Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpBallston Common Mall looks deserted at the moment. Perhaps that’s because I’m here at 6:30 a.m. reporting for weekday duty working out at Sport and Health.

After three months it’s still odd to see joggers pounding past the shuttered storefronts, and to sit naked in the sauna just steps through a passageway from the escalators gliding past Radio Shack, Victoria’s Secret and the Tropik Sun candy store.

Yes, the four-level 580,000-square-foot Ballston mall – even with its good-deal $1 parking – is looking a bit worse for wear. That’s acknowledged by Tina Leone, CEO of the Ballston Business Improvement District. “As Ballston has transformed over the last 15 years or so, the inward-facing mall has become less vibrant and isn’t fully serving those who work and live here,” she told me.

But her group has just unveiled an ambitious plan to remake it as Ballston Center. “The mall project is not merely a renovation or rehab project. It’s a game-changer and transformation that will invigorate the street life of Wilson Blvd.,” she said. The village-ization and a new 29-floor apartment tower “will further activate all of Ballston and become a town center, which is what we’ve been missing.”

To glimpse the vision, I attended the Ballston BID’s annual meeting June 23 at the Westin Hotel. It began with a bar and food spread, posters profiling restaurateurs from a competition and throbbing music. The crowd of 300 included neighborhood proprietors and finance folks, along with a who’s-who of nonprofits: Leadership Arlington, the new (young) Chamber of Commerce president, advocates for the homeless and affordable housing, Arlington revenue officials, the Arts council, church staff and a platoon from Virginia Tech’s Ballston outpost.

County Board Chair Jay Fisette gave a pep talk on the virtues of planning. “Ballston didn’t look like this 20 years ago,” he said, “and we’re proud of the transition through public and private investment. The Arlington Way sometimes takes longer, but you get better decisions.”

The heart of the coming Ballston, shown as renderings, is a plan by owner/developer Forest City to demolish the current Macy’s furniture annex to make room for a residential tower with 393 apartments and four levels of underground parking. Next comes “significant upgrading” of interior concourses to blend a new mix of dining, retail and entertainment that preserves key tenants Macy’s, Regal Cinemas, Sport and Health, and Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

Forest City may seek to tear down the current overpass with its hallmark Ballston sign and redesign Wilson Blvd.

It’s the outdoors where the BID wants to do its dramatic “placemaking.” Arlington expects its population to rise 20 percent within 10 years, Leone said, bringing a 4 percent increase in Metro trips per day. That calls for a pedestrian-friendly village – not a destination mall a la Tysons. Hence the redesign of routes to stress traffic safety for buses, pedestrians and bikes, as well as improving access to small parks with cypress trees. All with higher visibility for retail and 70 restaurants within five blocks.

The 21st-century BID is angling for Millennials, having launched a BallstonConnect mobile app as a directory for buses, parking and events. Still to come are digital lanterns and light-box banners with audio-visual interactive wi-fi capability.

The new Ballston will “turn the development inside out to embrace street life,” Leone says. “We will de-mall the mall.”