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Clarendon in the Works

Design process, task force reevaluate Sector Plan for first update since 1990.

Connie Herrmann remembers Clarendon as it was when she grew up there. It was decades ago, when neighbors gathered for street dances in the intersection of Wilson, Washington and Clarendon Boulevards.

She remembers when skyscrapers growing up from Rosslyn and Ballston changed the county’s profile, and turned Clarendon into “the saddle,” because its one- and two-story restaurants, houses and stores represented a dip in the skyline of the Metro corridor.

Now a Vienna resident and the mother of grown children, Herrmann wondered how plans being developed this year will affect the Clarendon of future generations. “It’s kind of exciting for people that have been around for a long time,” she said at a design charrette Monday, June 9.

The charrette, which kicked off Saturday, June 7, and will conclude Thursday, marks a rough halfway point in an effort to reevaluate the Clarendon Sector Plan, the basic blueprint for development, approved by the county board in 1984 and updated in 1990.

County board members appointed the 18-member Clarendon Sector Plan Task Force last fall and charged members with exploring public sentiment on how Clarendon should develop, and bringing recommendations based on those ideas to the board. The task force hopes to have recommendations ready by the end of 2003.

BUILDING DESIGN, public art, streets, walkability, mass transit and the density of future development are some of the main issues facing the review process. So far, though, the charrette has focused mainly on questions of form and building design rather than infrastructure and transportation issues.

“The charrette lends itself to testing these building methods,” said Steve Schukraft, a consultant from Washington-based HOK Planning Group, hired by the county for the review process.

Schukraft’s team has been producing preliminary sketches for review by citizens and task force members. Before the close of the charrette, they expect to have three-dimensional drawings available for citizen review.

It’s an example of “visual preferencing,” said Jennifer Smith, the lead county staff member on the project. The process lets designers refine their rough sketches according to public comment, so that end results are more palatable to people involved.

There are limitations to focusing so heavily on building form, said Monica Craven, a former planning commissioner who chairs the task force. “A lot of these things really have to have some context.”

FOR SOME CURRENT Clarendon residents, that context is eccentricity. “Keep Clarendon Weird” has become an unofficial motto for some involved in the charrette, and one of the biggest issues at Monday night’s meeting was protecting the small businesses Clarendon is known for.

“Keeping the character of Clarendon, and the small mom and pop retail” are the primary concerns for the neighborhood’s future, said Sona Virdi, Executive Director of the Clarendon Alliance. The alliance is working to bring more small business owners into planning discussions.

Sam Gaspar is one such entrepreneur who came to the charrette. “We don’t want this to look like Rosslyn or Ballston,” where high-density zoning has led to huge development in recent years, he said.

But Randy Bell, a resident of nearby Lyon Park, said restricting density forces Arlingtonians to drive farther for convenient shopping, like supermarkets. “It seems like there’s a shortage of large-scale retail space,” in Clarendon, he said.

KEEPING BUILDINGS in Clarendon small doesn’t necessarily protect local business owners. In the last two years, national chains like Barnes & Noble, The Container Store and the Pottery Barn have established outlets in Clarendon Market Common, in some cases displacing older, independent businesses.

Bell sees the new stores as trendy but impractical. “They’re very nice shops, but you kind of shop there once a year,” he said. Virdi said protecting local business might not be within the scope of current planning efforts. “I’m not sure that’s a policy decision,” she said.

Some are taking a wait-and-see approach. “I think it’s premature to say now how existing plans would change,” said Smith. “Our goal is to bring a revised sector plan to the county board for review and adoption by the end of the calendar year. Once we leave this charrette process, we’ll have quite a bit of work to do with the task force.”