Arlington Envisions Crystal City After BRAC
Friday, June 16, 2006
An Arlington County task force yesterday presented a wide-ranging plan designed to limit the economic impact from the loss of 17,000 military and defense jobs ordered by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
The panel recommended launching a planning process that could ultimately transform the entire landscape there, potentially knocking down some of the boxy buildings and eliminating the subterranean passageways that have defined the area for years.
In their place would be a more lively street-level scene with a greater mix of shops, restaurants and offices. One Arlington County Board member, Jay Fisette (D), went so far as to suggest that the county consider changing Crystal City's name.
Arlington was hit hard by the federal plan, which will transfer jobs from the county to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax, Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and military installations in Alabama and elsewhere. Under federal law, the jobs must be moved by 2011.
Other recommendations yesterday included establishing a transition office for workers and businesses and launching an ambitious planning process that could remake the urban office canyons of Crystal City. About 4.2 million square feet of office space will be vacated in Arlington, most of it in the Crystal City area.
The task force's recommendations are advisory. The County Board would make any final decisions on how to address the job losses.
"We're scheduled to lose more jobs than any other jurisdiction in the country," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D). "We do have to prepare for that fact aggressively."
One task force member, Jeffrey Finkle, who is president of the International Economic Development Council, said the county should create an incentive plan to attract new businesses because emptying so much office space at once is "huge" and could destabilize the commercial real estate market across the region.
Zimmerman and others speaking yesterday said that the county sees the empty space as an opportunity to "reimagine" and "brand" Crystal City as an attractive destination. Though close to Reagan National Airport and dense with hotels, the area has long been seen as a gloomy 1960s era enclave of offices connected by underground passages. But parts of Crystal City have lately seen a rebirth, thanks to an influx of trendy cafes and a new streetscape.
Crystal City has been affected not only by the planned exodus of military workers but also the loss of thousands of jobs when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office moved to Alexandria.
Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty, which owns 7.4 million of the 11 million square feet of office space in the neighborhood, has spent $40 million on improvements to enliven the streets and attract new businesses. It turned Crystal Drive into a two-way main street and has recruited new shops and chic restaurants such as Jaleo and McCormick & Schmick's.
Ultimately, the county hopes that a more diverse group of businesses will arrive to replace the military and defense workers. Some large media companies, such as the Public Broadcasting Service and the Bureau of National Affairs, have already begun moving in.
But changing public perception of Crystal City could be hard, officials say.
"In the community in general, they say, 'Crystal [City] is confusing. I don't know how to get there,' '' said Marty Almquist, the task force's chairman.
The task force also recommended a program to reach out to smaller businesses that serve Crystal City's office workers, such as delis and dry cleaners. The storefront transition center will be staffed by employment counselors and economic development personnel who could connect workers who don't want to move away from the area with new government or consulting jobs or help transfer security clearances between agencies.
Terry Holzheimer, Arlington's economic development director, said the county hopes to have space leased for the transition center within weeks. In July, his office will seek approval from the County Board to apply for up to $1 million in federal grant money for transition costs.