To a visitor who has not stepped foot in Arlington for the past decade, the new spate of development across the county can seen startling.
The old Sears that anchored the Clarendon retail district has been replaced by Market Commons, an upscale shopping center with high-end shops like Pottery Barn and an Apple store.
At night, Crystal City, home to defense contractors and government agencies, use to resemble a deserted urban canyon. Now it is teeming with lively restaurants and bars.
Shirlington, tucked next to I-395 and Alexandria, has become the county's arts and entertainment hub, with several theaters, including the acclaimed Signature, calling the neighborhood home. And Ballston's skyline is awash with cranes, completing new, gleaming glass office towers.
"It went from a being a bit of a suburb into a real vibrant city," said Diana Sun, a county spokeswoman. "Arlington is cool now. You can walk down Wilson on Thursday night and it’s like being at the beach or Paris or Rome. It’s full of life and has anything you want."
Currently there is nearly 8 million square feet of new development under construction, with an additional 8 million in the pipeline. More than 5,700 new residential units are expected to come online in the next few years.
"Frankly, the state of our county is very good. Development is at record levels," County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said in a speech to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce earlier this year.
OVER THE PAST few years the county has invested in infrastructure at one of the highest rates since Metro first came to Arlington in 1979. New schools, libraries, fire stations and parks are all under construction, and major projects, like the North Tract aquatic and athletic facility and a streetcar system along Columbia Pike, are in the final planning stages.
While the county is managing its largest capital improvement program in history, several large challenges loom over the horizon.
Rapidly escalating construction costs are forcing county officials to re-asses their construction priorities and possibly delay several prominent projects. In the coming years the county needs to focus on completing projects that are already underway and not try to over-extend its resources on new undertakings, County Manager Ron Carlee said.
Construction costs region-wide have increased by 15 percent over the past two years, and risen by 24 percent since the beginning of 2003. In comparison, construction costs rose by less than 1 percent per year from 1997 to 2002.
"We are going to have to make difficult decisions and say no to worthwhile projects," County Board member Jay Fisette said.
Due to cost over-runs, the County Board was recently forced to approve $36 million in supplemental funding to cover a slew of projects, including the Cherrydale Fire Station and Westover Library, that are already underway.
OVER THE NEXT quarter century, Arlington's population is expected to swell by 25 percent, to 250,000 residents. Additionally, the county may gain as many as 75,000 new jobs in that span.
Such rapid growth will undoubtedly put a strain on the road system, county officials said. Further compounding the problem is that the street network is built to capacity, and space in the county is at a premium.
"We don't have land to expand the streets beyond what we have today," said Ritch Viola, a county transportation planner.
The county hopes to reduce gridlock on major avenues by encouraging more Arlingtonians to ditch their vehicles in favor of carpooling, walking, biking and using Metro and Metrobus services.
Most new development in Arlington will be clustered around Metro stations in the Rosslyn-Ballston and Jefferson Davis corridors. But county officials, and residents of South Arlington, have long dreamed of transforming Columbia Pike into a more vibrant commercial and residential district.
This spring the County Board approved a preliminary plan to bring streetcars to Columbia Pike in hopes of creating a pedestrian-friendly "main-street" environment that residents will flock to shop and eat.
The county envisions building a five-mile streetcar line from Pentagon City to the Skyline area of Fairfax County, at a cost in excess of $110 million.
Streetcars will encourage residents to use public transportation more frequently, and will serve as a catalyst for the economic development of the Pike, county officials believe.
"This will help bring investors … because it provides a sense of permanency," said County Board member Barbara Favola.
PERHAPS THE GREATEST challenge facing the county in coming years is the federal Base Realignment and Closure process, which will lead to the loss of 17,000 defense industry jobs — 8 percent of Arlington's total work force.
Arlington-based defense workers and private contractors will be relocated to Fort Belvoir in southeastern Fairfax County, Fort Meade outside Baltimore and other military bases across the country. Nearly 4.2 million square feet of office space, mostly in Crystal City, will be vacated over the next six years.
County officials said they are optimistic about Arlington’s ability to rebound from the economic hit. BRAC presents an opportunity to restructure and diversify the county's economy and transform Crystal City into a more vibrant community that is not beholden to a single industry.
"A more diverse economic base will be a good thing in the future for Arlington and will result in a more resilient local economy," said County Board Chairman Zimmerman.
Due to Crystal City’s prime location, safe environment and lower taxes and costs, it will have little trouble attracting technology, retail and hospitality businesses, county officials said.
SEVERAL OTHER PROMINENT projects are in the works, which, when completed, will change the way Arlingtonians spend their leisure time.
For years residents have been clamoring for greater athletic facilities, but the scarcity of unused land in the county has stymied previous efforts. Now, though, the county is close to having a top-notch athletic and aquatic facility on the North Tract property.
The 30-acre site, overlooking the Potomac River just north of Crystal City, will contain an aquatic and fitness center, synthetic grass athletic fields and a public gathering space for concerts and other events. There will also be an esplanade that runs along the exterior of the site for walking and biking, natural wetlands and public arts space.
The North Tract facilities will enable the county to host premier soccer, basketball, track and field and swimming competitions.
Just as important is that it will supply the residents of south Arlington and Crystal City with an easily accessible outdoor venue for entertainment and community events, said County Board member Walter Tejada.
"This addresses the needs of thousands of Arlingtonians who desire a place for large public gatherings," said County Board member Walter Tejada. "I’m really looking forward to this."
The county is working in conjunction with the city of Alexandria to revitalize the Four Mile Run stream and create a more vibrant waterfront between the two localities.
The plan focuses on the "lower reach" of Four Mile Run, from Barcroft Park to the Potomac River, which forms the border between Arlington and Alexandria.
In the 1970s the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the channel to reduce regional flooding, but in the process much of the aesthetic beauty of the stream was lost. The current project hopes to restore the natural setting of the area, enhance the vitality of the stream and create more public recreation areas.
County officials are also exploring new uses for the land adjacent to the stream, both as preserved natural areas and for cultural facilities.
STARTING THIS FALL the sound of skates and body-checking will be echoing off the glass towers of Ballston.
The county is building two ice rinks on top of the Ballston Mall parking garage to house the Washington Capitals. The facility should open in time for training camp, and will also contain the hockey team’s entire corporate headquarters.
The 137,000-square-foot complex will hold two indoor rinks with seating for 1,200 spectators. There will also be a 20,000-square-foot training facility for the team.
Residents and sports teams will be able to use the rinks when the Caps are not practicing, and county officials believe it will produce a boost for the local economy.
"The rinks are a real community asset," said Tom Newman, a commercial development specialist with the Arlington Economic Development office. "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."
Later this year the new Shirlington Library and Signature Theatre Complex is also expected to open. The 68,000-square-foot building, adjacent to a new public plaza, will house a 15,000-square-foot library on the first floor. Offices and performance space for the renowned Signature Theatre will be located on the second and third floors.
By adding Signature to the lively mix of restaurants and arts venues in downtown Shirlington, the county hopes to attract a greater number of visitors from across the metropolitan region.
Nearby, the county operates Theatre on the Run and its cultural affairs offices, which house four rehearsal rooms and a sound studio.
The surrounding Shirlington Village is also undergoing a major redevelopment, which includes 50,000 square feet of retail space and more than 400 condominiums and apartments. By 2007, a Harris Teeter grocery store, Caribou Coffee and Johnny Rockets restaurant will all be tenants.