The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rebranding of Amazon’s HQ2 neighborhood: Alpacas, mocktails and flower crowns for dogs

Abby Dean, 29, and Tess Mackey, 28, enjoy mocktails and flower crowns at an event at Summer House in Arlington. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Wearing sunglasses and sundresses, the crowds lined up on the grass to sip on fruity mocktails, pose for Instagram photos and braid friendship bracelets. Here at Summer House, an outdoor installation in Arlington’s Crystal City, one woman pushed a puppy around on a stroller as others lined up to get matching flower crowns for themselves and their dogs.

“I guess I think of this as the intersection of the hip neighborhoods in Arlington,” said Mer Kammerling, 24, wrangling a floral tiara onto Bear, a flat-coated retriever. “It seems like such an energetic area, given all the amenities.”

For decades, in fact, this part of Northern Virginia had maintained the opposite reputation: It was known mostly as a drab, car-centric maze of concrete towers and defense contractors — a place where any sort of outdoor, pastel-colored celebration, let alone one with flower crowns and a surprise visit from two alpacas, would be hard to imagine.

Yet nearly three years after Amazon announced it would be bringing its second headquarters to Arlington — and specifically to “National Landing,” a name conjured by local officials to sell the area as a tech hub — its reputation may be changing. At least, for some newcomers like Kammerling, who moved here six months ago from Baltimore.

Locally owned restaurants are opening up to serve espresso cocktails and “judgment free avocado toast.” Blueprints for the new Amazon campus promise cutting-edge 5G connectivity and public parks with “immersive ecology."

And all the while, a small army of real estate developers, architects and marketers are working to make the neighborhood’s overnight transformation feel like something organic, not drawn up in a boardroom — even if that’s more or less what has been happening.

“A great place is much more than just the right kinds of physical buildings. It’s all about the services and the amenities and the neighborhood and the community,” said Matt Kelly, CEO of the real estate developer JBG Smith, the dominant landowner in the neighborhood. “It’s as much art as it is science.”

His company already boasts 6.8 million square feet of office space and nearly 3,000 residential units in National Landing. So it only makes sense, Kelly said, for JBG Smith to invest in public spaces, too — including the well-manicured lawn where Summer House is taking place.

“The payback for us is hopefully more people want to be here. They want to work here. They want to live here. They want to shop here and just come and be here,” he said. “And that hopefully translates into better performance of our real estate assets.”

But as Kelly and others talk about “activating” unused spaces and creating a corridor for high-tech innovation, the question — for some — is who exactly those efforts are really meant to serve.

As Kammerling and Bear posed for photos in their flower crowns, Maria Dasilva, a retired federal employee, stopped to observe during her evening walk. She worries that the neighborhood, with its affordable rents and easy access to D.C., will soon be dominated by luxury apartments filled with tech workers frequenting events like these.

Dasilva said “National Landing” still feels like an artificial label for three separate neighborhoods — Crystal City and Pentagon City in Arlington, and Potomac Yard in Alexandria. And though she passes Summer House every day, she’s still not quite sure what it is.

“I’m 78. I like music, but not whatever they’re playing right now,” Dasilva said, as the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” blasted from the speakers nearby. “They’re just maybe trying to appease the people by bringing a little respite before the cranes show up.”

‘An 18-hour neighborhood’

Just three blocks away, the cranes are already in full force. Construction crews have been busy building up the first phase of Amazon’s new headquarters, which the company expects to fill with 25,000 employees within the next decade. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Joe Chapman, the company’s director of global facilities and real estate, said that in addition to the physical campus, Amazon is also focused on working with residents to cultivate an “18-hour neighborhood” outside its offices. Its current design for the PenPlace portion of its offices, for instance, includes more than two acres of green space open to the public.

“Where you might have an area where after five or six o’clock, folks start to go away, we see this as a neighborhood where there’ll be food trucks, and people will come and have dinner, or they might participate in events,” he said.

Delivering a connection with nature to Amazon’s HQ2, in the form of a 2.5-acre public garden

Much of that effort has been spearheaded by the National Landing Business Improvement District, an association of property owners and other neighbors that markets the neighborhood and hosts events like outdoor yoga classes and pop-up installations like Summer House.

JBG Smith bankrolls about $1.3 million of the BID’s yearly budget, or more than one-fourth of the total, because it has the largest assessed property value in the area. Amazon contributes a more modest $77,000, although that number is likely to rise in the next several years as its footprint increases.

Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, the BID’s executive director, noted that she hopes to serve the “full mosaic” of people who live or work in National Landing: young techies, government contractors, and retirees who have been around for decades.

“We are a richly textured area, and we’re looking to make sure everyone benefits from the transformation that’s underway,” she said.

Still, that may be easier said than done. Since Amazon announced its arrival, some residents have voiced concerns about being priced out by the eventual influx of tech workers. And others worry that the area could go the way of Navy Yard or D.C.'s Southwest Waterfront, where rapid development in recent years have created what they see as soulless, artificial playgrounds for the wealthy.

