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.
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.
On Crystal Drive, two blocks east of Jefferson Davis Highway, Charles E. Smith replaced a two-story parking garage with a strip of street-level, high-end restaurants designed to draw office workers out from the underground.
It replaced the cement sidewalk with a broader brick walkway and outdoor seating to encourage pedestrians to browse the new restaurants. And it has revised traffic patterns, turning one-way streets two-way to make it easier for potential customers to come and go.
"Neighborhoods like Crystal City that are as densely populated as a downtown find they should have been designed and built like a downtown and weren't," said Karen Nelson, a local retail broker at Blake Dickson Real Estate Services. "Developers who understand that they should have supplied street-front retail and restaurants are now doing so."
Schear said the complex can become a regional destination, particularly for food, drawing customers from Northern Virginia and the District for lunch or dinner.
The list of restaurant tenants who have signed on so far includes Jaleo, Mexican restaurant Oyamel, seafood restaurant McCormick & Schmick's, Bailey's Pub and Grille, ice cream vendor Cold Stone Creamery, and Caribou Coffee. All have opened since September.
Three more are under construction: Corner Bakery Cafe; Thai restaurant Neramitra; and Ted's Montana Grill, CNN founder Ted Turner's chain that has bison on the menu. Charles E. Smith would not disclose the terms of its rental agreements with the restaurants. Roberto Alvarez, co-owner of Proximo Restaurants, which operates Jaleo and Oyamel, said the company put together a generous package of incentives to lure tenants.
The restaurants are housed in a row of relatively small buildings, their heights staggered to evoke a traditional downtown street, said Eric J. Liebmann, a principal of WDG Architecture PLLC, which designed the spaces. With large office buildings nearby competing for attention, he said, the new buildings had to "keep shoppers' eyes on the retailers."
Marta Wilson, chief executive of Transformation Systems Inc., a management consulting firm based in Arlington, said she used to hate bringing potential clients and co-workers into Crystal City's underground. "The atmosphere just isn't good," she said.
But Wilson, who keeps an apartment in Crystal City, is already a regular at McCormick & Schmick's, camping out there for about six hours last Thursday as she met with a parade of businesspeople.
For Charles E. Smith, a division of Vornado Realty Trust, the timing of the project is crucial. One of Crystal City's biggest tenants, the Patent and Trademark Office, is moving to Alexandria. Charles E. Smith hopes the new retail mix will help attract employers who might have overlooked Crystal City in the past.
The Public Broadcasting Service last month said it signed a deal to move its headquarters from Alexandria to Crystal City.
Jaleo and Oyamel recorded strong first-month sales. Alvarez said sales at the Crystal City Jaleo are $65,000 a week, compared with $100,000 a week for Jaleo's downtown Washington location, which has been open for several years. Sales at Oyamel, which has no counterpart in the region, are $40,000 a week.
"Restaurateurs are risk-takers," said Alvarez, who said the lack of competition from high-end contemporary restaurants gives Jaleo and Oyamel an edge in Crystal City.
Schear said that 60,000 to 70,000 people commute to Crystal City every day. That includes about 5,000 residents and an equal number of hotel guests, creating a population like that of a small city. That's plenty to sustain a row of restaurants, local retail brokers said.
But the same brokers argued that the project faces an uphill battle in becoming a regional destination. Unlike downtown Washington or Arlington's Ballston, they said, the project lacks significant national retailers, such as an H&M or a Gap, that would draw shoppers looking to spend an afternoon in Crystal City.
The Crystal City Shops, a long-standing enclosed shopping center behind the new retail strip, includes a Safeway, a Rite Aid and a Dress Barn, but the other retailers are small shops, such as florists and salons, that serve residents and office workers.
More important, the brokers said, Crystal City is like an island, separated by major roads and gaps in retail from the District and Northern Virginia. "It doesn't really connect to anything else," said Len Harris, a retail broker at Transwestern Commercial Services.
Schear acknowledged the challenge. "We are not going to be Seventh and D streets in Washington," he said. "You are not going to see Hermes and Gucci side-by-side here."
Still, Charles E. Smith has put substantial effort into giving Crystal Drive the feel of a shopping center.
It introduced traditional-looking street lights and retail directories along Crystal Drive and 23rd Street to create a consistent appearance. There are plans to create a large icon -- perhaps a sculpture -- at the corner of 23rd Street and U.S. Route 1 that can be identified with the new retail strip and entice customers to shop and dine there.
"It will take some time to change the 40-year perception of this as an insular place," Schear said. "But it is happening."