Amazon has held “advanced discussions” about opening a huge new corporate office in Crystal City, according to a Washington Post story published Saturday. Subsequent reports from New York-based newspapers have identified similar discussions about an office in Long Island City, a part of Queens immediately east of midtown Manhattan.
These rumored moves could split the colossal “HQ2” proposal for a single office with up to 50,000 employees into two merely-giant branch offices. This comes in addition to numerous office expansions in Boston, Herndon, Manhattan, and Vancouver that the company has announced over the past two years. A new corporate campus in Crystal City could take advantage of (and likely catalyze) long-laid plans to improve urban design, transit, and housing in the area.
“Amazon has a chance for a fresh start… and those places have an opportunity to learn from Seattle's mistakes,” wrote the New York Times' Ben Casselman. This prospect should prompt local governments across the region to leverage this investment and implement plans that improve sustainability and equity, rather than reacting after the fact.
Why these two?
After a nationwide search that drew 238 entries, many feel that the result was anticlimactic: the presumed winners are two of the country's largest and most prosperous “superstar” metros, just 200 miles apart on the eastern seaboard. Nonetheless, they both can easily deliver Amazon the two things its RFP clearly prioritized: a large pool of people to hire, and large office spaces to put them into.
After the San Francisco Bay area, the two metro areas with the most technology-savvy workers (and specifically computer programmers) are New York City and Washington, DC. These two metros are home to even more programmers than Amazon's headquarters of Seattle, where it has faced increasing challenges finding qualified job candidates.
The RFP listed just two factors as of “paramount importance” to the company, one of which was “finding suitable buildings.” That apparently meant very large volumes of office space that could be occupied and expanded quickly. The company appears to prefer grab-and-go convenience to the futuristic, transformative, and outlandish schemes that many other cities floated for HQ2.
Since New York and Washington are the nation's largest and third-largest office markets, finding move-in-ready buildings (either existing or already under construction) is easier than in smaller cities where there's less available inventory. These two metros have orders of magnitude more offices to choose from than other cities. Even though both Crystal City and Long Island City are secondary business districts, both have as many office buildings as the entire downtowns of smaller HQ2 finalist cities like Indianapolis.
Where could the offices go?
Within Crystal City, the Post identified two buildings right above the Crystal City Metro as Amazon's initial beachhead. These are on either side of 18th Street S. between Bell Street and Crystal Drive, and both owned by prolific local landlord JBG Smith.
The larger structure is a 250,000 square foot tower at 1770 Crystal Drive, a 12-story building at the northwest corner of Crystal and 18th that's currently home to Morton's Steakhouse. (It's immediately opposite the tunnel connecting the Crystal City Water Park to the Mount Vernon Trail.) 1770 was formerly known as 1750 Crystal Drive, and most recently housed offices for the US Marshals Service. JBGS turned heads in September when it reversed course on a plan to convert the building to residential, and gut-rehab its offices instead.
A block west, immediately across 18th from the current Crystal City Metro entrance, is the 221,000 square feet at 1800 S. Bell Street, currently home to Synetic Theater and (for a few more months) FEMA. Recently, a few temporary events have been held in the vacant upper floors, including Artomatic in 2017 and a Junior League tag sale in March.
Future phases could involve building several new office towers, for which JBG Smith (and its predecessor, Vornado) has already had initial plans approved or already filed. The largest such site is PenPlace, a proposed development on the mostly vacant block across from Pentagon City's Whole Foods Market and behind the Residence Inn. Arlington County has approved a site plan that allows up to 1.8 million square feet of office, in three buildings up to 22 stories tall, surrounding a mid-block green.
Two more large office towers could replace existing, smaller buildings within Crystal City. A proposal to build a 24-story, 730,000-square-foot office building at 1900 Crystal Drive (replacing a smaller office building at 1851 S. Bell Street) was approved by the county in 2012, but its approval expired in 2015. JBG received permits this summer to demolish 1851 S. Bell, and has hinted that it's considering residential towers there.
Another plan, to demolish the empty 223 23rd Street S. and replace it with a 25-story, 658,365-square-foot office tower as well as an apartment building, was filed in 2016 but then placed on hold and never formally approved. That building is between Jaleo and the WeWork/WeLive building.
