Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Next time you drive I-66, know that you are crossing land that hundreds of Arlingtonians once called home.

The drama of that divisive federal-state construction project — which required confiscation, under eminent domain, of 1,054 land parcels of homes, parks, gardens and dozens of businesses — remains vivid in memories of longtime Arlingtonians.

And the duration! Conflict over the eventual $275 million road lasted from visioning that began in 1958, to the right-of-way finalized in 1966, to lawsuits and protests by environmentalists, to the down-scaled compromise design in the 1977 Coleman report, to the paving that allowed its opening in 1982.

“Our original next-door neighbors, Mr. and Ms. Larry Potter, were active in opposition to I-66,” recalls Cherrydale resident Bob Witeck. “They gave us their Stop I-66 bumper stickers, and we have early 1960s photos of homes that were picked up intact, trussed securely onto trucks and moved a couple blocks away.”

Retired Virginia Transportation Department land-use planner Tom VanPool recently sent me a copy of one in the state’s full collection of I-66 right-of-way plan sheets. It shows the site of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian Pope-Leighey House, which was transported from Falls Church to Woodlawn plantation.

Former Maywood resident Sam Day recalls an array of stores around Kirkwood Rd. at Lee Highway that disappeared — Steve’s Diner, the Village Market and Young’s Bicycle Shop. At Arlington’s Falls Church border, Ware’s Pharmacy was forced to relocate, realtor Ed Downs remembers. And retired Fairfax teacher Carmen Clark Colliatie recalls how her First Church of Christ Scientist of Arlington was condemned and rebuilt on North McKinley St.

Those who lost homes suffered the most anguish. “When the lawsuits got going, some people didn’t move out, and maybe one or two people per block were left,” says homebuilder Terry Showman. Phil Lord, who lost his house at 1409 N. Utah St., added, “It was strange to have so many vacant houses around — like No Man’s Land.”

Lynnette Yount, a leadership coach and minister’s daughter, says her “parents were truly screwed over” when the state offered a price that was “abysmally low. Luckily, my mother was a good financial planner, and my parents had saved enough for a lot and having their dream house built.” But she was forced to switch high schools.

Jean McMahon recalls the “shock and disappointment” of her parents when told in 1963 that the N. 24th St. house they’d owned and expanded since the 1940s was doomed. They too were offered “a very low amount” but got a lawyer to up it by a few thousand. “I distinctly remember the `rush’ of trying to find a new home because of the new road,” she says. But construction wouldn’t start for a nearly decade.

Diane Kresh, director of Arlington Public Libraries, remembers the surprise of losing her home at N. 29th and Wyoming streets. “The amount of money my parents were offered was maybe $17,000 or $19,000,” and they were upset that the [similar] houses flanking theirs were valued higher,” she told me. “My family moved [nearby] during the week of the John F. Kennedy burial. The old lot remained vacant for years. There was a huge willow tree in the backyard that remained until the bulldozers started clearing for I-66 construction,” Kresh recalls. “I still think about that tree … still sad it’s gone.”

One of Arlington’s standout Republican officeholders, Dorothy Grotos, died April 25 at 88.

A county board member from 1975-83, the one-time Washington-Lee High School PTA president made her name as a Girl Scouts executive and proto-environmentalist (before it was cool) in the early 1960s.

In 2015, I drove to the Grotos later home in Marshall, Va., and interviewed her about her role in creating Arlington’s Gulf Branch Nature Center. Back in the 1960s, people asked her, “What the devil is a nature center?”