It is built at the exact point at which 7-Eleven intersects with 2001.
It is called Crystal City. Concrete and glass. Convenience. Connected by tubes. Crazy at lunch.
Though it is far from finished, it is already huge -- 33 buildings, give or take a site plan, planted in about 200 acres of some of the most expensive land in Arlington County. A single company built most of it.
It is a strange land: Nearly everyone but the police seems to pass through it underground, which may explain why it looks so deserted from the highway. Subterranean passageways that connect offices and apartments with subway and shopping stretch for four city blocks; at sidewalk level, one sees only corner-to-corner curtains, security desks, a few banks, a half-dozen hot-dog carts. But downstairs are close to a hundred stores, a movie theater, a new restaurant, a couple of bars, a Safeway, a disco -- all underground.
Like other strange lands, it is full of strangers: Most of the 70,000 people who show up in Crystal City on an average workday find they must withdraw from its imposing scale entirely and operate instead in more manageable worlds of an office or two, a few familiar corridors, a daily left turn, a favorite lunch spot.
In addition to everything else, about 7,000 people live there. But as for community spirit, well -- they don't pull up stakes and come to Crystal City for camaraderie. They come for convenience.
It is handy to downtown Washington -- and to downtown Chicago. Metro's Blue Line runs through it. National Airport is next door, accessible both by subway and a traffic viaduct from U.S. 1 -- which also runs through it. The George Washington Parkway and I-395 run by it.
To the west is red-brick Arlington. But Crystal City is as different from its shade-treed, single-family neighbor as it is from the national capital across the Potomac.
For example: A recent District government survey found that Washington is losing businesses. Crystal City, on the other hand, has filled nearly 7 million square feet of office space since its birth in 1962, and is building 4 million more.
The 1980 census says Arlington has lost residents -- 12 percent of its 1970 population. The same survey credits the census tracts that include Crystal City with nearly 100 percent growth in the number of households.
Many more are on the way.
A lone pedestrian crosses the four lanes of U.S. 1 -- plus the unpaved, 20-yard-wide buffers that parallel the highway, awaiting long-delayed traffic-flow improvements. In a tightly wrapped raincoat, his Totes spattered with mud, he waits for a "WALK" signal. The "WALK" sign flashes green for five seconds. He dashes in front of a growling cement truck.
Wide concrete plazas, sidewalks and raised walkways surround and connect the buildings. They seem strangely underpopulated, almost deserted. There are cars all over the surface roadways, but few places to park.
Underground. That's where you park.
Or leave the car home.
Underground is also where you arrive, and where you walk. The subway escalator inches you into a noisy, crowded, brightly lit lunch-time hum of spare-haired men in Navy uniforms, businessmen with briefcases in one hand and hot dogs in the other, dozens of blow-dried young women in skirts and heels. The Crystal Underground. Seventy stores, elevator access to all the buildings above, an atrium-lit "Dinery" with seven kinds of ethnic fast-food counters, an ABC liquor store, a French-style bakery, awnings, colorful tile walkways.
It's a roughly four-block walk -- below ground all the way -- to the other end of Crystal City, away from the Metro stop, where the sporadic commercial areas are connected by long barren hallways adorned by occasional advertising posters and metal doors that say "NO EXIT" and "PARKING A & B ONLY." The decor slips from the bright primary colors of Crystal Underground to dull gray and glass. Jeans boutiques and video emporiums give way to drugstores, beauty parlors, an optician, a travel agent, and curtained floor-to-ceiling windows -- store space converted to offices.
Bob Kogod's office is a triangular expanse of gray pile and white planes, modern art and a million-dollar view of the Potomac and the Capitol beyond, a view made possible by the floor-to-ceiling glass that makes up one side of the triangle.
No doubt about it, it is pretty. But this City Within a City, gentlemen -- is it... art?
Everyone shifts in his seat. Deep breaths all around. Bob Smith speaks.
"Today, you see articles in the newspaper -- every week almost -- about architecture in America, about why are we building only rectangular boxes, with all the great architects, and etcetera, etcetera," says Smith, who, as president of Charles E. Smith Companies, built the "city" that Kogod, as head of the Charles E. Smith Management Co., runs.
