- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Crystal City section of Arlington County — with its drab architecture and bureaucrats shuffling through a network of underground tunnels — is generally regarded by urban designers the same way a fashion maven might regard a leisure suit: hopelessly outdated.

That and the pending loss of about 13,000 jobs as part of a national military realignment makes Crystal City look as unlikely as the leisure suit to stage a comeback. But the ‘60s-era development along the Virginia side of the Potomac River is defying expectations with an aggressive plan for redevelopment that is already drawing new employers and includes renovations to its streetscape.

When Congress in 2005 approved a commission’s recommendations to close military bases, Arlington County was the among the hardest hit. It will lose more than 17,000 jobs, mostly in Crystal City. The losses represent about a third of the office space and more than a fourth of jobs in Crystal City, and follows other large defections, including the Patent and Trademark Office and US Airways.

Arlington County officials declared the situation “serious but manageable,” then began researching how to change the dowdy image to entice new employers.

But their surveys found some surprises — including that people who work in Crystal City don’t dislike it as much as outsiders do.

“If you do a walking tour of Crystal City, the urban design isn’t state of the art,” said Terry Holzheimer, the county’s economic development director. “But as we’ve done our planning, we got this amazing response. …The people who live there and work there just love it.”

In particular, they love the accessibility, which includes a subway and commuter rail, a major national airport within walking distance and the Mount Vernon bike trail.

They even like the much-maligned tunnels, which allow the so-called “mole people” who inhabit Crystal City to escape wet and wintry weather. The tunnels, which link directly to the Metrorail subway system, are clean but bland. A few murals, poster-sized advertisements and clusters of retailers — including banks, barber shops and restaurants — help break up the monotony of the otherwise nondescript tunnels.

“It’s good that when the weather is bad, you can walk underground,” said Sharon Wyatt of Indian Head, Md., who works in Crystal City for the General Services Administration. “It’s kind of cozy.”

Scott Curthoys, a Fairfax resident who works in Crystal City, also likes working there but said the buildings are aging and the elevators are bad.

“Sometimes there are long lines to go down,” he said.

Developments such as Crystal City, with the tunnels and monolithic architecture, were popular in the 1960s in parts of Europe and Canada, said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

The tunnel networks are common in Scandinavia, for instance, and Montreal has one of world’s most-famous tunnel networks. And while some U.S. cities such as Houston and Minneapolis have them, they’re relatively uncommon in the United States, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region.

From a functional standpoint, Mr. Lang said, Crystal City is in some ways a model neighborhood in transit-oriented development. The heart of the District’s downtown is three Metro stops away and window offices provide a sweeping panorama of the region’s historic skyline.

Most criticisms of Crystal City come down to aesthetics and design more than practical flaws, said Mr. Lang, though he thinks it’s unlikely that Crystal City-style developments will make a comeback.

“Maybe in 2060 some historic preservation society will want to preserve it, but that’s it,” he said.

Mr. Holzheimer said the redevelopment plan is to preserve the features that commuters like, including the tunnels, and to improve accessibility, renovate where practical and demolish when necessary.

Renovation means retooling floor plans to accommodate the modern office. Many office buildings in Crystal City — named after a large crystal chandelier in one of the development’s first residential units — must be updated because they predate the rise of the cubicle and the open floor plans that accompany them.

Heating and cooling systems also need modernization. Most important, perhaps, is adding street-level dining and shopping that will draw people from the tunnels and create a lively urban setting.

“People expect to be in a city where every block is interesting,” Mr. Holzheimer said.

Plans to revitalize Crystal City were under way before the federal government decided to move.

Mr. Holzheimer said the county is viewing the massive changes as an opportunity to diversify the work force, in addition to revitalizing.

Though the military will not leave until 2011, several major new employers have arrived recently, including the Public Broadcasting Service, Halliburton subsidiary KBR and Conservation International, collectively bringing more than 1,000 jobs.

Mr. Holzheimer said the cheaper leases in Crystal City as compared to those in the District also will continue to attract businesses, as Crystal City becomes more diverse and some employers question the value of prestige inherent in a D.C. address.

Mr. Lang agreed with many of the region’s elected officials who criticized the military’s decision to abandon Crystal City, saying it will worsen traffic gridlock in Northern Virginia by moving tens of thousands of jobs off the mass-transit grid and dumping them on areas ill-equipped to handle the load.

“If the federal government doesn’t think there’s value to being in Crystal City, law firms will [and] businesses will,” Mr. Lang said. “It’s location, location.”

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