The Once and Future Crystal City
Amazon's gleaming HQ2 is taking shape in the area now known as National Landing. Here's what's coming—and what has neighbors worried.
Starting with what many described as a “desolate concrete” canvas, the picture for Crystal City could only improve.
Some upgrades were already in the works when Tracy Sayegh Gabriel took over as president of the Crystal City Business Improvement District (BID) in August 2018. But there was more work to do. Military and government cutbacks starting in the 1990s had left swaths of office space empty. The corridor’s forbidding, Brutalist-style architecture, arterial traffic and dearth of street-level amenities made it inhospitable to those on foot. Raised sections of Route 1 carrying cars to Reagan National Airport and in and out of D.C. seemed to be the priority, by design.
Three months after Gabriel assumed her new role, Amazon’s announcement that it would build a second headquarters in Arlington kicked things into high gear, handing the government and private sector a giant paintbrush.
Now, the district known as National Landing—whose footprint in Arlington includes Crystal City, Pentagon City and the northern tip of Potomac Yard—is in the midst of a full-scale renaissance.
“There is a great opportunity to build and reinvent this area in a way that is more interesting and creates long-term vibrancy,” says Gabriel, an urban planner by trade who previously worked for the New York City Economic Development Corp. and the D.C. Office of Planning.
By the time Amazon opens its first new office buildings this summer, the landscape will look vastly different, with modern architecture, street-level shops and restaurants, pedestrian-friendly paseos, bike lanes, colorful murals and beautified public spaces. And there are many more changes on the horizon.
“This is a long-term play just starting to bear fruit,” says Ryan Touhill, who came on board as director of Arlington Economic Development (AED) in November 2022. “We’ll see exponential positive impacts for business and the county for years to come.”
The neighborhood’s wholesale reinvention—a vision that includes multimodal transportation improvements, 8 million square feet of additional office space, 7,900 new apartments, 505,000 square feet of fresh retail and high-speed internet connectivity—is part of an ambitious dream to make National Landing a smart growth model for the nation.
It’s a far cry from the after-hours ghost town it once was, when Metro-bound pedestrians commuted through underground passageways to avoid the steady stream of traffic, and “they rolled up the sidewalks at 6 p.m.,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a D.C.-area nonprofit that promotes walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented development. “It was relatively soulless.”
Now, he says, the area gets more interesting by the week. “What we’re seeing in National Landing is transformative.”
How did a suburb in Virginia, where politicians are loath to offer tax giveaways to entice new businesses, beat out more than 200 other localities nationwide for the Amazon deal, which now promises $2.5 billion in community investments? The answer is long-term planning and a clever strategy.
As the federal base realignment and closure (BRAC) process picked off military operations in Arlington, and congressional budget sequestration battles—which lowered federal spending—shrank the need for government office space, the county started planning for life after federal largesse.
With plenty of well-educated workers, but land costs too high to make economic sense for manufacturing, local officials set out to reinvent Northern Virginia as a tech hub.
Well before Amazon entered the picture, there were sector plans, including a 2010 blueprint intent on making Crystal City more walkable, with parks, retail and more engaging architecture. Eight years later, Amazon was the accelerant, not the flame.
Northern Virginia won that prize by paying close attention to what Amazon was actually asking for in its RFP, says Christopher B. Leinberger, emeritus chair of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University School of Business. While other cities laid out a green carpet of cash, Arlington and Alexandria proposed to create a place where the tech giant could attract and retain top talent.
Instead of lining Amazon’s pockets through tax incentives, Northern Virginia proposed to invest in itself—with transportation and street improvements, money to help schools and universities pump out more qualified tech graduates, and other amenities that would benefit not just Amazon, but local residents and other businesses.
“National Landing is the economic development model of the century so far,” says Leinberger, co-founder of the startup Places Platform, which provides granular real estate metrics to investors, cities and real estate companies. “I’m pleased we have a model that invests in our community instead of giving cash to corporations.”
Now other companies want in on the action. In May, Boeing (which has had a satellite office in Crystal City since 2016) announced plans to relocate its headquarters from Chicago to National Landing. In July, defense contractor Raytheon vacated its longtime home in Waltham, Massachusetts, and moved its headquarters to Rosslyn, just a few miles up the road.
Telecom company Federated Wireless, which will soon turn National Landing into the nation’s first large-scale 5G-enabled “downtown,” is relocating its headquarters from Ballston to 36,000 square feet of office space at 2121 Crystal Drive.
“All these people are showing up without a dime of economic development incentives because of Amazon,” Leinberger says.
All told, there’s about $12 billion worth of public and private investment in the pipeline, says Gabriel, now president and executive director of the renamed National Landing Business Improvement District (BID).
All told, there’s about $12 billion worth of public and private investment in the pipeline.
Once these myriad projects come to fruition, National Landing will have more jobs per square mile than major commercial districts such as the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Tysons and the Capitol Riverfront—second only to downtown D.C., according to a BID market impact study. The scale of its commercial footprint will be comparable to downtown Miami.
But unlike many American downtowns, which tend to empty out after hours, the ratio of workers to residents here will be nearly 50/50.
