A Tale of Two Cities

The once and future Crystal City/Pentagon City

To recognize Crystal City’s appeal, all you have to do is take in the view from Christer Ahl’s condo off Crystal Drive. Built in the mid-’80s, his 11-story brick building sits at a nexus of Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines, VRE train tracks and the arterial commuter lanes of the 14th Street Bridge, with views of D.C.’s monuments. The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and Pentagon Row are right around the corner. Planes overhead follow flight paths in and out of Reagan National Airport, while cyclists and joggers dot the adjacent Mount Vernon trail, flanked by a picturesque smattering of boats on the Potomac River.

If there’s one thing this neighborhood has going for it, it’s location, location, location.

“That is what this area is about,” says Ahl, who moved to the D.C. region from Sweden in 1974 for a job at the International Monetary Fund. He bought his condo 15 years ago, and now serves as vice chair of the Crystal City Citizen Review Council (CCCRC). “It’s the crossroads of all of these modes of transportation.”

But Crystal City doesn’t quite have it all. County officials and residents still view it (along with neighboring Pentagon City) as a work-in-progress—a place brimming with untapped potential and, in some spots, badly in need of a retrofit. Some planners say the area’s biggest design shortcoming has been its ongoing deference to car culture, a reality that has been less than accommodating for parks and pedestrians. Others are intent on fixing what they see as a big-picture lopsidedness in the overall configuration of commercial vs. residential space.“They’re slowly introducing more commercial into Pentagon City to make it more balanced, and slowly introducing more residential in Crystal City to make it more balanced,” says Jim Oliver, president of the neighboring Aurora Highlands Civic Association. “Hopefully, that will marry the two areas together.”

Crystal City wasn’t always a land of vertical office towers and transit lines. Before the 20th century, the area’s main attraction was “Jackson City” (so named in 1835, after President Andrew Jackson), an outpost near what is now Boundary Channel Drive that housed a racetrack and later, two Civil War forts. After the war ended, it devolved into a seedy red-light district, complete with saloons, betting parlors and brothels—most of which were burned down in 1904 by a self-appointed cleanup crew known as the “Good Citizens League.” From those ashes rose an industrial sprawl of brickyards, warehouses, iron-fabricating factories and junk lots that spread south. And so the area remained until the early 1960s, when Charles E. Smith Cos. built the ambitious, 800-unit Crystal House apartment tower, adorning its lobby with a large crystal chandelier as a symbol of opulence. Subsequent Smith buildings assumed variations of the Crystal moniker (Crystal Gateway, Crystal Square, Crystal Plaza), and soon the entire neighborhood became known as Crystal City.

Around the same time, the arrival of the U.S. Patent Office and the Institute for Defense Analyses put Crystal City on the map as a government office enclave. “Every time GSA [the U.S. General Services Administration] needed a new building there, it was built,” says Angela Fox, president and CEO of the Crystal City Business Improvement District (BID). “Every time they needed a new apartment [building] to house workers, a new apartment would happen.”

Pentagon City, meanwhile, remained largely undeveloped until the early ’60s, when real estate investors Morris Cafritz and Charles Tompkins (who, together, had purchased 190 acres of raw land between Arlington Ridge Road and U.S. Route 1 in 1946) built the monolithic towers of the River House Apartments.

As buildings began to pop up, however, there wasn’t much forethought to giving the spaces between them a neighborhood feel. Prior to 2010, “private sector development in Crystal City had largely been shaped through the approval of individual site plans,” says Anthony Fusarelli Jr., a principal planner with Arlington County. “Over time, the county’s planning and development review processes…have become much more extensive and thorough, compared with development approved 50 years ago.”

Even after Metro’s Blue Line opened in 1977, Crystal City—with its snake of one-way streets, overpasses and a bisecting freeway—still looked like a place built for cars. (Its sidewalks were rendered even more lifeless by the 1976 opening of the Crystal City Underground, a five-block subterranean mall billed as a convenience for shoppers who didn’t want to brave the elements.)

