This article appeared in the Fall issue of Urban Land on page 140.
When Amazon decided in fall 2018 to build a $2.5 billion East Coast headquarters on the edge of the Crystal City neighborhood in Arlington County, Virginia, it picked a location that does not much resemble the sort of hip urban locales that tech companies usually favor. Instead, Amazon will bring 25,000 workers into a comparatively staid, mid-20th-century enclave known largely for providing affordable office space to government agencies and contractors that is conveniently close to both Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon.
With an extensive underground mall that connects the Metro subway system to many of the office buildings, and broad one-way streets that allow autos to zip from one end of the community to the other, Crystal City is not a place designed with walking and cycling in the sunshine in mind. And unlike the lively neighborhoods that youthful tech workers favor, Crystal City has been known for emptying out in the evening after traditional working hours.
But Amazon and JBG Smith, the Washington-area developer partnering with the e-commerce giant, are looking ahead to what Crystal City can become. JBG Smith, known for its focus on placemaking—the art of using the built environment to appeal to people—already is in the process of transforming the area into a 16-hour live/work/play, walkable community with the communal green space and lifestyle amenities that appeal to a millennial and generation Z labor force that does not typically go straight home in the evening.
Some Fall Meeting attendees will tour National Landing and hear from executives from JBG Smith, Amazon, and Virginia Tech. Register Now
Amazon’s and JBG Smith’s plans call for Amazon, which began moving into temporary space in June, to occupy several renovated buildings during construction of Amazon’s headquarters complex. The headquarters buildings, designed by ZGF Architects, will include a pair of 22-story towers containing 2.1 million square feet (195,000 sq m) of office space, plus 50,000 square feet (4,700 sq m) of retail space, restaurant space, and daycare facilities, as well as a 1.1-acre (0.5 ha) public park. Construction could start in early 2020. But by the time the headquarters is completed in 2023, the entire area surrounding it will also be in the midst of a dramatic reimagining.
National Landing, as the area has been rebranded, also will absorb portions of two adjacent neighborhoods, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard, straddling the border of Arlington County and the city of Alexandria as well as Crystal City. In addition to the Amazon headquarters complex, National Landing will include numerous other new buildings, as well as extensive public-sector enhancements to transit access and a novel pedestrian bridge to nearby Reagan National Airport.
Near a planned Metro station in Potomac Yard, Virginia Tech will partner with JBG Smith and Houston-based Lionstone Investments to build a 15-acre (6 ha), $1 billion Innovation Campus, which was part of the pitch that helped lure Amazon to Virginia. The Virginia Tech campus will include 300,000 square feet (28,000 sq m) of classroom and research space and 250,000 square feet (23,000 sq m) of space for tech startups and established companies, plus 350,000 square feet (33,000 sq m) of student and faculty housing and 100,000 square feet (9,300 sq m) of retail space and other uses. It will be part of a 65-acre (26 ha) mixed-use district developed by Lionstone and JBG Smith.
In late July, JBG Smith also announced plans to add nearly 1,000 additional units of housing to the existing RiverHouse residential community along the western edge of National Landing, including both traditional and two-over-two stacked townhouse units, and multifamily buildings.
But much of JBG Smith’s vision for the area involves repurposing and modifying existing buildings, with the aim of converting a 1960s-style car-centric environment into a vibrant pedestrian streetscape.
“Amazon looked at the neighborhood as it was and wondered what could be done to improve it and make it more vibrant,” says Matt Kelly, chief executive officer of JBG Smith. The company has a portfolio that contains 6.1 million square feet (567,000 sq m) of existing operating commercial space at National Landing, amounting to more than 70 percent of the submarket, with another nearly 7.3 million square feet (680,000 sq m) under construction or in the pipeline for future development.
“They saw in our plan a very clear road map of how to get there. And they saw us as a team with experience and capital resources. We and they generally see eye-to-eye on the importance of placemaking, and on what it takes to make a great place.”
