The Crystal City of the past was split down the middle at South 23rd Street. To the south, the wealthy lived in their comfortable homes; to the north, houses were sandwiched between storage yards and iron works in what had become "the other side of the tracks."
It was this blighted area of Arlington, just across the 14th Street Bridge from the District, that developers chose in the mid-Sixties to transform into the ideal modern community -- a shiny city unto itself, composed of 16 office buildings and an underground shopping mall interspersed with apartment buildings and hotels. It has proved a financial bonanza and at the same time changed the basic fabric of the community.
Land values in the area have skyrocketed, especially on what used to be the other side of the tracks, now adjacent to the Metro stop. Most houses in the area, predominantly single-family detached houses and dupleses, now sell in the $100,000 range. A house purchased 16 years ago for $33,000 recently sold for $120,000. Half a mile from the Metro, a house bought for $42,000 in 1974 sold for $101,000 last year. Farther away, in the Aurora Highlands area, a home bought in 1965 for $26,000 brought $150,000 in 1979. This trend follows real estate patterns across most of the metropolitan area.
Louis Pappas, a well-known real estate broker and a resident who's been there so long he deems himself "the mayor of Crystal City," estimates land values have gone up sevenfold since 1955. Much of this he credits to Metro.
Pappas, who has lived in the Crystal City area since 1947, has become, on his side of Jefferson Davis Highway, a small-scale version of the much larger Charles E. Smith Companies that developed the Crystal City high rises. Pappas owns a large part of a buffer-zone block along 23rd Street between Crystal City and the neighboring Aurora Highlands residential area.
He said the high-rise enclave across the highway has attracted a wealthier group of people into the area who want to live near their jobs.
Commercial development, either completed or under construction, should continue to bring a wealthier, more transient population to the area, according to developers, merchants and residents of the area. Metro, originally intended to pick up a large amount of the increased traffic, at the same time is attracting more development and its attendant problems.
Hotel development, already at a high level in the area, continues. A 903-room, dual-tower Marriott Hotel, the third Marriott in or near Crystal City, and a 197-room Crystal City Sheraton, to be started in July, will push the total number of hotel rooms in a one-mile area well over 3,000.
The Charles E. Smith Companies, the major office and residential developer in the area, already owns 15 office buildings either occupied or under construction, seven apartment buildings fully occupied and two condominium apartment buildings under construction. All existing office buildings are 100 percent full, and many of the proposed ones are also, according to Robert Bolen, a Charles E. Smith, leasing official.
"We're creating a lot of jobs and making a large economic contribution to Arlington," Bolen said. "A lot of Fortune 500 companies are locating here and adding to the county's tax base," he added, among them IBM and General Electric.
Despite the rosy picture painted by Smith officials, some store owners at the Crystal City Underground -- a collection of specialty shops, eateries and clothing stores -- question the project's success.
"There's generally a lack of shoppers," one employe said. "We see a lot of faces, but very few buyers." A shop owner said turnover at the underground is fairly high.
Part of the problem, some store owners and employes agree, is the underground's lack of visibility to passersby. "Crystal City in general is too confusing. . . . People mistake this [the underground] for a businessmen's mall," one storekeeper said.
Most shopkeepers don't find fault with the Smith Companies, though. "They're trying, but they don't know where to turn. They just haven't quite figured out to make it successful," one store owner said.
"It's got great potential and good stores, but they [the Smith Comapnies] have to figure out a way to get it advertised. . . . What we need is a nice ugly neon sign out front," the shopkeeper added.
A Smith retail leasing agent, Larry Demaree, said just two of the 70 available store spaces in the underground are vacant, and the company is going to add 25 more. Seventy percent of those extra stores are leased already, he said.
Across Jefferson Davis Highway, the neighboring Aurora Highlands area has felt reverberations from the growth of Crystal City, both positive and negative.
Some citizens contend that along with this rise in land values has come an increase in crime, especially along Jefferson Davis Highway.
According to the Arlington County Police Research and Development Unit, the Crystal City high-rise strip -- east of Jefferson Davis Highway from the Arlington-Alexandria line to Shirley Highway -- ranks second in the county for incidence of reported serious crime (murder, robbery, larceny, rape, assault, burglary and auto theft). The county area ranked first in crime is Rosslyn.