But with a steady stream of demand for its office space, there was no incentive for Crystal City to change. “Every time a group moved out, the market always rebounded and backfilled space,” says Harmar Thompson, senior vice president with LCOR, a Berwyn, Pa.-based commercial property developer, which owns the office building at 400 Army Navy Drive known as the “Paperclip Building.”  

 

That mentality shifted in 2005 when the Department of Defense announced that its Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission would close and realign a number of military bases and federal facilities around the country. For Crystal City, the announcement meant that 3 million square feet of commercial space would likely become empty. A year later, the county board assembled a group of local stakeholders and created the Crystal City

Planning Task Force, to rethink Crystal City. “We needed to figure out how to turn lemons into lemonade,” says planner Fusarelli.

It wasn’t long before the county’s BRAC fears materialized. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Naval Sea Systems Command and U.S. Airways moved out, and office vacancies jumped from 8.4 percent in 2003 to 21.3 percent in the third quarter of 2013, according to the Alexandria-based research firm Delta Associates.

As the office population plummeted, many retailers relying on daytime foot traffic languished. “A lot of the stores closed,” says Sheldon C. Johnson, a BAE Systems engineer who has lived in Crystal City for more than 30 years. “We liked the neighborhood pizza place [that left]. We liked Bailey’s Pub and the newsstand at the Metro. And, the Safeway [in the Crystal City Underground] leaving was a major disaster to us.”

Some of that attrition has since been counterbalanced with the arrival of Boeing, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), though many buildings still have vacant space to fill.

CEA bought the building at 1919 South Eads St. six years ago under the direction of President and CEO Gary Shapiro, who wanted to be near the airport and Capitol Hill. “I was [in Crystal City] 30 years ago and it was known as a concrete jungle,” Shapiro says. “Now, there is life that has been injected into the area.”

Much of that new life is attributed to the Crystal City BID, which was formed after the BRAC announcement and now, among its many functions, plays the role of neighborhood social chair. Today, the BID hosts 5K Friday fun runs, a weekly farmers market, Food Truck Thursdays, an annual fashion and trunk show, and a bevy of events with alliterative names such as Pups and Pils-ners, Blues and Brews, and Sip and Salsa, the latter of which has drawn crowds close to 7,000 in recent years. (Full disclosure: the Arlington Magazine staff has poured wine and beer at some of these events.)

When shops closed in the Underground, the BID teamed with New York-based Vornado Realty Trust (which bought the Charles E. Smith portfolio) and the Arlington Artists Alliance to fill the empty spaces with galleries, studios and performance and classroom spaces, many of which are intended to be permanent. “With any good retail, you need other things for people to do,” BID president Fox explains. “If we’re bringing people for galleries and art shows, they’ll stay for the shopping.”

Local artists have also been commissioned by the BID to jazz up the neighborhood’s much-maligned concrete walls and underpasses with colorful public art murals. “Art attracts art,” says Terry Savela, a former Arlington County planning commissioner and the current chair of the CCCRC. “Hopefully other [art] groups may start looking for space in that area… [along with] companies that want to have their headquarters in a place that offers a lot of amenities to office workers.”

At the same time, new retail shops and restaurants have begun to pop up along Crystal Drive, a road paralleling Jefferson Davis Highway/Route 1 that previously served as little more than a connector between high-rise hotels. “There are lots of restaurants in easy walking distance to the office and residential locations in Crystal City,” says Michael Doubleday, who has lived in the area since 1987. “It makes the entire neighborhood livelier than it was.”

Still, some residents complain that getting to those restaurants can be a challenge. The removal of the pedestrian bridges that once spanned the roadway—a vestige of ’60s-era design—now necessitates crossing Jefferson Davis Highway at street level. But more improvements are on the way.

Under the Crystal City Sector Plan, which the county approved in September 2010, Jefferson Davis Highway and Crystal Drive will be transformed into urban boulevards, lined with landscaped promenades, sidewalk cafés and street-facing retail stores. The sector plan also calls for 65 new or redeveloped buildings by 2050, including 7,500 new residential units to balance out the ratio of jobs to housing.

