Metro

Ballston Common: The Birth, Death, & Rebirth of the D.C. Area's First Major Shopping Mall

“To describe this shopping center in words is a bit difficult because of its extremely high efficiency in the use of every square foot.”

While it may be hard today to imagine the shopping center at the intersection of Arlington’s Glebe Rd. and Wilson Blvd. as an exciting and advanced piece of architectural planning, it truly was at its opening in 1951.  At the time, it was the largest suburban retail space on the East Coast, and the first ever to be built around a parking garage (which also happened to be the largest parking garage in the United States). This sort of retail design was an absolute novelty, and an early hallmark of both the post-War evolution of the American suburb, as well as the DC area’s growing population. Its name, however, was a little on the nose: Parkington.

A Synagogue on Wheels

As many realtors will tell you, the first three rules of real estate are, “location, location, location.” Well, in the late 1960s, location presented a very serious problem for transit planners and the congregation of the Adas Israel synagogue. Construction of Metro’s Red Line was getting underway and WMATA had acquired the block bounded by 5th,  6th,  F and G Streets, NW to serve as a staging area and, eventually, the home of Metro’s headquarters.

There was only one problem. The block was also the home of Washington’s first synagogue building, which had been standing on the site since 1876.

Two Tragedies in One Day

It was snowing on the 14th Street Bridge and traffic had ground to a standstill as thousands of federal workers and other rush-hour commuters tried to get home ahead of a major storm. With an awful metallic crack, a blue-and-white jet swept out of the swirling snow at 4 p.m., smacked against one of the bridge's spans, sheared through five cars like a machete, ripped through 50 feet of guard rail and plunged nose first into the frozen Potomac River.

Moments later in a crowded subway car underneath the National Mall:

The train reversed direction.... with a loud popping and crunching sound and a sudden showering of sparks and electrical arcing.... Dozens of people of both sexes screamed. Slowly, surrealistically, the concrete abutment grew larger, closer and actually pressed the left center-rear of the car. The side and roof slowly caved in, almost as a foot crushes a tin can. More screaming, arcing, then silence.

It sounds like a scene in a Hollywood movie right before the hero or heroine springs into action. Tragically, however, this was no movie. It was real life in Washington on January 13, 1982.