Gary Hulick, police planner for the Research and Development Unit, said the neighboring Aurora Highlands tract ranked 14th on the list in 1980, a drop from the 10th spot it occupied the previous year.
Hulick said Crystal City has the highest daytime population in Arlington County, an estimated 70,000. "Anywhere you have more people, generally, you will have an increase in incidences of serious crime," he said.
Commercial growth also appears to have affected the make-up of the Aurora Highlands community.
Liz Bryon, an Aurora Highlands resident who has run the Busy Bee Day Care Center for 10 years, says she's noticed a substantial increase in single-parent families, as the neighborhood has become more populated by professionals who work in the Crystal City canyon.
"I see a lot of divorced parents. For example, a legal secretary who works in one of the high-rises and makes a pretty good salary. She needs to do something with her child and can afford to leave him in the center here," Bryon said. "Obviously progress has to come, but I hate to see us getting away from the family unit. I can see it in the kids."
Jpopulation shifts in Crystal City and in Arlington County in general have resulted in a drop in the number of school-age children forcing several schools to close. Crystal City used to have three public schools. It now has one, Oakridge Elementary School, with an enrollment of 595.
Joan Lewis of the Arlington County School District administration office attributes the phonomenon to a number of factors directly or indirectly related to the commercial development of the area.
"There are a lot more singles moving into Arlington County," she said, also indicating that higher land values have forced families farther beyond the county.
"Condominium conversions also are a factor. This raises the class of the building and changes the type of people who would live there," Lewis said. The Crystal City highrises "aren't the kind of buildings where we'd get a lot of children."
Martin Burka has been part owner since the '60s of the Community Hardware Store on 23rd Street, part of what is considered "the buffer zone" between the high-rise strip and neighboring Aurora Highlands, and has observed the evolution.
"The first seven years I could recognize almost every face that came into my store," but now he only sees a few familiar faces on weekends, he said. But from a business aspect, "I couldn't be happier," Burka said.
John Dubeck, president of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association, has lived in Crystal City for many years and plans to stay. "I really like it here. It's a nice area, with a great deal of accessibility to an awful lot of things."
But Dubeck and other citizens in the area are involved in trying to correct situations they view as threats to maintaining the neighborhood quality of the area -- primarily transportation crunches, both in terms of parking and traffic along 23rd Street -- and preserving zoning for single-family dwellings.At present the biggest threat local citizens' groups see in this area centers on that 23rd Street buffer-zone block, and the groups are struggling to keep it zoned for low-level commercial buildings no higher than three stories.
"We want to stop it [high-rise development] right where it is," said Dubeck, calling alterations in density and floor-space limitations "a creeping phenomenon" in the area.
One parcel of land on the block, the site of the Louis Pappas Realty Office and a small parking lot, is zoned for construction of a larger, denser structure.
In 1971, Pappas' plan to build a seven-story office building on the lot was approved by the site plan review committee, an advisory group of both citizens and county planning staff members who review all proposed construction. Pappas didn't get adequate financing for the project, and it was abondoned. The committee again approved a similar plan of Pappas' in 1973, which was modified to five stories, but again he was unable to get financing.
Pappas still plans to put up that five-story structure on the lot, with a ground floor mini-mall including a small grocery store. The need for a well-located grocery store has increased because the area has lost three during the past 15 years, leaving one Safeway in the high-rise conglomeration. The store's location poses a problem for the area's elderly residents who have to cross busy Jefferson Davis Highway to get there.
Pappas says he has commitments from a number of businesses to lease space for such facilities.
The holdup? "Now I'm waiting for the community to get sensible," he said. Dubeck and other citizens in the area have fought, development that exceeds three stories.
"Once he [Pappas] gets approval to go over the three-story maximum, everybody else on that block would be entitled to that zoning classification," Dubeck said. "We don't care what promises are made."
"In five or 10 years they'll [the citizens] realize they should have been happy to have five stories, because by then things will probably be coming in at 16 stories," Pappas said.
Pappas is not alone in looking for more development to come to the block. Tony Zavarella, whose music store has been on the block for 10 years, said, 'I've been going to the meetings. I know the issues. I can't imagine how a group of people can stand up to protect something that isn't here.
"They want to look out and see blossoming trees instead of the high-rises that belong here. . . . They want it to become another Georgetown. I just feel the area should grow with the times of Crystal City."