“The vision for Crystal City is really that of a complete urban community and everything that goes along with it,” Fusarelli says. “We asked how we could get more residential intermixed throughout Crystal City…to give it a 24/7 feel, or at least an 18/7 feel.”

The recent announcement that The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City is poised for a makeover, after nearly 25 years, has been well received. In November, the county approved a plan that will allow Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group to add  51,000 square feet to the mall. The two-story, glass-and-metal addition will house five to seven new tenants with ground-floor entrances, thus introducing street-facing shops and restaurants to South Hayes Street. Officials hope to see more foot traffic and a livelier streetscape as a result.

But not all of the area’s redevelopment plans are without controversy. Pentagon City has seen skirmishes among neighborhood groups, developers and planning officials over matters such as building heights, density limits and building uses.

 

Currently all eyes are on Vornado’s PenPlace, a project slated for development on a 9.2-acre mega-site along Army Navy Drive in Pentagon City. The plan calls for four commercial office buildings, a hotel and 50,000 square feet of retail space, with building heights of 12 to 22 stories. One building could house a secure facility, pending further approvals. Another could bring 300 residential units, although county officials have declined to make any promises.  

That has neighbors like Katie Buck, president of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association, worried. “Residential at PenPlace will ensure that the mega-block does not become a dark, dangerous place after work hours,” Buck says. “The placement of residential also has reduced traffic implications.”

County officials contend, however, that incorporating residences into PenPlace may be unnecessary, given the number of residential units slated to open in other nearby buildings. “Part of our rationale for recommending office was the use mixes around the Metro station area,” says Jason L. Beske, principal urban designer and principal planner with the county. “There are thousands of existing residential units and more than 1,000 units coming online in the next year or two.”

Similar squabbles will likely continue, given that Pentagon City (unlike Crystal City) has no overarching sector plan; the only land plan it’s got is now 40 years old. Until that changes, Buck and others fear that the decisions surrounding PenPlace could influence the design of future projects.

“Our association is [also] concerned that PenPlace can set the precedent for an eventual River House redevelopment as it relates to density and heights,” Buck says. “It’s a matter of traffic implications, as well as strain on county services. And for our condominium members, there are concerns about obstruction of views.”

Obstructed views are already a concern for some longtime Crystal City residents, who are less than thrilled with the sector plan’s vision of “a new Crystal City skyline, with buildings topping out at around 300 feet” (with the added footnote that Federal Aviation Administration approval has already been established). One project by Vornado/Charles E. Smith—which would replace a 401,000-square-foot office building at 1851 South Bell St. with one that’s nearly double the square footage—has residents of Ahl’s building worried that the project could “dwarf [their] building,” Ahl says.

Other locals fear that planning officials haven’t given enough thought to the infrastructure needed to support a tide of new development—things like additional fire and police stations, and medical facilities. “They’re putting all of this density in but nobody is talking about [police] substations,” Savela says.

“What are you doing with infrastructure to support the population growth?”

Perhaps the most contentious ingredient is a proposed streetcar that would link Pentagon City and Crystal City with Columbia Pike’s more highly publicized (and contested) trolley line. Many condo dwellers are flatly opposed to the streetcar project, citing concerns over congestion, above-ground wires, noise and, of course, cost. “Why would we want to spend $300 [million] or $400 million on a rail system in Crystal City when we could use the ART buses?” BAE Systems employee Johnson questions.

The standard urban planner’s answer? Because a trolley line etched into the landscape creates a backbone for development and connectivity that a bus route cannot. “The sector plan’s goal overall is mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, active, transit-friendly and a seamless connection between Crystal City and Pentagon City,” Beske says.

If all of that comes to fruition, Ahl may soon find that he has a lot more neighbors enjoying the perks of Crystal City.

Arlington-based writer Les Shaver has covered the real estate business for more than a decade.

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