- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

Developer plans street shops for weekend visitors

Visions of light reflecting off shiny glass windows. Angular buildings overlooking a majestic sea of urban vitality. This is the mental image created by the words "Crystal City."

The reality: colorless buildings rise above a bland, suburban landscape. Any flurry of activity is huddled in malls known as "the underground" or hidden in small parks shielded by thick brush. Few outsiders come to visit.

But the vision of what Crystal City should be has changed with the times.

Plans to revitalize the region's third-largest cluster of office space are on the fast track. The Charles E. Smith Cos., which owns the bulk of Crystal City, plan to break ground by this spring on a large redevelopment project that will attract 150,000 square feet of new street-level retail on Crystal Drive. It is seen as an effort to re-energize Crystal City above ground.

"Crystal City was designed with people underground in mind,"says Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. "The change will be a significant improvement in vitality and life at the surface level."

Indeed, the first portions of Crystal City were built by Charles E. Smith 40 years ago, in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis when a fully covered living, working and shopping environment was chic.

"The planning paradigm in the '60s was just that," says Frank Poli, Charles E. Smith's vice president of development. "To provide the convenience to arrive at work, go up to the work environment, come back down to the retail environment, go across to the hotel …."

David Kitchens, an architect for CooperCarry who worked on the redevelopment design, refers to Crystal City's original plan as a product of "the Jetson's mentality."

It was that mentality that made Crystal City a convenient place to work, but bland to visit. At Crystal City, "right now on the weekends and evenings, not much is open," says Adam Wasserman, the director of Arlington County's Department of Economic Development. "The amenities are focused on the daytime worker." Those working on the redevelopment say they noticed a shift about two years ago toward open-air, pedestrian-friendly complexes. Spots like Shirlington and Reston Town Center demonstrated that aboveground retail boosted the vitality of a mixed-used complex.

Out in the open

Charles E. Smith officials decided to shift toward a more open-air environment to capitalize on Crystal City's 97.5 percent occupancy rate and prime location. Located directly across from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the complex has easy access from I-395, Route 1, the George Washington Parkway and the 14th Street Bridge and is host to busy Metro and Virginia Railway Express stations.

"The location of Crystal City is too good," Mr. Fisette says. "When you have the advantage of having that in your community you have an obligation to build around it."

There are about 10 million square feet of office space in Crystal City, with 5,500 apartments and condominiums and 5,000 hotel rooms.

As he looks over Crystal Drive from a 10th floor conference room in Charles E. Smith's corporate offices, Mr. Poli refuses to see the Crystal City as the eyesore many believe it is.

"There's a misconception of what Crystal City is," Mr. Poli says. "People talk about the Concrete Jungle, Concrete Canyon. That really couldn't be further from the truth. It's just that because we're off the main road and people don't cut through here as an alternative traffic path, people don't know it unless they work here. People who work here generally like working here."

And as he strolls down Crystal Drive, pointing to the parking garage that will become a future anchor store, Mr. Poli points to the Crystal Water Park an open area with fountains and sculptures and other open areas that he says make Crystal City an underrated working environment.

"On paper you have every component. What was sort of lacking was the thriving environment which is the paradigm of planning today. Main Streets, bringing people back out to the street, getting them out of overhead bridges."

Mr. Poli says other area mixed-use complexes provided some inspiration for their redevelopment plans.

"Did we model it after those places? No. But we looked at Shirlington, Bethesda, downtown D.C. … and a couple of other places," Mr. Poli says. "What we see this plan as is just a further evolution of what started 40 years ago."

There is also a desire by Charles E. Smith Co. to take advantage of the nearby population. At night, between 15,000 and 20,000 people are within a 20-minute walk of Crystal Drive. This includes people living in the apartments and condominiums on the site, as well as those staying in the hotels. A street-level development will help attract these people to Crystal City in the evenings, officials say.

"We'd like to get them out of their hotel rooms," Mr. Wasserman says.

Getting a face-lift

Charles E Smith's redevelopment plan calls for 150,000 additional square feet of retail space, which would increase Crystal City's current amount by nearly 40 percent. The parking garage servicing the Crystal Plaza Shops on Crystal Drive between 18th and 20th streets would be turned into a retail strip. Further retail would be added along Crystal Drive between 20th and 23rd streets, and along 23rd Street between Crystal Drive and Jefferson Davis Highway.