Smith is sitting next to Kogod in a small circle of soft gray chairs near the apex of the triangle, where the floor rises in carpeted steps to form a platform for a six-foot-high steel sculpture. Through the window, a Delta 727 approaches National Airport without a sound.
"It's an ongoing type of criticism," Smith says. There are ground rules -- certain size, height and use limitations that constrain builders, he says. "I think there are always going to be critics of any entity, any architecture."
Besides, says Kogod, leaning forward in his chair to make a minor point:
People like it.
Charles A. Smith is a 24-year-old electrician from Southeast Washington. The name is a coincidence. He is wearing a DC-101 T-shirt as he window-shops in the Crystal Underground, which is about to open 25 more shops and thus has had lots of work for electricians. Smith admits that when he's assigned to work somewhere other than Crystal City, he misses the place.
"It's a nice little city underground," he says, finishing a chocolate ice cream cone. "Kinda reminds me of" -- he smiles -- "ants."
Ants or no, every apartment building in Crystal City -- particularly those west of U.S. 1 -- has a waiting list of from one to five months, depending on luck, liaisons and how many bedrooms you want. Every apartment building has a pool, a party room, and a tasteful, hospital-quiet lobby. Efficiencies start at about $385 a month; three-bedroom corner units cost as much as $800.
Arlington County planner Robert Baker knew a couple who lived in the Crystal Square apartments, east of U.S. 1, in Crystal City proper. "The woman could go to work and come home without walking outside of a building. She worked in L'Enfant Plaza," he says, smiling, shaking his head. "That's pretty amazing."
"Oh, I love it," says Gloria Ferullo, 57, who has lived at Crystal Towers for the last 13 years and is now president of the Crystal House and Crystal Towers Social Club. "I just love it here. And I'm sick," she says, gesturing toward the Marriott construction across Eads Street. "Today I can see the Washington Monument and the White House on a clear day, but I'm not going to be able to see anything, and I'm sick about that.
"I'm waiting to see what happens out here, to see if they block my view. If they do, I'm thinking about moving to another apartment... in the building somewhere," says Ferullo, whose club currently draws 118 members from the 1,740 units in the two complexes, about half single, half married and all over 30. "Just as long as I'm not looking into a motel."
Carlyle V. Stewart, 54, whose office-window view is primarily of the airport and points southeast, lived in Crystal City for 10 years until moving his family to a roomier suburban home in Fairfax last December. But Crystal City is still okay with him.
"Thousands of people live here -- how many unhappy people could you have?" he says. "We put our pants on one leg at a time like everybody else. We like the airport. There's a point for you -- they think everybody who lives around the airport dislikes it. That's people on their damn patios up and down the river -- we love the airport."
Crystal City does have its problems, Stewart will say, and he was once president of its civic association. There is an intracity transportation problem -- "Mobility might be a better word," he says. It's a long walk from one end of Crystal City to the other. And who wants to walk first to the Crystal City Metro stop and then from the airport Metro station to the terminal with a heavy suitcase? "You take a cab," he says, laughing, "just like you used to."
And then there's that sense of community.
"None," he says.
"It's mobile," he says. "People come here, and they're interested for the same reasons -- it's handy to downtown, it's handy to services, stores, it's handy to the airport, to travel, it's handy to neighbors, whatever. It's amazing how many people retire to Crystal City. That always kind of surprised me, really it did. Not all retired people want to go sit in the sun in a strange town, far away from your family..."
Handy indeed.At least two dozen congressmen (and countless Capitol Hill workers) live in Crystal City. Three guesses why.
"It's very convenient," says Jana Crandall, 35, personal secretary to Rep. Larry J. Hopkins (R-Ky.). She makes a slight amendment. "It's extremely convenient." Crandall says the apartments are spacious, she can stop at Larimer's or Safeway on the way home (if she takes the subway), and on top of that her friends like to come over and look out her windows and see "every mode of transportation -- you can see the cars on the GW Parkway, boats on the river, the airport, the Metro and the train yard."
