Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe reconstituted county board on New Year’s Day displayed good-vibes behavior as members delivered their inaugural speeches and agendas.

But the seeds of future conflict were discernible in markers laid down by Jay Fisette (“I believe in making smart investments for the future”) and John Vihstadt (“we can find programs and projects to reduce, recalibrate, eliminate or defer”).

A key issue, said new Chair Libby Garvey, will be a quest to simplify zoning.

One reason zoning is not already simple is the important work of a less-visible player in the zoning wars, Joan Lawrence, for the past dozen years a member and now chair of the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board.

She and her all-volunteer colleagues last year weighed in on an array of neighborhood battles, among them the fight over preserving the century-old Wilson School in upper Rosslyn, the demolished “Blue Goose” Ballston high-rise, the coming replacement of Arlington Presbyterian Church with a Columbia Pike housing project and planned expansion of the Stratford building currently housing the H-B Woodlawn program.

“2015 was a challenging year,” acknowledges Lawrence, who by day is a patent attorney and lives in the historic Maywood neighborhood. “We strive for consensus and try to be as apolitical as possible.”

The board, which meets monthly in county board offices, responds to requests for historic designation from a property owner or group and makes recommendations to the county board.

Arlington hosts many historic properties on the National Register, and the board mimics guidelines from the Interior secretary and cooperates with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in applying Arlington zoning and the Virginia code, Lawrence says.

Requests on routine home additions go to a sub-unit of professional architects, the Design Review Committee, which “in a couple meetings provides what amounts to free architectural advice,” she says.

On preserving the Wilson School, Lawrence’s board was overruled by the school system’s need for a new H-B Woodlawn facility. She and colleagues felt, however, that the utilitarian structure could have been restored to its original early-20th-century stylishness to form a Wilson Blvd. bookend with the similar Maury School, which houses the Arlington Arts Center.

The solution the board helped the county craft for Stratford – site of the integration of Arlington schools in 1959 – she believes should satisfy the civil rights community and those desperate to reduce school overcrowding. The coming addition on one side “is good not only from a budgetary point of view, it also preserves a sense of place,” she says. “You can walk from Old Dominion Drive and put yourself in the place, which is worth more than a historical marker.”

On the doomed Presbyterian church, her board helped keep the housing project “architecturally sensitive” while preserving an exhibit of the church’s pioneering social history, Lawrence says.

Of the Blue Goose, some recycled panels and a historic marker are planned with the construction, but owner Marymount University was not interested in much preservation, Lawrence says. She asked them to consider whether “in 60-70 years people will want to save” the edifice now rising.
“In Arlington, we have some education to do,” said Lawrence. “I wish the board had more input at earlier stage” rather than when commercial projects are already done. Residential neighborhoods risk losing lose their national registration, she warns, if they make many changes and many homes are torn down.

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The rumored parking war at the Westover Shopping Center appears to have eased. Last summer, not long after the successful May opening of the Italian Store II, warning signs appeared at intervals between the shops.

One warned non-customers against parking at the Italian Store, for which owner Bobby Tramonte purchased his own lot. Other signs – complete with towing alerts – warned patrons and employees of the new deli and the nearby library not to park in front of the other Westover stores.

My talks with several merchants indicate the signs have accomplished their purpose, and that any perceived tensions have blown over.