Amazon's second (or third, who's counting?) headquarters is coming to National Landing—or more precisely, the weird no-man's-land that currently separates Pentagon City from Crystal City. Building offices on this site will require rezoning a site currently slated to become 1,400 houses. Moving those planned units to other sites nearby could go a long way towards absorbing the 4,500 new households that Arlington can expect, and could result in hundreds of new affordable homes.
Crystal City could be just a temporary landing pad
As expected, when Amazon first arrives it will lease space in three existing buildings along 18th Street S. in Crystal City, just east of the Metro station. Two of them are currently entirely empty and will be gut-rehabbed, and a third appears to have several vacant floors undergoing renovation. Plans were also recently approved to renovate the ground floor retail along Crystal Drive and 18th Street, adding a Metro entrance, a cinema, and a specialty grocer.
As part of its Amazon announcement, JBG Smith also included a rendering of two yet-to-be-approved residential towers that could replace another vacant office building at 1900 Crystal Drive.
Interestingly, it also included a rendering of a taller, 22-story office building that would eventually replace 1800 S. Bell—one of the buildings that's being renovated for Amazon. Those plans were likely underway long before Amazon, but might indicate that the company plans to vacate its initial digs along 18th Street once its new buildings are completed.
A landing strip in Pentagon City
The bulk of Amazon's offices, and potentially even all of its footprint, will be a few blocks west in Pentagon City (or “National Landing’s North District,” under the the au courant branding). There, JBG Smith has sold sites for which Arlington has approved 4,100,000 square feet of new buildings—easily enough to fit Amazon's projected total employment of 25,000 employees.
JBG will sell Amazon two large blocks of land on the west side of Eads Street, coincidentally on either side of a new Whole Foods Market, and develop them into office towers on Amazon's behalf. Currently, these two superblocks include some vacant lots and an abandoned postal warehouse, roughly between Costco on the west and the Doubletree hotel (with its revolving restaurant) on the east. Construction could begin as soon as next year on the first of eight office towers.
The northern half of the Amazon site is called PenPlace, the block between Army-Navy Drive, S. Fern Street, S. Eads Street, and 12th Street S. The only building on the block right now is a Marriott Residence Inn at its northwest corner.
The remaining 9.2 acres has been vacant for decades, but in 2013 Arlington approved a site plan that divides the site into six blocks encircling a 1.3-acre green park. Five office towers of up to 22 stories and 290 feet tall, one hotel tower, ground floor retail, 20,000 square feet of “community amenity space” (such as a library or an educational institution), and two smaller plazas would fill the rest of the site.
The county's adopted guidelines from 2013 presaged the 2018 announcement: “This site presents a great opportunity for Arlington County to attract a large corporate user that may want to locate their headquarters.” It's unclear whether Amazon will want to build the sixth tower as hotel or residential, or attempt to switch it to office use.
Just to the south is Metropolitan Park, the superblock east of Costco; some might remember that there was a post office on this site. This partially-completed superblock, like PenPlace, is arranged as a series of towers ringing a green park—but these are almost entirely residential, with ground floor retail.
Amazon has purchased parcels 6, 7, and 8, which are currently zoned for 1,403 residential units with 23,818 square feet of ground-floor retail, also in buildings up to 22 stories tall. Only parcel 6 has an approved site plan so far, with preliminary approval for a residential building that steps up from 11 to 22 stories and contains 577 units.
However, Amazon wants to build three office towers instead of the residential buildings. While the underlying zoning does appear to permit additional commercial floor space, the loss of potential housing units should be carefully considered by Arlington County as it calls into question its four-decade-old legacy of planning for Pentagon City.
Pentagon City has been waiting decades for more homes
Back in 1976, just before the Pentagon City Metro station opened in 1977, Arlington worked with local property owners (notably the Cafritz family) and neighbors to create its first transit-oriented development plan, the Pentagon City Phased Development Site Plan (PDSP). The area was mostly vacant with a few industrial structures, but was zoned for high-density commercial uses.
The plan sought to ensure a better-balanced mix of uses, taking zoning that allowed half of the buildings to be offices and instead calling for a two-thirds residential area. It also reallocated the allowed density in a gradient across the site: parks and low-rise residential in the southwest, near the Aurora Highlands neighborhood, and high-rises in its northeast corner, closer to transport links like I-395 and the Metro.
Starting with the very first development application in 1977, as a history of the PDSP by Arlington County planner Anthony Fusarelli points out, developers built less residential than the PDSP envisioned. It's hard to believe now, but for decades Pentagon City's developers have played hot potato with residential density, as nobody could quite figure out how to make money by renting out costly high-rise apartments.