But: "If I leave my windows open it drives me crazy sometimes. I'm a light sleeper."
In 15 years, it will be twice the present size.
In 1960, a square foot of raw, undeveloped land cost about $1.30. In 1981, undeveloped land around Crystal City -- if you could find any -- cost about $30 a square foot.
Smith's 185 acres of Crystal City alone are assessed at nearly $300 million, about 5 percent of Arlington County's total assessed value.
All but five of the 33 buildings now standing between 12th Street on the north and the airport viaduct just south of 26th Street are on the east side of Jefferson Davis Highway (U.S. 1), the main thoroughfare.
There are offices in 24 of the 33 buildings, and 18,000 people who work for the Navy constitute the biggest single block of occupants. Smith has plans for eight more office buildings, increasing an existing 6.5 million square feet of office space by about half. Another half-million square feet either are under construction by other firms or will soon be.
There are apartments in eight of the 33 buildings, 3,100 units in all. In September, Smith opened a 360-unit luxury condominium building at Crystal Gateway, and another 348-unit apartment building is under construction on Eads and 12th streets a block beyond U.S. 1. An adjacent 382-unit apartment house is planned. Smith expects to build 604 more luxury condo units in the Crystal Park phase of construction next year, a phase that involves moving the multi-track railroad right-of-way on Crystal City's eastern border several hundred yards closer to the river.
Five of the 33 buildings are hotels, with about 3,000 rooms. More are under construction: a 200-room Sheraton, a 450-room Marriott and a 615-room Hyatt. The new Marriott will eventually double its space to become Crystal City's largest hotel.
"Crystal City" is Smith's name, technically applicable only to the buildings Smith put up -- which is all but about eight -- but only Arlington County planners refer to the entire area as "The Jefferson Davis Corridor." The planners will remind you that the Pomponio family built the hotel, apartment house and five office buildings south of 23rd Street once known as National Center. The two offices and a Holiday Inn just north of 15th Street were dubbed Jefferson Plaza by builder Kingdon Gould, who is now building the Hyatt in an office-hotel complex called Airport City, just south of the 26th Street viaduct, which carries automobile traffic from U.S. 1 to the airport.
The rest of the world, however, calls the whole thing Crystal City.
When a newly begun development to the northwest, called Pentagon City, is finished, it will look as if it is attached to Crystal City. Pentagon City will have 1.25 million square feet of office space, 6,480 apartments or condominiums, 2,000 hotel rooms and 800,000 square feet of retail commercial space.
Michael Quint is 32 and owns the Bed 'n' Bath boutique in the Crystal Underground. He envies the Smith company for its foresight -- for looking at the Jefferson Davis Corridor's early-'60s spread of railroad yards, used-car lots, brick mills and greasy spoons and envisioning instead... well, Crystal City. Quint was recently elected president of the Crystal City merchants' association. He thinks it's now the most cost-effective place to open a business in town. "Primo" is the word he uses.
He is headed out of doors -- into an office-ringed park of red-brick walks, manicured grass and young trees. He pauses on the glass-enclosed staircase leading up to the park from Amelia's, a snazzy-looking restaurant the Smith Co. opened late last year in the Underground to help draw people into the mall at night. "This is terrific," he says of the skylit, brass-and-blond-wood cafe below, where a handful of business-suited men are sipping drinks and squinting occasionally at the half-scale models of old-fashioned airplanes suspended by wires in the atrium. "This is really perfect," he says.
Outside now, it is beginning to rain. As he walks through the park (which actually rests on top of the newest part of the Underground), Quint admits he has mixed feelings about working underground, away from natural sunlight and natural ventilation. "It does bother me," he says. "That's the larger social issue: This is a concrete world, this is lifeless. I need to be in a natural environment -- sunlight, grass, the sound of crickets. I consciously spend time outdoors when I'm not here. I jog in the morning. I went hiking last week. I spent yesterday swimming."
Quint used to live in Crystal City, across U.S. 1, but moved after six months, in part because he found he was "always here."
