Ballston looms majestically as Arlington’s reach-for-the-stars economic nerve center. But it is also a scene of lost horizons.
My love-hate relationship with the neighborhood goes back decades, at least to the early 1970s when the first high-rises on Fairfax Drive began to dwarf the quaint old St. George’s Episcopal Church where I spent a boyhood as an easily-awed observer of Arlington’s progress.
Several years ago, I watched with a grimace as the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association doubled down on its existing tower and planted, on the site of the old Putt-Putt mini-golf course, an edifice that completely blocked the view of distant tree lines enjoyed by my mother from the 7th floor of the Jefferson retirement community.
The latest Ballston-onward-and-upward project is a modern 10-story mirror-glass structure at Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard that JBG Companies will soon complete on the longtime site of Bob Peck Chevrolet. It pretty well eclipses the view of the cross-county skyline we drivers used to behold while approaching from the north on Glebe.
That location-heavily trafficked for two centuries and once known to rural locals as Ball’s Crossing –today is home to a solid ring of tall towers, the conspicuous exception being the still-low-lying Rosenthal Mazda dealership. (Its employees declined my invitation to speculate on whether their days at the site are numbered.)
The larger Ballston panorama of medium-gauge skyscrapers, when viewed at certain angles from, say, Washington-Lee High School or George Mason Law School on Kirkwood Road, resembles not so much a stirring Manhattan-worthy vision as a jarring, higgledy-piggledy mélange of stalagmites.
Methinks the builders of Ballston have gotten over-exuberant. And they’re planning more tall-boys on Randolph St.
But I’m a reasonable man about Arlington. I accept the county website’s characterization of Ballston as a destination where “elegant high-rises, national and regional corporate and association headquarters, upscale hotels, shopping, restaurants and green spaces all contribute to create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly mix of business and pleasure.” I’m aware that each elevated unit contributes to our tax base.
And I give credit to the public-private partnerships hard at work on the old Bob Peck grounds. The smaller building now houses a Virginia Tech Research Center, and the larger one will soon host a batch of employees from the Accenture PLC management consulting firm, lured to Arlington’s closer-to-town digs from Reston Town Center. Both office buildings achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. And right next door are 90 units of spanking new affordable housing co-owned by Arlington Housing Corp.
The project’s graduated height differentials-what developers call “wedding cake” design–are more soothing than Ballston’s other monster towers. And I admire the way architect curved the building to hug the road’s bend. Indeed, every sightline at the crossroads seems well-thought-through, down to the detail of allowing Macy’s to keep its logos viewable behind the triangular office building that went up later and now fronts Ted’s Montana Restaurant.
Yet on my crankier days, the jam-packed feel of Ballston’s oversubscribed airspace makes me long for those lost horizons.
I’m no civil engineer, but how feasible would it be to demolish the 10 tallest Ballston high-rises and reconstruct them underground? Such a modest adjustment would retain the convenient facilities for their occupants but place them, for us passersby, out of sight and out of mind.
Just a stray, blue-skyin’ thought.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at email@example.com