With 7,900 new apartments in the works, housing units are on track to increase by 51%. Planners are betting that all those new residents will help fuel a market for lively bars and restaurants, trendy boutiques and gyms, and service businesses that couldn’t subsist solely on the patronage of daytime workers.
“We have a neighborhood that’s emerging into an innovation district—a place where innovation and tech and ideas are colliding, and that results in business growth and economic development,” says AED’s Touhill.
But amid all the rosy forecasts and cheerleading, there is dissent. Some residents of adjacent residential neighborhoods are leery of the changes—starting with the name National Landing, which they say sounds more like a branding campaign than an organic evolution of place.
Amazon’s planned Helix building, a 350-foot-tall spiral glass structure wrapped in an exterior ramp garnished with trees, has been an aesthetic point of contention. Some see its design as groundbreaking (pedestrians will be invited at certain times to climb the outside of the building to enjoy sweeping views of D.C.), while others have likened its shape to a soft-serve ice cream cone or worse, a giant poop emoji.
And though the housing market has softened in recent months, many worry that Amazon’s arrival will only further drive up rents and home prices, shutting out those who don’t make triple-digit salaries, and further worsening Arlington’s wealth gap.
In 2017, prior to Amazon’s HQ2 announcement, the average home price in ZIP code 22202 was $507,000. By 2022, it was $734,000.
Last year, the average home price in ZIP code 22202 (an area that includes Crystal City, Pentagon City, Arlington Ridge, Aurora Hills and the Arlington portion of Potomac Yard) was $734,000—down only slightly from $743,000 the previous year, but still appreciably higher than the average of $507,000 in 2017, prior to Amazon’s big HQ2 announcement.
Kateri Garcia, president of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association, says her neighbors are generally divided into two camps over Amazon. One group “is really happy about all the opportunities the development will bring,” she says. The other group doesn’t want change and worries that rising housing prices will mean higher taxes and a loss of neighborhood cohesiveness.
In the greater Seattle region, home of Amazon’s original headquarters since 1994, the tech giant has been blamed for increasing traffic congestion, driving up housing prices, and exacerbating the divide between rich and poor.
BID president Gabriel is mindful of that case study. “We have the benefit of learning from Seattle,” she says. In Virginia, “[Amazon] chose a place where there was already vision for how to accommodate growth.”
Amazon spokesperson Rachael L. Lighty says that being a good neighbor is a priority for the tech company. “When Amazon comes into a community, it’s important for our culture to have the community shape Amazon rather than the other way around,” she says.
In 2021, Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund awarded $382 million in low-rate loans and grants toward the purchase of the Crystal House apartment complex on South Eads Street, which the nonprofit Washington Housing Conservancy will now run as affordable housing. A subsequent Amazon donation of $40 million is helping to bankroll the construction of more units, for a total of 655 affordable apartments on site.
Community needs have also been considered in the design of public spaces, including those surrounding the corporate giant’s anchor buildings, notes Brian Earle, principal with ZGF Architects, the firm that’s designing Amazon’s physical environment. “They wanted to build a neighborhood, not a campus,” he says.
The vision for Metropolitan Park, where Amazon’s first two LEED Platinum glass office towers are soon to open, includes active uses like a playground, a farmers market and a central green for outdoor events, as well as wooded areas, public art and quiet spaces for connecting with nature.
Real estate company JBG Smith, which owns more than half of the existing commercial and residential space in National Landing, is working in concert to transform the drab architecture of the ’60s and ’70s with new facades and human-scaled streetscapes, says Jack Kelly, vice president of the Bethesda, Maryland-based developer.
People form impressions of a place based on what they see at eye level, Kelly says, so improvements to older buildings are concentrating on the first few stories. One example is the new facade on the Central District buildings near the corner of 18th Street and Crystal Drive, now home to an Amazon Fresh, and next door to the building where the first 5,000 Amazon employees are working in rented space. “In what was a transient environment,” Kelly says, the goal is “creating that environment where people want to invest and stay.”
Near RiverHouse in Pentagon City, an apartment complex built in the late 1950s, JBG Smith is going through the approval process to add low-rise buildings next to the existing towers, pushing parking underground. The company also is revitalizing a dead zone along Crystal Drive with an indoor/outdoor dining concept called Surreal, by celebrity chef Enrique Limardo.
But there are inconvenient statistics threatening to put a damper on the neighborhood’s momentum. Some observers question whether the big plans set in motion before the pandemic can survive the massive shift to hybrid and remote work. In the last quarter of 2022, commercial real estate vacancies in Arlington hit a record high of 22.1% countywide, according to data released by the real estate analytics firm CoStar on Jan. 24.
The picture for Crystal City and Pentagon City was even worse, with nearly a quarter of the commercial spaces in those areas sitting empty.
In late 2022, office vacancies in Crystal City and Pentagon City hit 24.3%.
Ben D’Avanzo, outgoing vice president of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association, can see the tops of Amazon’s first two towers under construction from his condo. The cacophony of cranes and beeping trucks has become background music, he says. His preschool daughter knows the names of all the heavy equipment. (The excavator is her favorite.)