"If I work downstairs for 10, 12 hours I can really feel it -- I have to get out," he says. "Plus, the walk across Jeff Davis Highway was a real chore. It was not a pleasant walk. There's not too much respect out there for the pedestrian."
When county planner Baker talks about the friend with the totally indoors trek to work, he scrunches up his face.
"I'm not sure I'd want to be in that situation. I'd rather get rained on, get a chill... maybe slip on the ice occasionally."
Baker doesn't know whether the artificial environment is healthy or not.
"I know I don't like it. I don't like fluorescent lights, so if I didn't have a window in the office I think I'd go crazy." Looking up, one realizes the ceiling lights in Baker's office are turned off; the light comes from the window.
"Either that," he says, "or I'd work in the dark."
Jefferson Davis Highway was supposed to have been "fixed" by now, says Arlington public works director H. S. Hulme Jr. It won't be, though, at least until late this year.
State transportation officials are now considering alternatives to the original plan, now nearly 10 years old, to turn U.S. 1 into I-595, linking Shirley Highway with the airport and, as the ensuing court suit claimed, making access in and out of certain Crystal City commercial areas impossible.
A ruling in favor of the pro-access businessmen sent Arlington back to the drafting board; alternatives -- including plans for a variety of four- to six-lane highways with turning lanes and traffic lights at 20th and 23rd streets -- will be aired publicly this fall and winter, Hulme says.
In the meantime, afternoon rush hours snarl the traffic entering U.S. 1 back into the parking garages and side streets of Crystal City, and morning rush hours pile traffic back into the surrounding neighborhoods. Temporary pedestrian walkways of asphalt and pine boards crisscross the oddly graded no man's land on either side of the highway, which has neither turning lanes nor unimpeded pedestrian access anywhere between 12th and 26th streets.
Because traffic and noise are what most typical Arlingtonians fled when they moved there, and because traffic and noise are tough to keep out of the lower-density neighborhoods around high-density Crystal, there is a continuous tension between the two communities.
In this corner: Bob Gratton, who runs the Hospitality House opposite U.S. 1 from Crystal Plaza.
"You know, Crystal City's been extremely good for this area," says Gratton, who points out that tourists last year spent $298 million in Arlington, more than in any other Virginia county or city (and probably 60 percent of it in Crystal City, he says). "It's unfortunate that those who criticize it do criticize...
"For instance," he says, "I just saw in the paper the other day something about the traffic problem in Crystal City." He looks pained. "I know more about the traffic problem in Crystal City than the state or the county or anybody else, because I sit in this window" -- he gestures to the floor-to-ceiling view of U.S. 1 automobilia to his immediate right -- "eight, 10 hours a day and I can tell you almost what the needs and areas are. Not some guy that sees it at 6 o'clock in the morning or 7 o'clock at night and says, 'It's a mess.'
"Well, I can tell you that Shirley Highway's a mess too," he says. "So's downtown Washington. That's not -- what I mean is, they really don't know what they're talking about. We have problems with traffic. I'm not saying we want to leave it like it is, but we don't need... well, we need to slove our own problems."
When John H. Quinn Jr. is headed to the airport from his stone and brick home on Knoll Street, he leaves himself five or 10 minutes driving time. Except during morning rush hour, that is, when he leaves himself a half-hour or more.
"They talk a lot about keeping the traffic out of the so-called residential neighborhood," Quinn says, sipping water at a tiny table in a densely populated downtown lunch spot. "I am talking about not being able to get out -- this is traffic in my neighborhood, this is my street. "
Quinn doesn't get to Crystal City very often, and thinks this is typical of most who live in neighboring Aurora Hills and Arlington Ridge.
"Crystal City when it was first proposed was described in such idyllic terms. I was delighted -- a very attractive area where you could work, live, very nice shops. Well, not very many of the people who work there live there, and I'd be very surprised if very many of the people who live there work there. I know that certainly we have no occasion to shop in that area. We eat out a fair amount, but almost never go down there because... getting to those eating places is difficult. It's not terribly attractive."
A waitress pauses beside the table, four empty plates cradled in her left arm. "One french fries, number nine please!" she says.
