Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The reconfigured commercial center at Ballston has been hit as hard as any by the pandemic’s freeze-out of customers and our new stay-at-home lifestyle.

So it was with extra glee that the Ballston Business Improvement District announced in mid-September that Computer CORE, a Falls Church nonprofit that enhances professional skills of adults, is moving into the Ballston Exchange high-rise at 4201 Wilson Blvd. The lease from building owner Jamestown is a victory for the nonprofit’s clients and the Metro-dependent central Arlington neighborhood that is striving to be hip and thriving.

“We have 180-plus students enrolled in 25 online classes, primarily covering basic computer skills and career development,” I was told by Executive Director Donna Walker James, whose low-income clients are 95 percent people of color. “All our classes are now free. We also have an active `computer ministry’ to help reduce the digital divide, and we are on-track to give away our 1000th computer since 2010.”

Computer Core also views Ballston as “a fun, Metro-accessible location on major bus routes and with affordable parking.” The Ballston Exchange building continues its mission to “shed its former single-tenant, fortress-like presence and is introducing a broader, hyper-connected workplace community designed to encourage the cross-pollination of people, commerce and ideas.”

But the overall pandemic-time picture for Ballston Quarter is mixed, particularly for those builders, investors and small businesses who’ve worked for five years to turn an old indoor mall outward. “A lot of people are just not ready” to venture back, said Tina Leone, the BID’s chief executive officer. “It’s understandable. They would see people but wouldn’t know their story — is a family member compromised or sick? People are afraid.”

I confess I personally have stayed clear, paying dues but not visiting the now-open OneLife Fitness gym or hitting the Regal movie theater. (I did a grab-and-go at the new Compass Coffee at Wilson and Randolph St.)
Few are gathering at the downstairs food court, where only half the vendors are open, just for take-out, Leone says. Preliminary results of the BID’s consumer survey show that only 15 percent of respondents are willing, for example, to visit a gym.

“But businesses and the BID are doing their best to assure their establishments are safe as can be, cleaning, disinfecting and social distancing,” she said. “We’re starting to get more foot traffic.”

On the plus side, the new VIDA Fitness gym and the new Target have opened, and the MedStar Capitals Iceplex continues to offer recreation — though by appointment and with social distancing.

“Ballston overall is still very active,” Leone added. “When you walk along streets, you see people out and wearing masks and being responsible. There’s a lot of vibrancy because so many people live there now, while some neighborhoods downtown are ghost towns.”

In the long-term, she says, the investors aren’t worried. “They had already pivoted when they planned, developed and urbanized the mall and met the street. They were well aware of what was going on with online shopping, and the mix at Ballston Quarter would be 64 percent restaurants and entertainment.”

One major downer: the currently near-empty Metro. “They have to build up consumer confidence just like we do,” Leona said. And as partners to the businesses, “we’re doing as much as we can to support them, whatever new normal is going to be.”

Historic artifacts, I’ve learned, lie hidden in the walls of St. George’s Episcopal Church.

The Parish Hall door and terrace of that Virginia Square church dating back to 1908 contain bricks and stones transferred from: the oldest Virginia church (at Jamestown, reportedly from 1632), Roanoke Island in North Carolina (birthplace of Virginia Dare), the Williamsburg Governor’s Palace, Arlington House, the Abingdon plantation, George Washington’s Birthplace at Popes Creek, Mount Vernon, Valley Forge, the Fredericksburg law office of President James Monroe and the McLean House at Appomattox.

This comes from a St. George’s history published in 1958.