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Commercial Real Estate Report: Retail

Crystal City Surfaces

Bars, Restaurants Try to Draw Workers From Underground

By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page E01

In Crystal City, where the separate spheres of work, shopping, and relaxation are connected by a labyrinth of underground cement tunnels, Rosalind Rollins did something unusual recently: She walked outside to grab lunch.

Her destination was Jaleo, a new outpost of the District's popular Spanish restaurant, which recently opened near her office. She plopped down inside the sleek glass and steel-framed dining room, ordered from a menu boasting cured sausages and marinated anchovies and took in some afternoon sunlight.

Mitchell N. Schear says of Crystal City: "It will take some time to change the 40-year perception of this as an insular place. But it is happening." (Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)

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Suddenly, "Crystal City is trendy," said Rollins, 32, a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office employee.

Trendy and Crystal City rarely have been uttered in the same breath, but that is beginning to change. Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty L.P., the company that owns most of the Arlington neighborhood's commercial property, is giving its shopping and entertainment center a makeover.

The company recently opened an open-air $40 million, 60,000-square-foot restaurant and retail project, which it has billed as a "new downtown gathering place in the Washington area."

Now comes the hard part: turning Crystal City into a dining and shopping destination for those who don't live or work there.

Crystal City, a mini-metropolis of high-rise buildings squeezed between the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport, is known mostly as a home for government agencies and their contractors. The architecture is dominated by boxy buildings of concrete and glass. The streets are wide and hard to cross.

And the street life has, until now, been all but nonexistent because restaurants and shops were underground in a tunnels designed to shuttle workers from the Metro to work and back again without ever stepping outside.

Mitchell N. Schear, Charles E. Smith's president, said the original vision of Crystal City, much of which was built in the 1960s, "has run its useful life." People, he said, "want to be in great urban spaces."

So the Arlingtoncompany is working to bring Crystal City into the modern era of retail, which favors open-air, town center-style retail formats such as those in Bethesda, Reston and Bowie, and new downtown designs such as Gallery Place in Washington.

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