Transforming a Midcentury Vision
Crystal City arose in the early 1960s from what had been a gritty industrial landscape of brickyards, warehouses, junkyards, and iron-fabricating plants, as growth of the federal government and the military created a rising demand for office space. The area got its name from the Crystal House, one of its early apartment buildings, whose signature flourish was a large crystal chandelier in the lobby, according to the Arlington County Projects & Planning department’s history of the neighborhood.
Crystal City’s “unremarkable concrete buildings,” as Washingtonian magazine once described them, were designed to be utilitarian and competitive for government contract bids rather than architecturally elegant. But after Congress passed the Base Realignment and Closure Act in 2005, which authorized the military to consolidate its facilities, Crystal City suffered a major economic blow. Tenants that had occupied 3 million square feet (280,000 sq m) of office space moved out, and the neighborhood lost 13,000 jobs, the Washington Post reported in 2015. By the time Amazon came around, the area was in need of a reboot.
Despite being only a 20-minute bike ride, or four subway stops, from the heart of downtown Washington, Crystal City was built in a decidedly suburban style. “It’s a mid-20th-century edge-city development, with mixed use—retail, residential, office space—but a real priority to the automobile,” says David Manfredi, chief executive and founding principal of Boston-based architecture firm Elkus Manfredi, which is creating a master plan for National Landing. “Most of the retail is internalized in these almost subterranean arcades.”
In addition, “historically, we have not had the right mix of uses,” Kelly says. “We haven’t had enough housing. Locations that tend to succeed and thrive usually have a balance. There’s the resident who comes home in the evening and uses the amenities and retail that serve the neighborhood, [so that they] have a vibrant customer base 18 hours a day, not just nine hours a day. That matters in being able to write the script.”
Nevertheless, “this area has great bones,” says Tracy Gabriel, president and executive director of the Crystal City Business Improvement District (BID). “It sits by two Metro stations and is adjacent to an airport.”
Crystal City has another asset that is critical for placemaking: the district already has a substantial daytime population of 50,000 office workers, Kelly notes. That provides a big potential clientele for new stores and restaurants, a crucial part of changing an area’s image.
The reimaging started soon after JBG Smith—a new company formed when Vornado Realty Trust spun off its Washington-area portfolio and merged it with Chevy Chase, Maryland–based developer JBG Companies—took over most of the old Charles E. Smith properties in Crystal City in 2017 and became that neighborhood’s biggest commercial real estate operator.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on what is happening outside the four walls of our buildings, and what is happening at the ground plane,” Kelly says. He is particularly tuned in to what he describes as the “20-by-20 space”—20 feet (6 m) from the first floor and 20 feet ahead on the street. “That’s really where people live, whether they’re walking past your building, or stopping in front of the retail shops or the pet groomer or the grocery store, deciding whether to go in or not. Is it pleasant? Is it a place that feels good? Often, they can’t put their finger on one thing—it’s a combination of things.”
Even before Amazon began taking a serious look at the area in summer 2018, JBG Smith set about trying to modify Crystal City’s dated ambience. That effort included creative ploys such as wrapping some of its vacant, soon-to-be-renovated buildings in colorful canvas-like covers to indicate that change was on the way and setting up art installations featuring painted bicycles to highlight the area’s accessibility to cycling commuters.
The developer also began updating its properties and upgrading their amenities, technology, and tenant services as well. In conjunction with the Crystal City BID and local businesses, JBG Smith began promoting hundreds of social events, from five-kilometer (3 mi) races to wine events and art shows. The area’s assortment of small parks was augmented with outdoor sculptures and fire pits to make them more attractive places to hang out.
Construction, Renovation, and Creative Repurposing
As Amazon’s workforce arrives, employees initially will move into more than 584,000 square feet (54,000 sq m) of space in four renovated JBG Smith buildings. To make an office building at 2345 Crystal Drive into a more comfortable environment, the developer remodeled the lobby, adding wood and new furniture to make what had been an overpoweringly large space seem more human scale. When it comes to establishing ambience, the first thing that a tenant sees when entering the building can have an important impact, Kelly notes.
Another building, 1770 Crystal Drive, will be given a new skin to give it a more attractive exterior before Amazon moves in by the end of 2020.