For instance, the 1997 plan amendment that allowed Pentagon Row added 300,000 square feet of retail, moved 332 planned residential units to the Metropolitan Park site, and cut the overall number of units by 1,014. That left an allocation of 830 apartments for Pentagon Row, which could fit into the mid-rise buildings there.
Retail buildings, in particular, are very valuable but are low-rise, and Pentagon City became a regional shopping destination with a trio of malls. As a result, unused density was mostly just piled onto Metropolitan Park.
That left that one block zoned for 3,200 units (half the approved residential density in the entire plan) and an allowable building density of 5.21 FAR, over twice as high as the underlying zoning's 2.5 FAR. To put that figure into perspective, that's as many homes as in Kentlands and Old Greenbelt, two famous planned communities in suburban Maryland, combined.
Where else to put 1,400 new homes?
One of the key goals of the 1976 PDSP was to ensure jobs-housing balance within the area, a dream that's long been deferred. This is key to maintaining both after-hours foot traffic and a sense of place that's missing from most 9-to-5 business districts. DC has long sought to better balance office and residential as its central business district expanded, and the results are tangible in areas like Penn Quarter and the West End. Arlington's own Crystal City plan also contains incentives to build residential rather than additional office.
Even at Amazon's HQ1, GGWash contributor Tracy Hadden Loh points out that in hindsight, developer Vulcan Real Estate wishes that Seattle's South Lake Union area had more housing and not just Amazon offices. Even other businesses in SLU, like restaurants, echo the perspective.
When plans are eventually presented to rezone the Metropolitan Park parcels from residential to commercial, Arlington should insist that the promised number of units are still built within the Pentagon City area. Luckily, there are two near-term rezonings that could fulfill that promise.
Just west of PenPlace are two office buildings that were built for MCI in 1982, but in recent years have housed the TSA's headquarters. With the TSA set to move its offices to Springfield by 2020, owner Brookfield Properties has recently discussed the possibility of redeveloping the site with residential high-rises.
Another potential site is RiverHouse, an JBG Smith-owned apartment complex of three circa-1960, Y-shaped towers on a 36-acre site just west of Pentagon City. In 2015, a predecessor company began negotiations to rezone the property to allow 1,100 additional apartments in four mid-rise buildings atop what are now surface parking lots, including one across the street from Pentagon Row's ice rink. One of those new buildings would have been 150 units of low-income housing, developed with a nonprofit partner.
There had also been discussion then about whether a school could be built on another surface parking lot on the site. The mid-rise buildings proposed could be built more quickly and at a lower cost than high-rises, which facilitated the additional affordable units. In 2017, the proposal was paused during a corporate reorganization, but the sites have been labeled as “future development opportunities” on subsequent JBG Smith maps.
A separate plan for mixed-use redevelopment was recently adopted for Pentagon Centre, the shopping center housing Costco and Nordstrom Rack. Because it was an active telephone repair facility in 1976, it is not part of the PDSP area.
Maximizing the inclusionary upside
Under Arlington's inclusionary zoning rules, any new residential or commercial project of that scale within Pentagon City would likely be subject to its inclusionary housing rules, which require either a contribution to the county's Affordable Housing Investment Fund (which is similar to DC's Housing Production Trust Fund), or a small percentage of affordable units be built—5% of units on site, for instance.
The new Amazon office buildings would certainly trigger millions of dollars in AHIF contributions, as well, at the same rate as an equally large residential building would. (This situation is quite different from the situation in Long Island City, where Amazon’s offices will pre-empt an existing plan to build mixed-income housing, and won’t trigger any affordable housing funding requirements on their own.)
Those buildings' impact would be more than doubled if the 1,400 potential units that would otherwise be built are instead built elsewhere, under the same rules. Metropolitan Park wasn't likely to result in very many affordable units, as the high cost of its high-rise construction makes it far costlier to discount rents to low-income levels; only its first phase includes 5% affordable units, and subsequent phases have made AHIF payments instead.
By reallocating Pentagon City's unused residential density from those high-rises to nearby mid-rise and low-rise areas, Arlington can meet its longtime goal of creating a much-needed jobs-housing balance within Pentagon City—a goal that's more important than ever, given the area's larger and more diverse economy, and new realities like climate change. Choosing the right sites for those new homes can also increase the likelihood that more on-site affordable housing can be built, in an area that critically needs more housing choices at all price points.