Carol Fuller, president of the Crystal City Civic Association, said she has often tried and failed to recruit some of her younger neighbors to join the group’s efforts. The overwhelming majority of Crystal City residents rent their apartments, she said, and many have been moving away.

“The rents are just going up and up and up,” Fuller said. “That’s the problem anywhere that you have urban development.”

Amazon, which could receive up to $773 million in subsidies from local and state governments, has committed to creating or preserving an estimated 2,300 units of affordable housing in the area. JBG Smith has also directed millions to fund the purchase of mixed-income properties in the D.C. area, including $6 million for one Crystal City apartment complex already managed by the developer.

“Continuing to invest in access and equity is a really important ingredient to preserving the authenticity of a great neighborhood,” Kelly said.

Because thousands of people already call National Landing home, he insists the groundwork for an authentic vibe in the area “is already in place,” he said. “The only thing that it has lacked is sufficient investment to keep it up to date over the last couple of decades. And that’s where we come in.”

Earlier this month, JBG Smith and AT&T announced that they would be integrating 5G investments throughout the neighborhood, with the goal of making National Landing a “smart city at-scale” that could one day test out self-driving cars. There are more plans for bike lanes, expanded street-level retail, and an urban farm.

State transportation officials, meanwhile, are looking at flattening Route 1 to bring together both sides of the neighborhood, in part drawing on some extra cash from a deal with Amazon. Metro expects to open a second entrance in Crystal City, and a new station is being built down the road in Potomac Yard.

Route 1 could go from elevated highway to an ‘urban boulevard’ in Crystal City. But not everyone is happy.

Nick Freshman, an Arlington native who owns several eateries across the D.C. region, said the collective buzz propelled by Amazon’s arrival made National Landing the ideal location to open his “classy casual cafe,” the Freshman.

“It felt like for the first time, things were changing in a positive way,” Freshman said at Summer House, where he poured out samples of a watermelon lemonade mocktail. “I really wanted to be a part of it.”

‘Pawns in their game’

At the installation last Wednesday, Abby Dean and Tess Mackey extended out their hands, clinking plastic cups in front of a teal house. The side of the structure was adorned with an “N,” in the style of the National Landing logo.

“So cute,” Mackey, 28, exclaimed as she snapped a shot of the drinks, each adorned with a piece of watermelon cut into the shape of a house. “I never went to summer camp, so I feel like this is what it’s like, right?”

Dean, 29, had grown up in McLean, about a dozen miles away, thinking there had been little to take advantage of in this part of Arlington. After more than a year trapped inside during the pandemic, she figured Summer House might make for a nice photo op with her sorority sister from the College of William & Mary.

“It just seemed cool,” Dean explained. “We’ve been inside with no socializing and no photos for a whole year.”

Added Mackey, “Zoom screenshots are not Instagram-able.”

On a different sunny afternoon last week, there was far less to post on the social media app. The Summer House installation was largely empty, save for the occasional toddler climbing onto wooden boat-themed seating as parents watched from the side.

Elsa Hadgu, 43, brought her two children from their apartment building across the street to play by the cartoonish cutouts of a flamingo and a palm tree. Although Summer House has been marketed as an “open-air co-working space,” they had used it to celebrate birthdays and gaze up at the night sky in the evening.

“It’s a fun place for the kids. It’s like a beach house getaway, but with no water,” said Hadgu, a customer service representative for an airline. But it’s also a vague reminder of Amazon, which “makes me think we’re going to have to move somewhere else.”

Hadgu and her husband had been talking about buying a place of their own several years ago, just around the time that the tech giant announced it would be moving in. Since then, however, the price for most homes in this part of South Arlington have skyrocketed to double their budget, she said. The rent for their two-bedroom unit has gone up by about $400 a month.

Nearby, 76-year-old Elaine Morley sat on a bench leafing through the noir thriller she had borrowed from the public library. Having rented in the area for more than three decades, she started coming to read outside at this grassy lawn, Gateway Green, in the early days of the pandemic — and never stopped.

Morley had appreciated the giant, inflatable mushrooms that the National Landing BID had set up earlier in the spring, a whimsical addition to the area. But Summer House, she said, “doesn’t do all that much for me. I’m not sure what demographic they’re aiming for.”

It’s the grass underneath and the trees around, instead, that most appeal to her — and that most worry her. JBG Smith has planned to build a mixed-use development on much of Gateway Green leaving behind about an acre as an entranceway to a nearby park.

“We have precious little green space, and we should be careful to keep it,” she said. The lawns and grassy plazas planned for the Amazon campus, just across the street from her apartment building, are currently a construction site.

Morley had submitted comments online on the county website, urging officials to keep the lawn in place. But with so much transformation happening so quickly thanks to the developers and Amazon, she’s not optimistic.

“I don’t think I could do much about what anyone was doing,” she said. “In some ways, people who live here are pawns in their game as they build and develop.”