berne, who lives in the Buckingham neighborhood, just west of Ballston, sees the westward expansion as a “natural progression,” but acknowledges that development efforts that encroach on residential neighborhoods will require a change in the county’s General Land Use Plan, an idea he generally disdains.
Tom Parker, a retired planner who worked in Arlington County for 30 years, says the push into neighborhoods will happen.
“I don’t think any reasonable person would assume that it would not happen,” Parker says, though he expects that squabbles will erupt as big building projects move farther into single-family-home territory.
Shooshan points out that Ballston’s “downtown” core has become effectively full: “It’s kind of like a toothpaste tube. If it gets filled up here, you’ve got to squeeze it and it’s got to push to the edge.” As fringe development continues, he believes the lines between Ballston and Virginia Square to the east will also continue to blur.
What he doesn’t expect to see more of, however, are government agencies and government contractors filling up office vacancies. (Arlington Economic Development estimates Ballston’s current commercial vacancy rate at a little over 17 percent, compared with a countywide rate that’s north of 20 percent.) Ballston has been a popular location for these entities over the past 30 years, he says, but now they are getting priced out of the market. (Witness the impending exodus of longtime employers such as the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
The handful of tenants who are looking to lease space in the Shooshan Co.’s new building at 4040 Wilson Blvd. certainly seem to confirm it. “Not one of them is a government contractor,” he says. “They’re all technology companies.”
Arlington resident Steve Thurston was the founding editor of ArlingtonMercury.org, which operated for two years. He teaches writing and journalism courses at Montgomery College in Rockville.
At a Crossroads
The nexus of North Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard now counts as one of Arlington’s busiest intersections. Where did these streets get their names? According to published histories, Glebe Road took its name in the 1770s, when the Truro parish of the Anglican Church bought a glebe—a 516-acre farm and garden—for the pastor’s use (the original house, now privately owned, still stands at the corner of North 17th and Wakefield streets in Arlington). The street that led to it assumed the name Glebe Road. (In fact, for a time, there were two Glebe Roads, as there were two ways to get to the farm.) Meanwhile, the road leading west from Georgetown to Falls Church—originally known only as “the road to the falls church”—was later named Wilson Boulevard, after President Woodrow Wilson.
For her part, Tina Leone is no longer plugging Ballston as a “center for information technology” or an “innovation center”—former catchphrases she has used over her past three years as CEO of the Ballston BID. She says that everything professionals do in modern America touches information technology and everyone wants to be innovative. Education and scientific research are where Ballston is now.
“[The National Science Foundation] came here when there was really nothing to come for,” Leone says. “But what started with NSF has continued and blossomed in Ballston.”
That brain trust in the neighborhood has only gotten stronger, considering that Marymount University, The George Washington University, Virginia Tech and George Mason University (in nearby Virginia Square) all have a presence in the area. The Office of Naval Research and DARPA, both government think tanks, also call Ballston home.
Marymount University President Matt Shank says it’s tough to put his finger on exactly what he likes about having a presence in Ballston, though when faced with the choice to either sell or redevelop the school’s venerable “Blue Goose” building (so named for its awkward, retro blue façade), the school opted for the latter. “It’s a place where students want to attend classes…and they want to work in Ballston, if they aren’t already,” Shank says. But more than that, “It allows us to be part of that community, that community of learners.”
Originally built in the 1960s on the northwest corner of North Glebe Road and North Fairfax Drive, Marymount’s eight-story Blue Goose building will soon be razed and replaced with a nine-story office building and a 15-story, 267-unit residential building with ground-floor retail and 11 affordable housing units. The office building will continue to house Marymount’s business school and will offer other classes.
John Shooshan, whose company is developing the project, sees Ballston’s marriage of academic institutions and tech start-ups as a winning combination. “You see the symbiotic relationships between these companies that want to…get the best and brightest,” he says.
Troy Palma, the regional economist for Arlington Economic Development, holds a similar view. “Ballston is becoming our little university row,” he says.