Crystal City Attempts to Change for The Better

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005

The Crystal City underground is no longer the Crystal City underground. Now it is called the Crystal City Shops@1750, a stab at grafting 21st century chic onto a warren of concrete.

Potbelly Sandwich Works and Subway are replacing locally owned lunch spots, and the executives at Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty have taken a break from negotiating leases to proclaim "Crystal City rocks," a point emphasized by their sponsorship of an upcoming street festival featuring the rock band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

The rebranding of Crystal City, a product of 1960s design, heavily dependent on Pentagon leases and the button-down corps of contractors who followed them, has begun. It encompasses an urban hipster marketing campaign and an evolving plan to begin ripping down some of its oldest structures.

At the six-building office complex formerly referred to as Crystal Plaza, Charles E. Smith is renovating two of the office buildings, but is studying whether to tear down the other four and start over.

"Our land as a raw development opportunity is worth more than the land encumbered by a tired building," Vornado Realty Trust, parent company of Charles E. Smith, said in its 2004 annual report.

"At the time, this is what was avant-garde in urban planning," Mitchell N. Schear, president of Charles E. Smith, said of Crystal City. "It looked and felt like a series of office parks. We are trying to give it a more urban feel."

As a major building owner in Crystal City, the company has a large stake in furthering its transition from de facto federal office park to a competitive player in the market for private business tenants, snappy retailers and the nighttime restaurant trade. The company has taken the lead in a campaign to try to put the area on a par with Clarendon or Bethesda, promoting "the hottest line-up of destination restaurants and eateries, all on a dynamic new 'Main Street.' "

The urgency for Charles E. Smith and others with a major investment in Crystal City has become clear: In the past two years, three important economic props have been shaken. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is vacating 1.9 million square feet of office space and moving to Alexandria; US Airways Group Inc.'s proposed merger with America West Holdings Corp. could send hundreds of local jobs to Arizona; and the Pentagon has recommended shifting its personnel from leased offices to more secure sites on military bases. That step alone could cost Crystal City as much as 3 million square feet of office leases, and more if government contractors follow their clients.

The confluence of bad news has accelerated a debate about the viability of Crystal City's original build-it-dense-and-lease-it-to-the-government philosophy, and has led Charles E. Smith, local officials and others to start laying new plans.

The Pentagon's recommendations feel "as if a neutron bomb dropped in the region," Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the board of supervisors in neighboring Fairfax County, said to fellow elected officials at a Northern Virginia Regional Commission meeting on May 26. "It will have ripple effects on all of us."

In the early 1960s, pre-Metrorail, the land now known as Crystal City hosted railway lines, a brickyard, and acres of industrial wasteland. It had two good physical assets: It was across the 14th Street bridge from downtown Washington, and it was across what is now I-395 from the Pentagon.

A group of investors, including real estate developer Robert H. Smith, acquired 18 acres of land in 1961 and started to build a utopian vision with Crystal House, an 800-unit apartment complex that featured an elaborate crystal chandelier in the lobby. The now 150-acre development hosts more than 10 million square feet of office space, 12,000 parking spaces, 6,500 hotel rooms, and more than 5,000 residential units.

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