Twenty-five years ago the streets of Ballston were home to a menagerie of quirky stores and family-owned businesses. On Saturday nights Arlington residents would play mini golf at the Putt-Putt on the corner of Glebe Road and Wilson Avenue, chow down Mexican food at Speedy Gonzalez or catch a local musical act at Eskimo Nell’s.
But the area had ceased to be the major shopping destination it was in the 1950s and 60s, as people began to trek out to the larger malls by the beltway.
Then Metro arrived.
Since 1979, when Ballston became the western anchor of Arlington’s Metro corridor, the area has undergone a remarkable transformation into a mixed-use urban center that has brought thousands of new residents and jobs to the county. Rows of one-story businesses have been replaced by gleaming glass towers, a diverse retail sector and a bustling night-life.
“We wanted a place where people could live, work and have services to meet their every need,” said Arlington Planning Director Bob Brosnan. “Ballston became Arlington’s new downtown.”
A slew of new building projects are nearing completion, which many developers and county officials said will mark the end of major construction in the neighborhood. And they will finish the 25-year process of turning a once-sleepy neighborhood into a vibrant hub of retail, commercial and residential use.
“It’s magnificent what has happened here,” said Ellen Doylen, who has lived in the area since 1982, during a walking tour of Ballston development projects last week. “There are so many exciting restaurants and you can walk to everything you need ... though there’s not enough parking.”
IN THE EARLY 1800S Ballston was a central stopping point for farmers delivering goods from Alexandria to Georgetown, and several taverns sprung up to accommodate weary travelers. Later in the 19th century wealthy Washingtonians built summer homes in Ballston to escape the heat and congestion of the District.
The neighborhood began to expand in the first decade of the 20th century after an electric railway was placed along Fairfax Drive, enabling residents to easily reach Washington. Ballston became a thriving post-World War II suburb and in 1951 the Parkington Shopping Center opened, attracting customers from throughout the greater metropolitan region.
In December 1979 Ballston became the final Metro stop on the Orange line, until it was extended to Falls Church several years later. The county government passed the “Ballston Sector Plan” the following year to guide the rejuvenation of the area. Within a quarter-mile of the Metro stop was zoned as high-density as an incentive to spur growth. The county actively sought developers to build in Ballston and put its own money into sprucing up the neighborhood, including refurbishing the old Parkington garage, Brosnan said.
The county’s goal was to have an equal mix between office buildings and residential towers so that the area would have more nighttime activity than Rosslyn or Crystal City.
“Every Metro stop has its own identity,” said Tom Newman, a commercial development specialist with the Arlington Economic Development office. “In Ballston we wanted a 50-50 balance of residential and commercial and for the most part we’ve achieved it.”
The abundance of office space has enabled large companies and associations, such as CACI International and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), to move to Ballston.
“There are not many areas in the county where a company can find 50,000 square feet,” Newman said.
BALLSTON IS THE fastest growing sector of Arlington and the population has exploded from just under 4,000 residents in 1980 to nearly 12,000 today. More than 11,600 passengers board the Metro at Ballston every week and almost 26,800 people work in the area, up from 9,300 in 1980.
The population is young, affluent and well educated: The median age of Ballston-Virginia Square is 34.9 years and the average household income stands at a lofty $100,000, according to the Ballston-Virginia Square Partnership. More than 38 percent of Ballston-Virginia Square residents have a Master’s, Professional or Doctorate degrees.
The skyline of Ballston is awash in cranes and construction as several new projects along the intersection of Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard near completion. JBG is set to open the Arlington Gateway, a 335,000 square-foot office complex, next year and has begun building the 226,000 square-foot Regent office building next to the Staples store on the west side of Glebe Road. A 336-room Westin Hotel is scheduled to open adjacent to the Arlington Gateway next February.
The second NRECA building, on the northeast corner of Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard., will be completed in May 2006 and the Ballston Point, across Wilson Boulevard from NRECA, now contains its first tenants.
Demolition was completed last month to pave the way for the completion of the Liberty Center complex on Quincy Street and Wilson Boulevard, which will include an 180,000 square-foot office building and an adjacent 500,000 square-foot condominium and apartment building.
The neighborhood will also be welcoming several new restaurants, as Ted’s Montana Grill opens on the ground floor of Ballston Point in early November, P.F. Chang’s comes to the Arlington Gateway and the Westin Hotel houses an Italian restaurant on its ground level.
“We’re greatly exceeding our expectations,” said Amy Doherty, general manger of the Chiptole near Wilson Boulevard and Glebe Road. “Ballston is growing so fast and it has surprised me how well we are doing at night.”
THE COUNTY IS BUILDING two ice rinks on top of the Ballston Mall parking garage to house the Washington Capitols. The facility will open in August 2006, in time for training camp, and will also contain the hockey team’s entire corporate headquarters.
“The rinks are a real community asset,” Newman said. “The Caps will only use 400-500 hours of ice time a year, so the rest of the time will be for public skating and adult and youth hockey.”
When the latest wave of development finishes next year the core of Ballston will be nearly filled-out, though there are a few buildings along Fairfax Drive that the county wants to redevelop, including the iconoclastic IHOP, Brosnan said. He would like to see additional improvements in pedestrian sidewalks and the evolution of retail beyond the myriad sandwich shops and banks that now line Fairfax Drive and Wilson Boulevard.
Increasing pedestrian accessibility and alleviating traffic congestion have long been major concerns of those who live in Ballston.
“As things expand, with the new restaurants and the ice rinks, the traffic problem will only get worse,” said Dennis Burr, president of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association. “As it becomes more of a destination that will just contribute to the congestion.”
For those pining for the old days of Ballston, when ample street parking was available and glass buildings didn’t dominate the skyline, there may be one solace in the incessant building: The county is looking into bringing a mini-golf course back to the neighborhood outside the ice rinks.