To help enliven Crystal City after working hours, JBG Smith is developing 130,000 square feet (12,000 sq m) of shopping and entertainment space between 15th and 18th streets on Crystal Drive, including an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, restaurants, bars, and a specialty grocer. Central District Retail, as the project is called, is a key part of the developer’s strategy to reinvent the once car-centric Crystal City and its underground retail space with sidewalk-level activity.
“Today, people really value walking and places [that are] appealing to work and live without getting in a car,” Kelly says. “When you walk down Crystal Drive, you have loading docks and parking garage entrances where we really should have retail. But as we build new buildings, we’ll complete the evolution [to an environment] that’s still car accessible but very walkable. The things that cars and trucks need will be put behind the buildings.”
To increase the neighborhood’s housing supply, JBG Smith plans to build a pair of apartment towers with a total of 750 units at 1900 Crystal Drive. The buildings will include 30,000 square feet (2,800 sq m) of street retail space, according to Kelly, as well as provide a significant aesthetic upgrade to the block.
Pam Campbell, a partner at New York City–based CookFox Architects, which designed the two buildings, says they are intended to contrast with the office blocks around them, with “large window openings; warm, natural materials; and architectural features that create softer edges and finer textures.” The towers’ retail space and lobbies will open to the sidewalk, and a plaza will connect the buildings, creating new pedestrian pathways through the neighborhood. Construction is expected to start in 2020.
Moreover, unlike some of Crystal City’s more utilitarian buildings, the two structures will be rich in architectural allusions. For example, Campbell notes, “Crystal City was once the home of brickyards, and the choice of a terra-cotta cladding at the facade [of the south tower] recalls the geological and industrial history of the site.”
One of the big challenges of updating Crystal City is to break up the homogeneity of its existing architecture—the expanses of precast concrete in similar hues, Manfredi says. “One of the nice opportunities to do that is to do infill and break down the sameness,” he says. “By introducing new buildings, you can have a whole new color palette and materials palette.”
To achieve the desired diversity, he notes, JBG Smith has engaged about 10 architects with the goal of creating what he describes as “a more organic environment,” where the new structures will give the skyline a more appealing contrast.
Manfredi also sees untapped placemaking potential in Crystal City’s public areas and green spaces. “It’s quite a remarkable site,” he notes. “You’re above the Potomac River, with a whole system of green belt that runs off the site into the District.” In addition to fixing up the existing parks, he envisions adding more small ones to provide “a more intimate scale in an urban context.”
Mobility Can Enhance Placemaking
Virginia has committed to investing as much as $195 million in an assortment of projects that will improve transportation in the area, including adding a new entrance to the Crystal City Metro station and lowering an elevated section of U.S. Route 1 to grade, transforming a highway that currently divides the area from north to south into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard.
But perhaps the most dramatic improvement will be a pedestrian bridge that will connect National Landing to Reagan National Airport.
“The pedestrian bridge will be one of a kind in North America,” Kelly says. “You’ll be able to walk from 1900 Crystal Drive to airport security in less than 10 minutes. It’s another element of enabling walkability. It takes cars off the road and enables [transit] connectivity in the process.”
Manfredi also envisions breaking up Crystal City’s lengthy superblocks to give the streets a more pedestrian-friendly scale. He has calculated that 12 city blocks in the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon, a notably walkable urban environment, would fit inside one Crystal City block. Adding density and infill between buildings and creating smaller, quieter internal streets off arteries such as Crystal Drive will make the area more comfortable for pedestrians, he says.
These plans seem in philosophical agreement with Amazon’s intentions of “creating an urban campus where our future 25,000 employees and the local community can live, work, and play,” as John Schoettler, the company’s vice president for global real estate and facilities, wrote in a recent blog post. He described how the public open space on the campus will include a dog park and a farmers market, among other community amenities, as well as a cycling path.
“You will come back in five years, seven years, eight years, and it will be very different place,” Manfredi says of National Landing. “Even though many buildings will remain, it will be much more urban, a whole different streetscape. There will be a character that doesn’t exist right now.”