There are plans for about 20 stores, depending on size. Officials from Charles E. Smith say they hope to attract at least three significant anchors, including a Safeway Supermarket.

Already, some redevelopment in Crystal City is under way. The Buchanan apartment building on 23rd Street has been renovated and is now host to three restaurants. A Starbucks coffeehouse and Chipotle Grille opened last spring at the corner of 23rd and Crystal Drive. By early next year, a steakhouse is expected to open in the Crystal City shops, across from the Crystal Water Park near 18th Street. Zoning changes needed for the $40 million redevelopment were approved by the Arlington County Board in May.

The next and perhaps most important step is gaining board approval to change the current one-way Crystal Drive into a two-way "Main Street." The Arlington County Board is expected to vote on the plans on Oct. 13.

"There's a question of the viability of retail in a one-way street environment," Mr. Poli says. "It's been done, but it's not your preferred scenario. It's just something that more people are accustomed to."

Plans for Crystal Drive include touches like 13 clearly defined crosswalks and pedestrian-controlled traffic lights. Presently, most pedestrians are forced to dodge fast-moving cars to cross Crystal Drive, and there are few real intersections at which to cross.

"Right now they are wide lanes and people tend to drive at a higher rate of speed," Mr. Poli says. "We think [a change] is very important. We think it normalizes the traffic flow."

Along Crystal Drive, park areas that are now shielded by trees and bushes will be cleared out to make them more visible from street level. Charles E. Smith officials are in discussions with Metro about the addition of a second entrance to the current Crystal City Metro stop, the 12th-busiest in the entire system.

Parking in Crystal City will change somewhat under the redevelopment plan, which would eliminate 400 spaces. But officials say the area can still accommodate motorists. On an average day during peak times, Mr. Poli says, there is an excess of 1,500 spaces. The biggest change may come for those working in Crystal Park, on the east side of Crystal Drive. There, some workers may not be able to park underneath the buildings they work in.

"What we'll be doing possibly is moving some parkers from one building to another," Mr. Poli says.

But with those changes, a parking shortage is unlikely, because evening visitors to Crystal City will not be competing for spaces with workers.

"The biggest demand for retail is weekends and evenings, when the office markets aren't here, so you have thousands of parking spaces," Mr. Poli says.

Staying the course

Charles E. Smith officials say the nearly monthlong closing of Reagan Airport following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has not affected their plans to move forward with Crystal City's redevelopment. They say Crystal City's viability as a complex is not heavily reliant on the airport to begin with.

"Obviously, it's something we watched very carefully and its something we're very concerned about," says James Creedon, Charles E. Smith's senior vice president. "But … the benefits of Crystal are not dependent solely on that. The airport's one of those things that's hard to quantify. People like being near the airport, but realistically, how many times do they [fly]?"

Crystal City got a bittersweet boost from the attack after the Pentagon leased the Polk and Taylor Buildings to house 3,000 of its displaced workers. Charles E. Smith does not own the Polk and Taylor buildings.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks came talk that US Airways Group Inc. may be moving its headquarters out of Crystal City to cheaper digs along the Dulles Toll Road. US Airways spokespeople did not return calls requesting comment. Real estate analysts say the embattled airline, which uses Reagan Airport as a major hub, had been looking for less expensive office space even prior to the terrorist attacks. Office space costs about $10 less per square foot near Washington Dulles International Airport.

"They're looking at that to try and save a lot of money," Mr. Creedon says. "Whether it's doable … I don't know. They were looking at that prior to Sept. 11."

Mr. Creedon acknowledges that if US Airways vacates Crystal City it will leave open more than 300,000 square feet of space. But he's confident that Crystal City could attract a new tenant.

"It's phenomenal. It's truly a corporate headquarters facility," he says. Mr. Creedon says his company will begin offering greater signage opportunities for companies leasing space in Crystal City. At present, virtually no firms advertise their existence on the outside of any of the office buildings. The goal, Mr. Creedon says, is to attract a landmark sign similar to the one atop the USA Today building in Reston.

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