Urban Planning, with Fore-sight

Urban Planning, with Fore-sight

Ballston's mini-golf project creates nostalgia, controversy.

For Arlington teenagers in the 1960s, a balmy summer Saturday night might have started with a slice of pepperoni pizza at Mario's and ended with a milkshake at Tops Drive-in and its jumping jukebox.

But the Putt-Putt miniature golf course in Ballston — located on the corner of Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard — was the social hub of teenage life, even into the following decade.

"It was a great place for young people to hang around on an evening. There was very little supervision," said Kathryn Holt Springston, a local historian and 1971 graduate of H-B Woodlawn, while laughing.

Metro came to Ballston in 1979, permanently altering the character of the neighborhood. Land values surrounding the Metro entrance sky-rocketed, and the owners of the mini-golf course sold the land to a developer several years later.

The loss of the golf complex was emblematic of the changes sweeping the neighborhood. Ballston was beginning to transform from a sleepy post-World War II suburb into a bustling urban center.

"The mini-golf course was the pride of the neighborhood," said Dennis Burr, president of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association. "Everyone was upset when they tore it out and put in a high-rise."

Now the county is seeking to bring a mini-golf course back to the heart of Ballston.

THE ARLINGTON PARKS and recreation division is currently identifying the level of interest of private companies to develop and operate a miniature golf facility next to the Ballston Common Mall. The course would be located on a one-acre parcel of land at the intersection of Glebe Road and Randolph Street, in front of the mall's parking garage.

For years, the county has planned to turn the corner outside the parking garage into a recreational area. But rather than fill the space with a fountain or park benches, county officials decided it was the perfect spot for an 18-hole mini course.

"The County Board said this location merits something more dynamic than a park," said Scott McPartlin, an Arlington urban planner. "Mini-golf is a complementary use for the surrounding businesses and neighborhoods."

If a miniature golf course is built outside the mall, it would be one of the first of its kind constructed in such a dense urban environment, McPartlin said.

The county is still in the "exploratory phase," and has yet to discuss whether it would help subsidize the complex to entice a company to operate the golf facility, McPartlin said.

The course will be "integrated into the fabric of Ballston," and "will not look like a mini-golf facility on the side of a highway with a 300-foot T. Rex" on the grounds, McPartlin said — adding that county officials have "yet to broach" the subject of whether the course will include a windmill.

COUNTY OFFICIALS believe a miniature golf facility outside the mall will serve as an economic boon for Ballston, bringing more families into the rapidly changing neighborhood.

The Ballston Common Mall is in the midst of a major transformation: Hecht's has become Macy's, the County Board has approved more than $4 million in funding for parking garage renovations, and a rink with two sheets of ice that will serve as a training facility and headquarters for the Washington Capitals is expected to be completed next month.

McPartlin and other officials have been meeting with surrounding neighborhood associations on the mini-golf concept, and the reaction has been positive.

"It's a really innovative use of the space," said Burr, the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association president. "It's going to be a big attraction."

Yet the business community has been less enthusiastic in embracing the mini-golf course in a high-density area. At a meeting of business leaders in Ballston this summer, attendees expressed "serious doubts" about whether such a venture can be profitable, said Julie Mangis, head of the Ballston-Virginia Square Partnership. In the mid-1990s, a miniature golf complex in Clarendon closed down because of a lack of community interest.

Potential owners are concerned that the seasonality of mini-golf — which can be played only seven months a year in Arlington — means it would be difficult for the operator to make money without providing a secondary set of services, like an arcade or pool hall.

"Everybody would love to have a mini-golf course back, but is there a better use of the site that could be viable year-round?" Mangis said.