Questioning Clarendon

Questioning Clarendon

Planning for Clarendon’s future moves into its final phases in 2004, but many questions still need answers.

After holidays and last month’s snows, the move to decide the future of Clarendon is “in a little bit of a break,” said Ritch Viola last week. “But we hope to get back into it.”

This week, members of the task force to revise the Clarendon sector plan began meetings to hammer out the final details of what Clarendon will look like in the future, said Viola.

A planner in the county Department of Public Works, Viola addressed members of the Clarendon Alliance at the organization’s annual meeting last Wednesday, Jan. 28.

The meetings will determine how Clarendon will develop in the coming decade: the size of buildings, what kind of businesses to welcome to the area, and what kind of streetscape they’ll fill.

“We’ve collected a lot of information from folks, and we’re starting to put together a framework,” Viola said on Friday.

To put in sports terms, “we’re in the third quarter,” said Jonathan Kinney, Clarendon Alliance liaison to the task force. “There’s still a lot of the process left to go through. But a lot of the initial process is done, and we’re starting to make decisions.”

But other residents and business owners worry that the process of revising plans for Clarendon come too late, after the neighborhood has become less Adams Morgan, and more of an “ultra-Bethesda.”

<b>PLANNING FOR CLARENDON</b> began with the 1984 Sector Plan, part of a county planning process for the neighborhoods surrounding each Metro stop between Rosslyn and Ballston.

The 1984 plan envisioned Clarendon as an “urban village,” a description that has continued on to the present, combining street-level shops with apartments, serving as a transition between high-rise, commercial centers and neighborhoods of single-family homes. Those plans were updated in 1990, with an amendment passed by County Board members, but the vision for Clarendon was essentially the same.

The task force working with Viola is conducting the first revision of plans for the neighborhood since that amendment. Beginning last January, county planners have worked with representatives of neighborhood businesses and local civic associations to decide how to change the plans for Clarendon, including a charette last summer to collect public opinion.

The questions they’ve been trying to answer include: how to adapt the transportation system (both streets and sidewalks) in and around Clarendon; what the density of development should be in the area; how to retain small businesses; and how to zone the area for future development.

<b>SOME QUESTIONS</b> have already been answered.

“In the last five years, we’ve really seen an acceleration of development in the county,” much of that in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, County Board Chair Barbara Favola told Alliance members last week.

In the last two years, the Market Common complex has added several shopping centers and condominiums to Clarendon, a new high-rise office building has gone up across from the Metro station exit, and construction is beginning on a mix of offices, stores and condominiums on the old site of Gold’s Gym.

There’s been a transition, Favola said, “from a sleepy community to a community with a little more oomph.”

Discussions for a new Clarendon sector plan have focused on that transition, and trying to keep a new, developed Clarendon manageable. With the range of issues under discussion, Viola said the task force is taking the long view. “We likely won’t hear a decision from the board until, we expect, the early summer,” he said.

“It’s a long process,” said Rebecca Tax, president of the Clarendon Alliance Board. “In general, I’ve heard very positive comments about the people running it. But I have heard some comments about the fact that it isn’t easy enough. Meetings are open, but the public can’t speak at them.”

<b>WITH DEVELOPMENTS</b> already underway in Clarendon, some residents and business owners have also expressed concerns that the sector plan won’t be able to preserve Clarendon’s “urban village” feel — that the neighborhood has already grown out of “village,” leaving it just “urban.”

There’s some basis for such fears, said Kinney. But he was convinced they wouldn’t be borne out in Clarendon’s future.

“There’s been some concern expressed that as to … the retention of small businesses, it becomes harder to deal with as more projects go forward,” said Kinney.

There have been some Clarendon businesses that closed as the area redeveloped, and concerns that small, independent businesses will not be able to compete against national retailers, like the Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma or Barnes & Noble in Market Common.

But if Clarendon and Arlington want small businesses, Kinney said, they will find a way to keep them. “We’re going to find a way to get to our goals.”

<b>THAT MAY NOT</b> mean Clarendon is the place for a business with national ambitions to start. “I doubt we’re going to have a Barnes & Noble born in Clarendon. That’s where the rub is, when a small bookstore is trying to compete against a Barnes & Noble or a Borders,” said Kinney.

The solution may mean making Clarendon a home to niche markets. “Businesses that specialize in foreign goods, whether it’s materials from India, cigars from Jamaica, or British pastry goods — they’ll do well,” he said.

Those have been Clarendon’s success stories over the last five years, he said: Orpheus Records, a used record store; Arlington Gift & Garden, a Columbia Pike transplant; and a series of businesses closer to Courthouse on Wilson.

“For every [business] that you can say, ‘That was a loss,’ you can point to another and say, ‘That was a net gain,’” said Kinney.

Tax also saw good business opportunities ahead. She was sad to see Clarendon lose some of its small-town atmosphere, but, she said “it has increased my business. Professionally, I can’t complain.”