Although JBG Smith controls about half of the area's offices, other landlords could also benefit.
Office buildings or sites owned by others include 601 12th Street S., a tower across from the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, where the TSA will vacate 546,000 square feet once it moves to its new Springfield headquarters; National Gateway, an office complex near the Harris Teeter at Route 1 and Glebe Road which is home to Lidl USA; and a million-square-foot office tower planned for Pentagon Centre, the shopping mall which today houses Costco.
Improving Crystal City's urban design
From an urban design standpoint, Crystal City is very much a product of the era that it was built. Driving through it on Route 1 is a momentary glimpse into the world as imagined by pioneering Modernist architect Le Corbusier: monotonous rows of concrete towers lining an elevated highway.
Yet despite its design flaws, Crystal City has a central location, high densities, good connections to transit, and Walk Scores that rival trendier areas like Bloomingdale, Glover Park, or Petworth. Urban explorers can find hidden surprises like a puppet shop, a Uyghur noodle shop, the region's campiest gay bar, and a literally-underground cyclocross race series.
Arlington adopted a sector plan for Crystal City in 2013 that envisions a generation-long evolution into a denser and more pedestrian-friendly area that still has plenty of offices, but also introduces more variety to the area with more homes and retailers. Even before the plan was adopted, new buildings were creating more human-scaled street edges for the area's superblocks, and destination parks were softening the edges.
Last month, Arlington approved long-gestating plans to renovate the retail and public spaces for the block surrounding 1750 Crystal, and will fulfill the sector plan's goal of creating a neighborhood retail hub for the area.
The newly re-christened “Central District” project would line the block's Crystal Drive frontage with a grocer at the north and an Alamo Drafthouse cinema midblock. A parking lot along the block's 18th Street side would become a “Metro Market Square,” with a new Metro entrance and retail pavilion along the street. These plans would be helped along with the new workers, new residents, and new investment poised for the block.
Improving transit, walking, and bicycling
Crystal City is relatively well-served by transit, with service by Metro's Blue and Yellow lines, a VRE station, and ten bus routes to points in Arlington, DC, Fairfax, and Prince William counties —including Metroway, the region's first bona fide bus rapid transit line. Those connections put most of “the diamond” core jurisdictions within commuting distance of Crystal City, and indeed Crystal City has Arlington's lowest proportion of drive-alone commuters.
Metroway resulted in part from the sector plan's 2010 multimodal transportation study, which modeled how an additional 35,000 employees would get to Crystal City. It assumes that transit ridership, walking, and biking will double from 2007 to 2030, to 62% of all trips, and suggested ways to accommodate the additional trips—although on a timeline that stretched out to 2050.
Adding thousands more workers doesn't have to strain the local transit network, since Crystal City was built to receive many more commuters than it has today. There are numerous empty buildings ready for occupancy (or redevelopment) largely because the federal government has moved tens of thousands of employees out of Crystal City in recent years.
Earlier this decade, the military moved moved 13,000 employees out of over three million square feet of office space at Crystal City and to far-flung, often transit-inaccessible suburban locations like Fort Meade or Mark Center, aka “BRAC 133.” Just a few years prior to that, 7,000 Patent Office employees and contractors moved from Crystal City to Carlyle, just south of the King Street Metro, and before that the Navy moved over 4,000 employees to the Navy Yard. Thousands more employees for federal contractors, patent attorneys, and the like followed those federal agencies to new workplaces.
