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Shirlington Is a Boom Town

Opening of Signature Theatre, library, retail shops, and 400 new apartments and condos will bring panache to South Arlington.

When Chris Morton decided to open a second Arlington branch of Robeks — a fruit smoothie shop — there was only one location in the county he was interested in: Shirlington.

With its eclectic mix of sidewalk restaurants, upscale novelty shops and burgeoning arts scene, Shirlington has been transformed in recent years from a staid, and often forgotten, corner of Arlington into the county’s new entertainment and dining hub.

“The tremendous growth of Shirlington was really appealing to me,” said Morton last week, as a team of construction workers was putting the final touches on his new store. “This is the perfect spot for people to come out, walk around and grab a bite to eat.”

This weekend the Robeks store is expected to open for business, becoming the first retail shop in an expanded section of the Village at Shirlington on 28th Street South. The entire street corner is awash in cranes and bulldozers, as the redevelopment of north Shirlington nears completion.

A new parking garage recently opened at the north end of 28th Street South, and more than 400 condominium and apartment units will be soon be coming online in the surrounding neighborhood. By the middle of next year, a Harris Teeter grocery store and several coffee shops and restaurants will also be tenants, and the county is in negotiations for a new hotel nearby.

“All these additional features are being added to Shirlington now, which will make it an even more desirable place to live, work or go out for dinner,” said County Board Vice Chairman Paul Ferguson.

THE CENTERPIECE OF the new development will be a 55,000-square-foot complex housing both a library and Signature Theatre. By combining educational and artistic resources in one building, the county hopes to attract residents from across the metropolitan region and provide a boon to adjacent restaurants.

“We’re trying to create a new cultural corridor for the Shirlington Village to complement what is already here,” said Hunter Moore, a development specialist for the county.

Signature is expected to move into the new facility in December — with the first performance scheduled to open in mid-January — and the library should be ready soon thereafter.

The library will be located on the ground floor of the building, with Signatures offices and performing space on the second through fourth stories. A public plaza in front of the building will be used for small concerts and other community events, county officials said.

The county is paying for the construction of the building’s shell and infrastructure, and Signature is providing the interior work. The new theater has two performance spaces — one with 300 seats and the other with 100 — three rehearsal rooms and a costume and props shop.

For years Signature has been interested in moving out of its current location, along an industrial strip of South Four Mile Run Drive, and into a larger theater. The staff and performers often feel constrained by the cramped space in their current residence, which also has maintenance issues, said Sam Sweet, Signature’s managing director.

The new theater “enables us to focus on the quality of the work rather than dealing with an air conditioning unit that has a mind of its own,” Sweet said.

Parking was hard to come by at Signature’s old location, and customers would frequently complain that restaurants were several blocks away, Sweet said. Now the company is thrilled to be situated in the heart of Shirlington, one block north of more than a dozen restaurants.

“Shirlington has the feel a new downtown, with restaurants, retail and apartments,” Sweet added. “It is easier for people to get to [than the current Signature theater], and will be more enjoyable for people.”

SHIRLINGTON IS HOME to several other prominent arts venues. Classika Synetic Theatre is located on South 28th Street in the midst of Shirlington’s restaurant row, close to a seven-screen independent movie house. Nearby the county operates Theatre on the Run and its cultural affairs office, which houses four rehearsal rooms and a sound studio.

“It’s kind of amazing that all these arts offerings are concentrated in one area that is walkable,” said Mary Briggs, a cultural affairs manager for the county.

The county is hoping Classika and the Washington Shakespeare Company will both move into Signature’s old home, but that may take some time, officials said. The county has also purchased a series of garage bays behind the Signature building and intends to renovate them into sculpture and glass studios.

The residential market in Shirlington is also booming. This summer people began moving into a 44-unit apartment building diagonal from the library and theater complex. An adjacent complex will open by the middle of next year, with 187 apartments and 159 condos, though the two parts will be separated.

Retail shops, such as Caribou Coffee and a Johnny Rockets restaurant will be located on the ground floors of the residential buildings, along with a Harris Teeter grocery store.

Plans are also underway to create a transit center in Shirlington to provide better connections between the neighborhood and Metro stations.

The goal is to ensure visitors from across the region have better access to the neighborhood and can visit the plethora of restaurants and arts organizations without needing to drive.

“People love the pedestrian-friendly feel to Shirlington, and that is what we want to continue up and down the street,” Moore said.