But he wonders how much office space will be needed in a post-pandemic world where many employees work from home, some or all of the time. He hopes the building boom doesn’t leave the area saddled with even more abandoned space in years to come. “I really hope the future of telework doesn’t mean our neighborhood sees just a flash in the pan in attention,” he says.
Amazon has promised to bring 25,000 workers to the area by 2030. Recent tech-industry layoffs haven’t changed that long-term goal, says Amazon spokesperson Lighty, nor has the hybrid work trend. She says new buildings will be configured with open floor plans to provide spatial flexibility as office needs change, with open areas designed for collaboration on days when teams are in the office.
If historical real estate data is any indication, Leinberger says walkable urban areas—places like what National Landing aspires to be—tend to have “stickier” prices that won’t take too much of a hit, even if tenant companies downsize to less space. Mixed-use districts can command rents 73% higher than suburban areas that are spread out and more reliant on cars, he says.
Leinberger doesn’t foresee a glut of office space in the shiny new buildings coming out of the ground—but existing Class B and Class C office space is another story. Owners of dated buildings could see their property values dropping by 60% or more, he says, if those structures have to be converted to residential or other uses to attract tenants.
If the grand vision plays out as forecast, nearly a quarter of Arlington’s tax base will come from National Landing over the next 10 years, with the area contributing $172 million in net fiscal impact and more than a third of county jobs.
Faced with the almost certain reality of a population boom, citizen advocates like Garcia and D’Avanzo have wish lists and worries. While they’re delighted to have new restaurants and retail, they’d like to see county investment in new schools, traffic-calming measures to address cut-through traffic in residential areas, and upgrades to their neighborhood library and senior center.
Amazon has committed to giving Arlington Community High School (an alternative program with some 300 students) a permanent home in its PenPlace development. Garcia says county officials also need to address the shortage of neighborhood schools, especially as new housing units are added, bringing more families to town. “The solution [to overcrowding] has always been to shift our students farther north,” she says. “But when you do, you lose neighborhood cohesiveness.”
And while Virginia Highlands Park, a community hub with sports fields, playgrounds and picnic tables, is already scheduled for an overhaul, D’Avanzo would like to see more access to parks and nature areas (such as the waterfowl sanctuary Roaches Run) as a counterbalance to all the new development. “We need more investment…in community gathering spaces,” he says, “so we can connect as neighbors.”
As the revitalization effort unfolds, he hopes developers and county officials will be transparent in providing data on traffic, parking, air quality and other metrics signaling where infrastructure improvements are needed.
Leinberger observes that National Landing hasn’t yet delivered on the “landing” portion of its name, insofar as planners haven’t worked out a way to connect the community to the Potomac riverfront. (Though the “landing” term also refers to the airport next door.)
Growing pains are inevitable, but Garcia, who moved to Arlington Ridge in 2017, sees Amazon as a net plus. “There are a lot of great things that are going to happen,” she says while heading to the Whole Foods on 12th Street.
As the skyline evolves, street life picks up and newcomers arrive to live and work, one thing is certain, says Leinberger:
“People coming here five years from now who haven’t been here in 20 years won’t recognize the place.”
Northern Virginia resident Tamara Lytle is a frequent contributor to Arlington Magazine who covers politics, business and other issues.
National Landing is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. Here are a few highlights:
An empty lot along 12th Street, renamed PenPlace, will become home to four new Amazon buildings, including the landmark Helix, a 350-foot-tall spiral glass structure slated for completion by 2025.
A block from PenPlace, the first two Amazon buildings rising on South Eads Street will open in the summer of 2023. The glass towers at Metropolitan Park will feature distinctive “fins” that change color during the day.
Upon completion, Amazon’s campus is expected to host some 12,000 Amazon employees and 700 of their dogs on any given day, with canine-friendly parks and terraces, says Brian Earle, principal with ZGF Architects. The campus will have roughly 55,000 square feet of retail space—much of it occupied by women- and minority-owned businesses—including day care for both kids and pets, lunch cafés and other services.
The Water Park on Crystal Drive, currently a peaceful spot for prom and quinceañera pics, is soon to become much more. Real estate developer JBG Smith plans to add an outdoor food hall with multiple kiosks, plus a bar perched on top of the existing water feature.
Metropolitan Park, at South Eads Street and 15th Street South, will be transformed into 2.5 acres of county-owned space with a central green, a farmers market, a dog run, playgrounds, wooded areas and landscaping.
Metro plans to open a new station in Potomac Yard, near the new Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, this year. The Crystal City Metro stop will have a new entrance on Crystal Drive by the spring of 2025.
Buses, Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak will converge at a relocated and expanded Crystal City VRE station slated for completion in the fall of 2025. A pedestrian bridge connecting the VRE station to Reagan National Airport (a five-minute walk) will make National Landing the only downtown district in the country with pedestrian and bike access to an airport.
One of the most striking and controversial changes to the corridor will be bringing Route 1 down to grade, removing the exit ramps and transforming Richmond Highway into an urban boulevard lined with shops and restaurants. BID officials say lowering the busy roadway will improve traffic flow, but neighbors worry it will still leave pedestrians dodging six lanes of traffic and would like to see pedestrian overpasses added.