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Central Clarendon to Get Face Lift

County Board approves new office, residential and retail project that will preserve historic structures.

For the past few years county officials have regularly espoused a single-minded goal for the future of Clarendon: create more high-density development near the Metro while retaining the neighborhood’s funky character and historic buildings.

Now that vision is starting to come to fruition.

EARLIER IN THE month the County Board put the finishing touches on planning guidelines for the neighborhood, which call for a blend of new residential, office and shopping complexes to reinvigorate the heart of Clarendon.

Then last week the board members approved the first new development since the updated Clarendon plan came into effect, a massive project that will include three new towers on the two most prominent blocks adjacent to the Metro entrance.

When completed, the new Clarendon Center will reshape the county's skyline but will also preserve two unique Art Deco structures, which house Arlington mainstays Hard Times Café and the Clarendon Grill.

"This project exemplifies what we are trying to do with the new Clarendon Sector Plan," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, referring to the development document. "It respects the historic form of Clarendon" and will prove to be "one of the most significant projects ever approved in the county," he added.

SAUL CENTERS INC. is planning to construct a six-story office building directly to the east of the Metro entrance, on the block bounded by Clarendon Boulevard, N. Highland Street, Wilson Boulevard and N. Garfield Street.

The company will preserve the Underwood, which faces the Metro entrance and contains Hard Times Café and the Delhi Club, as well as several colorful storefronts next to the building along Wilson Boulevard.

Before embarking on that segment of the project, the developers will construct a 12-story residential tower and a nine-story office building to the south, on the site of the vacant Clarendon Center.

The historic Old Dominion, one of the best remaining examples of World War II-era Art Deco buildings in the region, will not be torn down as part of the redevelopment process. In return for retaining the two famous structures, board members gave the developers extra density for their project.

"To have two full building preservations is pretty amazing," said Nancy Iacomini, a member of the county’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board. "This is very heartening to us and a good step forward."

The project originally came before the board in 2004, but was rejected because it did not include enough retail or office space. Part of the county’s ambition in Clarendon is to ensure there is a vibrant business district in the community, board members said.

"This is a good lesson that we don’t need to rush to do a project that doesn’t meet the standards of the neighborhood," said Board member Walter Tejada.

Recognizing that small, locally owned businesses are the backbone of Clarendon, the developers have announced that they will produce a package of incentives to lure entrepreneurs to the new retail space. Saul Centers also has a tenant relocation plan so that the businesses currently situated in the two buildings will not have to leave the neighborhood.

Saul Centers has made "significant efforts to prevent the displacement of existing retail, and we appreciate that," said Planning Commission member Inta Malis.

THE CLARENDON CENTER project will be the third development under the county’s new affordable housing guidelines. Saul Centers is required to either sell a certain percentage of units at below market rates or give money to Arlington’s housing fund.

The development will contain two levels of public parking, a critical need in the neighborhood. Board members also suggested that more be done to educate the public about parking opportunities in Clarendon.

Not all members of the surrounding communities were pleased with the scope of the projects. Bill Gearhart lamented the lack of setbacks — one of the goals of the Clarendon Sector Plan — in the building on the southern block, saying that it will dwarf surrounding structures.

"When the building is built it will feel like we closed in Clarendon Boulevard," he said. "I don’t think it’s very pedestrian-friendly or a Clarendon-type building."

Yet the vast majority of community leaders have voiced their support for the new development, saying it will encourage more people to live, work and shop in Clarendon.

"This showcases the mixed-use, smart growth and historic preservation" that neighbors want in Clarendon, said Melissa Bondi, president of the Lyon Park Civic Association. "All of our ideas about Clarendon are coming together in one spot."