Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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 It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know Crystal City is in for a transformation. That teeming but inhospitable island of glass boxes plopped by the airport in the late 1960s is being re-imagined as a warmer “urban boulevard” while undergoing, as a county official recently put it, “one of the most dramatic makeovers in regional history.”

On June 16 the County Board cleared an agreement with our Alexandria brethren to jointly head off Route 1 traffic congestion and begin planning for a streetcar to link Crystal City to Potomac Yards. It’s a two-phase, still-unfolding project that won’t go live until 2019.

As for the actual “city”—a developer’s misnomer that out-of-town journalists presume is separate from Arlington— it’s experiencing the growing pains 21st-century planners can inflict on workers, residents and visitors. I heard some details at a June 13 dinner with the Arlington Committee of 100.

Responding to the havoc wreaked by the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which moved 13,000 of Crystal City’s defense jobs further away from terrorist threats, Arlington set up an ambitious planning task force. Over five years, there were 100 meetings, all but two attended by Mitch Bonanno, senior vice president-development at Vornado/Charles E. Smith.

The result was approval in September 2010 of the 40-year Crystal City Sector Plan. It seeks to better balance residential and commercial interests while offering businesses a new zoning option to modernize stale properties.

Bonnano polled banqueters on how many had been to Crystal City “for fun” since 2004, which is when his company began its push to humanize the area for pedestrians. He touted the Synetic Theater, the recent Artomatic artists’ fair, and adaptive re-use of a high- rise. “It’s a vibrant urbanity not matched in Fairfax,” he said.

The regional one-upmanship was hammered home by Terry Holzheimer, director of Arlington Economic Development. He asserted that even the reconstituting Tyson’s Corner won’t catch up to Crystal City in usability, though real estate prices at Tyson’s will be competitive.

Crystal City has spawned more economic analysis than any other area in the country, Holzheimer said. “We must plan carefully because we will get what we plan.”

The focus will be on enlivening street-level retail while factoring in Crystal City’s existing underground concourse. The plan is to boost the proportion of residents versus day-tripper employees with new amenities, such as a grocery store. All the usual planning elements—affordable housing, fire, emergency medical services and recreation—were considered. “There’s probably more free parking in Crystal City now than anywhere else in the county,” Holzheimer said, but pay parking will become the norm.

Revenues are on-target to finance such improvements as $22.3 million in roadway infrastructure projects, he added. The chief worry is that, with federal leasing “dead in the water,” not all the newly rehabbed buildings will find tenants on schedule.

The metamorphosis presents both thrills and threats to the folks who call Crystal City home. Christer Ahl, who co-chairs a council monitoring the implementation, said neighbors are impressed with the county’s amenities but wary of commercial domination. Many want to protect retailers in the Underground, he noted. He called for more open space, a “refuge for the lunch crowd.” And he raised an eyebrow at the notion that the population of residents and workers could triple by 2050 without creating a traffic nightmare. 

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]