"The point is," Quinn says, "the costs of this type of development are very, very great and the same people that talk about enhancing the tax base also must recognize that the budget is also enhanced, if you will, by an even greater proportion."
Quinn quotes county board members who claim the county has no money to increase police or fire protection substantially in Crystal City, which Quinn says "has a very high crime rate."
"That's a crock of baloney," says Gratton. "The comment you're hearing is what somebody dreams. It's not what they know, it's what they dream. The guy who lives up there on the hill says, 'Oh, there's gotta be more cops because there's all those big hotels down there.' Well, we gotta have a lot more cops because their kids up on the hill are creating all kinds of problems. Up there, there's your problem.
"Let's take a city block up on the hill, what their requirements are. And take a city block here, and take the amount of money that we each pay in taxes and compare them.
"Every one of these buildings has its own security. Every hotel has its own security force. Does some guy have somebody parading around his house every day to make sure that his house is safe? No. But I have somebody going around the property here all the time.
"They expect it, and we're paying for it. They say, 'You should pay.' They really believe we should pay for their protection. Well, we are paying for it. If we were to close down and go away, they couldn't afford to live there, because they couldn't afford to pay their taxes.
"I mean, it just upsets you," says Gratton, who claims total business in Crystal City is improving not only as the local office population increases but also as a result of Metro, which makes staying in Crystal City feasible for those with business in downtown Washington. "Some of these people are just against, period. Their homes have gone up in value so tremendously, too -- there isn't a thing for sale over there, anyplace, for less than $100,000...
"And without Crystal City they would be back where they were, with $30,000 houses."
According to police statisticians, the Crystal City area currently has the second-highest incidence of serious crime in Arlington County. The highest incidence is in Rosslyn, which is also the only area with a greater density.
"It's picking up because Crystal City is just expanding to the point now that it's overgrown itself," says Arlington Police crime resistance detective Gregg Kurasz. "The roadways are completely bogged down; there's no way you can recognize anybody as belonging to any one place. With the interconnections of the buildings you can't close off the buildings very easily."
By far the most frequent crime committed in the area is larceny -- to automobiles in Crystal City's vast underground parking garages and to much of the 6.5 million square feet of office space above. A recent police tally of crimes reported at a number of Charles Smith Co. addresses along U.S. 1 showed 102 larcenies in the first five months of 1981 (compared with 140 in all of 1980 and 133 in 1979). Vandalism was the second most frequent item on the 1981 list -- with 13 -- followed by burglaries, at 11. There were nine of each reported in all of 1979.
"I can't say Crystal City is unique from other office areas," Kurasz says later, "other than the fact that in Crystal City you're facing more of an underground situation, which makes it even easier to move around. You don't have to go up to ground level. So maybe in a criminal's mind it just seems much easier."
And don't criminals also know that the police -- not the hired police, but armed, county police -- are primarily upstairs?
"Yeah, pretty much," says Kurasz. "We've had details in the past that we've put under there, but it's such a large area that in order to cover the area and have any success at apprehending somebody you're talking about a large force of men."
Which is not likely.
Which is why, Kurasz says, he had an appointment three weeks hence with several Charles E. Smith Co. officials to tour the neighborhood, upstairs and down, and make recommendations for such measures as closed-circuit TV systems and locking, fire-controlled gates between the commercial and office areas.
Bob Smith and Bob Kogod do not believe crime is any worse in Crystal City than in similar urgan areas.
"Okay," Smith says, "we had one building here, we thought about it this much." He holds his fingers about an inch apart. "Now that we have 25 buildings finished, we have to look at it differently. We do spend more time thinking about it. It's a way of life."
"It just has to be put in the proper context," Kogod says. "It's a natural thing."
The Crystal Dinery, the Underground mall's smooth-running smorgasbord of fast ethnic food, serves 5,000 meals a day.
Breakfast and lunch, that is. No dinner.
"If I want to send flowers to somebody during the working day, I run down to the flower shop," says Lyle Stewart. "But if I'm home, I don't come here. Even when I lived in Crystal City I wouldn't home here. I had my own place to go. If I wanted to go out for deli food, I might go downtown or I might go to Fairfax. Sure. That's part of the mobility problem I mentioned earlier. Just as easy for me to get in my car and go over to my favorite Italian deli over in D.C. as it is for me to go five blocks up the street on foot."