Yet as new office buildings are built, both for Amazon and for other businesses that may follow it, concerns about transit capacity will grow —though those will also increase Arlington's tax resources for transportation. Proposals both small and large could improve Crystal City's accessibility to transit riders, pedestrians, and cyclists:
- Add dedicated bus lanes in front of PenPlace to improve Metroway's speed and reliability
- Improve bike network connections across I-395, to better tie together north and south Arlington
- Rebuild VRE's station as an island platform to allow it to serve more and longer trains, and added tracks within the right-of-way to permit more and faster train operations
- Build a pedestrian bridge to National Airport, including a second connection to the Mount Vernon Trail
- Implement intermediate-capacity transit improvements in corridors like Columbia Pike and Alexandria's West End, and ensure that they interface well with Metroway
- Re-investigate transit options over the Wilson Bridge, improving connectivity to southern Prince George's County
- Plan for future through-running of MARC trains into Virginia, giving Maryland commuters a one-seat ride to Crystal City
- Ensuring that a new Long Bridge upgrades not just commuter rail capacity, but pedestrian and bike capacity and directly connects to both Crystal City and the Wharf
- Addressing one or both of Metro's key underground bottlenecks, which constrain both Metro's Blue and Yellow lines at peak.
Luckily, both Arlington County and Amazon's Seattle office have been leaders in “transportation demand management,” a suite of subtle strategies that have been proven to cut traffic while accommodating tremendous population and employment growth. Those skills could be put to an immediate test in 2019, when Metro plans a nearly four-month shutdown of all rail service south of Arlington for construction.
Having all of these travel choices can drastically reduce the environmental impact of an office—especially compared to a suburban location, particularly in regions with less comprehensive transit networks. Amazon's founder and CEO touted this in a shareholder letter in 2014, writing, “urban campuses are much greener. Our employees are able to take advantage of existing communities and public transit infrastructure, with less dependence on cars.”
Mitigating the housing impacts
A graver concern is that HQ2 “would increase pressure on the DC region’s housing market,” as a recent GGWash post by Urban Institute researchers Leah Hendey, Peter Tatian, and Margery Austin Turner points out. They continue: “Without substantially more housing production at a wide range of rent levels and price points, the challenges of rising affordability pressures and lengthening commutes will intensify, and more households will experience hardship.”
While Crystal City may have lots of empty offices to fill and maybe even empty transit seats going there, neither it nor any other jurisdiction in the region has many empty homes. One recent survey found that fewer than 3% of Crystal City area apartments were vacant.
Thousands of new jobs will mean thousands of additional homes will be needed across the region — but unlike in prior eras of strong job growth, the region hasn't been matching new jobs with new homes lately.
The Crystal City sector plan envisions an additional 7,500 homes within the neighborhood, although those will largely be in costly high-rises. Adjacent redevelopment sites can accommodate thousands more homes — particularly at Potomac Yard, where Alexandria has permitted JBG Smith to pursue either homes or offices.
Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax County in particular need to take proactive measures to plan for increased demand for homes in nearby residential areas. Alexandria's Arlandria, Parker-Gray, Beauregard, and Landmark neighborhoods; Arlington's Columbia Pike and Shirlington areas; and Fairfax County's Skyline, Huntington, and Penn Daw areas all have many of the same physical challenges as Crystal City: aging buildings in good locations. Unlike Crystal City, these neighborhoods are also home to many vulnerable low-income residents.
These areas have seen planning attention in recent years, which have resulted in additional affordable housing as the areas have intensified. Some tenant advocates fear that those plans include inadequate measures to increase the number of committed affordable homes and prevent displacement.
Luckily, there's more that Virginia governments can do to make affordable and abundant housing a higher priority. As Stewart Schwartz recently wrote in the Washington Business Journal, “whether or not Amazon chooses our region, we must dedicate more funding to affordable housing, make it easier to build homes near transit and in transforming commercial corridors, and use inclusionary policies to ensure homes for a range of incomes.”
Another step that local governments could take would be to permit accessory dwelling units, which can help families stay in their homes while making room for new residents. In Seattle and elsewhere, spiraling prices have prompted a broader reconsideration of whether large swaths of cities need to be restricted only for large-lot single-family houses.
As GGWash's Dan Reed wrote in Washingtonian last year, an Amazon HQ2 (even at half the size) “can be a genuine asset to the community.” Several of our region's political leaders already credit the mere prospect of HQ2 for finally prompting action on Metro funding, and DC's proposal included long-needed investments in workforce readiness and skills development.
Regardless of how many jobs ultimately result, HQ2 should provide the catalyst and the fiscal resources long sought to, as Schwartz writes, “urgently tackle our housing and transit needs.”