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Crystal City:
Model of Convenience

By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1995

The striking urban skyline of tall, brick buildings crowded into overlapping shapes near National Airport is a busy office center by day and a quiet home for residents at night and on weekends.

Different from most area neighborhoods, Crystal City is a high-rise community where, each weekday, 60,000 people come to work and 6,000 come home. With its own Metro subway station, a commuter train station for the Virginia Railway Express and a shopping mall, Arlington County's Crystal City seems to offer what both workers and residents need.

"We operate in two modes," said Jack Reckitt, condominium president of Crystal Park, one of three condominium buildings in Crystal City. "We have the daytime mode with lots of people and congestion. But at night and on weekends, most everyone is gone and we have this very quiet place."

John Russo, his neighbor and former condominium president of the 181-unit building, calls the residential community "our own private city on weekends. We own the place."

Crystal City is a new community, created mainly by developer Robert H. Smith, president of the Charles E. Smith Co., whose father, Charles, built much of downtown Washington.

Beginning about 1963, Robert Smith built rental and then condominium and later office buildings along a stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway between the topmost bend of Shirley Highway on the north and the Arlington County line on the south. Crystal City is only a bit broader than the main corridor, with parts of Eads and Fern streets as the western border and the RF&P railroad tracks on the east side.

More than 30 of the 50 buildings built since the 1960s in Crystal City were Charles E. Smith Co. projects, according to company spokesman Scott Sterling.

Sterling said Smith did not start out with a planned community in mind, but that was what evolved. He said Smith found the Crystal City experiment of mixing residential and office uses so successful, he has created two similar communities: Skyline City at Baileys Crossroads and Worldgate, also in Fairfax County.

Crystal City only became known by that name after Smith was well into developing the area, a neighborhood then known simply as Route 1. Sterling said Smith wanted to give the place a new image -- so he put an elaborate crystal chandelier in the lobby of the first building and named it Crystal House. Every building thereafter took the Crystal name: Crystal Gateway, Crystal Towers, Crystal Square, Crystal Plaza. Some of these buildings carry the address of Crystal Drive. Eventually the whole neighborhood took on the Crystal name.

Tom Parker, who recently retired as Arlington's economic development director, said he remembers what the Crystal City area was like before Smith began building there.

"There was the Airport Drive-In Theatre with the screen facing the river," he said. "There were some junkyards, motels and some light and heavy industry. There were no single-family homes. I don't think there were any residents there at all."

At the northern end of Crystal City are some reminders of the old industrial neighborhood, where A-1 Towing has its office and car lots. Close by is the site of the former Twin Bridges Marriott, which was razed several years ago.

The newest Smith buildings in Crystal City were finished about three years ago, after the developer struck a deal with RF&P Railroad to move its tracks closer to National Airport to create a 100-acre slice of land for nine more structures. Crystal City Water Park, complete with a waterfall and concert area, fills in the middle of the former railroad land. During warm weather, Arlington sponsors concerts at noon and some evenings at the park.

Crystal City is so close to National Airport, it is probably the only neighborhood where residents can say they walk to the airport to catch a flight. Reckitt, a systems engineer, is one of those who simply strolls there rather then using the Metro and going one stop or taking a cab.

"It's real easy to get there," he said. "I walk down Crystal Drive and then take the bridge and I'm there. There is also a tunnel built for bike riders to get to the bike path. I can go that way."

Other residents stress the convenience of getting into the District.

Michael F. Dineen, a Capitol Hill lobbyist and president of the Crystal Gateway Condominiums, said he is able to come home after work, swim some laps in the five-lane indoor pool and still be ready to attend a dinner back in the city.

"This place is absolutely convenient to everything -- to work, to the airport," Dineen said. "I use the pool a lot. Being a lobbyist, I have many breakfast functions. I can be done swimming by 6:30 and get back to my apartment and still be someplace by 8 a.m."

Re/Max Properties Inc. agent Ellen Walton, a Crystal Gateway resident, said she advises people buying condominiums not to tell their bosses where they are going to live because they will never have an excuse for not coming to work.

"You can't just say, The car won't start,' " she said. "You can walk to the Metro without going outside. We are so close to the Pentagon that you can walk there. You can walk to the airport."

Walton said some residents also walk to nearby Pentagon City for shopping and movies or to the Price Club for groceries.

There are few condominiums for sale, said Walton, and when they are available, they go quickly. In her building, which she called ultra-luxury, the marble bathrooms are a good selling point, she said.

"The bathrooms are the size of a normal room. There is a soaking tub for two and a shower and a double vanity. We have marble on three walls and a mirror on the other."

She said condominiums in the ultra-luxury class at Crystal City sell for about $170,000 for a one-bedroom with den and $600,000 for a three-bedroom plus den with a view of the river.

A luxury condominium building, such as the one where Reckitt lives, has one-bedroom units for about $103,000 and the larger, most expensive units would sell for about $300,000, she said.

Walton said people buying in Crystal City are often single or couples without children or retired.

A day-care center run by the Smith Co. has about 75 children enrolled, but only "10 percent of the children are home-grown," Sterling said. "Most of the kids are children of employees."

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