When does a name become a thing?
But for people who live in the region, National Landing was not so much “sought-after” after as “nonexistent.”
“I’ve lived in Northern Virginia for four years and I’ve never heard of ‘National Landing,’” tweeted Jared Walczak, a policy analyst.
Here is a brief history of National Landing, or NaLa, as the hipsters have been calling it since back in the day (around noon Wednesday).
The phrase debuted in Amazon’s announcement that it was splitting its long-awaited second headquarters between a New York borough and a Washington suburb. “National Landing is an urban community in Northern Virginia located less than 3 miles from downtown Washington, D.C.,” the company said.
Some perplexed Crystal City residents assumed Amazon had unilaterally changed the name of their neighborhood, the way a bank or an insurance company or an overnight delivery firm buys the rights to rename a stadium.
Of course, nobody was going to argue with a company promising to create 25,000 jobs over the next decade. (At one point, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo offered to change his name to Amazon Cuomo if the tech giant chose his state for what it is calling HQ2.)
But National Landing was born not in a Seattle marketing office, but in marketing offices closer to home. For more than year, developer JBG Smith had been planning ways to rebrand the swaths of land it controls in Crystal City, Pentagon City and a patch of Potomac Yard in adjacent Alexandria.
Its main goal was offering a unified sense of place to Amazon, which had launched its national competition for a second headquarters location. But the National Landing idea would have emerged anyway because the company views the three contiguous areas as a single real estate market.
“It was really done to describe a neighborhood that’s bigger than any one of the preexisting names,” said JBG Smith CEO Matt Kelly.
But what’s in a name change? Does a local developer get to rebrand a place just because it claims millions of square feet of it in its portfolio? Yes and no.
Officially, all of the addresses in question are in Arlington, except for the sliver of Potomac Yard in Alexandria. No one gets mail addressed to Crystal City or Pentagon City (or if they do, it’s because mail sorters are reading the Zip code, not the name) and no one will get mail sent to National Landing any time soon. According to the U.S. Postal Service, Amazon just bought property in Arlington.
But unincorporated names such as Crystal City are more a matter of use and custom, and that’s where an ambitious developer can have some sway. Just across the Potomac, the developers of a huge chunk of land in Oxon Hill — a name dating to the 1700s — renamed it National Harbor. In Washington, a group of neighborhoods clustered north of Massachusetts Avenue is now known to apartment shoppers as NoMa.
The goal, according to branding experts, is to give an area the kind of shortcut cache that can make a condo listing pop.
“When they come up with a name like National Landing, it is not to serve the needs of the people who live there, it’s to serve the needs of the developer,” said Laurel Sutton, one of the founders of Catchword, a California naming and branding consultant.
When a new name is based on something percolating up from actual residents, it can work beautifully. Sutton cited the emergence of SoHo as a Manhattan neighborhood name decades ago. It was descriptive (the area is south of Houston Street) and evocative (it recalled the chic London district of the same name). It made people feel good about living there.
Will people feel good about living in National Landing?
“National Landing, what does that even mean?” asked Sutton, who was doubtful the name would stick. “It’s so bland it doesn’t tell you anything about the area. What? It’s an airport?”
In the case of Crystal City, the rebranders may assume that bland is better than blech, which fairly or not sums up the reputation of an area long disparaged as a soulless wasteland of office blocks and parking garages. The moniker Crystal City dates only to the 1960s, when developer Robert H. Smith took it from a chandelier hanging in one of his first apartment buildings.
Now, residents can choose between names inspired by either a lighting fixture or a runway.
Carol Fuller, president of the Crystal City Civic Association, said locals should not fear for their heritage. National Landing is an umbrella term meant to encompass the three existing neighborhoods, not replace them.
“National Landing is sort of a concept,” said Fuller, whose group, along with other local economic development entities, has been involved with the rebranding effort. “I know that Crystal City is not going away.”
Others are not so sure. Fuller’s predecessor lamented the potential change. “I personally like the name Crystal City,” said Sandra Borden, former president of the civic association. “It has a lot of sparkle to it.”
Kelly seemed ready to say goodbye to the old name in comments Tuesday. “The Crystal name is a name that will go away over time,” Kelly said. “It’s one that, frankly, doesn’t have a great origin story.”
Still, the howls of protest and derision that greeted the name National Landing on social media were to be expected, according to Sutton. More often than not, renaming attempts don’t go over well with residents, who find the labels easy to avoid.
“Candlestick Park had so many names over the years,” she said, referring to San Francisco’s storied baseball stadium. The venue cycled through serial bought-and-paid-for identities, including 3Com Park and Monster Park, all of which the fans ignored.
“People here never called it anything but Candlestick Park,” said Sutton.
One late football titan, Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, gave it his best shot in 1997, when he insisted that the 200-acre patch of Maryland where he built the team’s new stadium be called not Landover, but Raljon, a mash-up of his sons’ names, Ralph and John.
The team stationery bore the name, as did some national broadcasts of the games. Even the post office bent by giving Raljon its own four-digit extension of Landover’s Zip code. But the stadium’s neighbors declined to declare themselves Raljonians, and few others used the name for anything other than ridicule.
New owner Daniel Snyder dropped it when he bought the team two years later.
“In general,” Sutton said, “people don’t like to have names imposed on them from above.”
Jonathan O’Connell also contributed to this story.