Back to Bob Kogod's office. Again, Bob Smith is speaking.
"We're trying to do things to give Crystal City an ongoing, nighttime use," says Smith. "We recognize that the majority of the space here is office space, but through the shopping, the restaurants -- with Bob Kogod particularly involved in the shopping and restaurants and health club and those uses -- we're trying, as private developers, to do what we can to minimize that. Don't forget that in Crystal City there is not one penny of federal financing, of federal guaranteed loans. Everything you see here that we have done, we have done as entrepreneurs, putting our money where our mouth is -- no pre-leasing, but building on speculation, on the confidence that we could build a project in an area that would be desirable and acceptable.
"The proof of the pudding is that there is not one vacancy in one apartment. There is not one square foot of office space we have available in any completed building. The only space we have available is some retail space that we are now in the process of working on and that in the not-too-distant future will also be 100 percent leased."
In short, the Smith Co. plans to make the Underground a place people will come to when they're not working. They've hired Chuck Lapine as a marketing vice president, among other things to give the "city" -- particularly the Underground mall -- a more accessible, around-the-clock image.
Amelia's, the 550-seat restaurant, will be the first of several such places in Crystal City if Lapine has his way.
"You don't raise the curtain on a city," Lapine says. "You can build an apartment, or a hotel, or a restaurant, and the day it opens, it opens. But a city doesn't happen like that. Washington didn't happen like that. Cleveland didn't happen like that. New York didn't happen... It's an ongoing, breathing thing."
Lapine mentions 57th Street in Manhattan as the prototypical urban street, the ultimate mixed-use neighborhood. "Shops, offices, Carnegie Hall, apartments. We don't have Carnegie Hall." He pauses. "Love to have Carnegie Hall."
The most important thing about 57th Street, Lapine says, is that the people who live there do so because they like it. "To them, living in Bethesda is boring," he says. He laughs. Bob Smith laughs. Bob Smith lives in Bethesda.
"I think today the most precious commodity people have," says Smith, "is time. People today, they want convenience. We think by having a Metro station here that eventually we will reach out to the entire metropolitan area, being adjacent to National Airport, the most convenient close-in airport in America, with the road network that we have here, that this is something people are desirous of. They must be desirous because occupancy doesn't stay at these levels for a decade or more unless it's what people want. They don't have to work here or live here.
"I get calls all the time from friends of mine, the daughter of so-and-so's going to go to GW or some other university -- will I get them an apartment here? It's so convenient, they can be there in 10 minutes, they can take the Metro. It's this idea of time, convenience. The fact that on the way home they can stop at Larimer's, at Safeway, do their shopping, that's a plus. The concept of driving for 45 minutes is not something that appeals as much to people today as when suburbia was the rage 20 or 25 years ago. I mean, the people who are buying these condominiums are people who are selling their houses. That's the life style they want out of. They want something different. They travel more. They want independence. They want a place they can leave, lock the door, it's secure, and they can go to Europe, they can do whatever they want.
"We're trying to address ourselves to this life style of the '80s."
County planner Rob Baker thinks Smith "is a pretty good developer. Probably the only developer around who has actively provided that balance of office, residential and commercial the county looks for."
Veteran county planning expert Tom Parker thinks Crystal City is "probably one of the finest examples of a major mixed-use development in the metropolitan area." Parker thinks, too, that most people "get their impression of Crystal City from traveling on U.S. 1, and there's really no incentive for them to get off, because it has the impression of being hard to get through, hard to get to. Once you get in there it's entirely different."
Parts of it look like 57th Street, actually.
"The purpose of the place when it was envisioned was an office district," says Baker. "It really wasn't a place where people would live. And when you look at Crystal City, it looks exactly like that. It looks like an office district where people don't live.
"I don't live in a high-rise, but I think I could live in a high-rise and enjoy it. I'm not sure I'd want to live in Crystal City." Baker pauses for a long moment.
"But a lot of people do."