Amazon Can’t Make Crystal City Worse

It’s a weird, semivacant failed experiment of a neighborhood (with a puppet store). No one will miss it.

Gray concrete buildings behind a park.
Crystal City. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Crystal City, the Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood picked this week to anchor one of Amazon’s two new East Coast headquarters, has never really lived up to its dreamy name. Walk around its concrete-block buildings and you’ll find no glitzy surfaces or hum of urban activity other than the buzz of cars going from somewhere else to anywhere but here. Instead, you encounter the quiet remnants of what mid-20th-century developers once thought contemporary cities should look like.

Frankly, that’s probably selling it a bit high.

For anyone between D.C. and points south, Crystal City rises up as an orderly field of harsh brown towers filled with an assortment of midpriced business hotels, aging apartment buildings, and possibly office space. But it’s just as likely as not that those commercial floors have sat empty and unused for years. Around Washington, it’s known as that part of Arlington that’s never quite popped like the rest of the affluent, diversifying, and economically humming county.

In other words: Crystal City is a perfect place for a corporate behemoth like Amazon to remake in its own image.

On Tuesday, Amazon and its local-government partners gleefully announced that Crystal City will be the core of a new place called “National Landing,” a crescent of close-in suburbs that also includes Arlington’s Pentagon City—aka office and apartment buildings but really close to the Pentagon—and Potomac Yards, a big-box retail district in next-door Alexandria that has long been rumored to be getting its own Metro station.

A decade out, if the digital renderings are accurate, the new neighborhood will be full of stylish residential buildings, cool shops and restaurants, bike lanes and pocket parks, and, well, Amazon employees.

Of course, that’s the sunny forecast. Northern Virginia split the Amazon sweepstakes with New York City in no small part because it put together an attractive financial incentive package, offering the company $573 million if it eventually hires 25,000 workers who earn salaries averaging $150,000. The bid also offered several hundred million more in transportation improvements. (Which is frustrating: Did the fast-growing D.C. area really need to wait for one of Jeff Bezos’ golden tickets in order to embark on a new big infrastructure project?) Aspirants like Philadelphia and Atlanta might’ve offered billions of dollars more than Virginia, but they couldn’t compete on proximity to power.

Amazon’s bake-off approach to picking sites for its new corporate campuses feels, as Henry Grabar wrote in Slate on Tuesday, like a shakedown. Indeed, even though New York Gov. Andrew “Amazon” Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio spent Tuesday celebrating Amazon’s designs on Long Island City, other elected officials from New York like City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who’ll soon represent neighboring Astoria—slammed the plan to give Amazon $1.7 billion in tax incentives.

Around the future National Landing, though, the public mood was only jubilant—perhaps in part because the neighborhood can only stand to become less boring. The age of Amazon was ushered in with big speeches from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and congratulatory addresses from sweepstakes losers like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

But perhaps the difference in reactions from Amazon’s designated second and third homes is evident in their very different histories. Fast-gentrifying Long Island City, while starting to resemble a mini-Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in recent years, has undergone more than a century of evolution from New York City’s industrial core to a residential and commercial hub anchored by museums, film studios, and corporate headquarters. Crystal City has a vast, largely abandoned underground mall.

In fairness, Crystal City wasn’t always a ghost town. Built up in the 1960s by developer Charles E. Smith, the neighborhood thrived as the federal government expanded and started needing office space beyond those stately marble buildings across the Potomac River. (It got its name from Smith’s first building, the Crystal House, which featured a large crystal chandelier in the lobby.) The development eventually sprawled to 22 commercial buildings, totaling about 7 million square feet. The subterranean mall connecting many of the structures arrived in the mid-’70s along with the Metro.

Even in its heyday, though, Crystal City lacked for personality. The downturn came in the early 2000s, when the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission moved 17,000 workers out of the neighborhood. Other federal agencies that called those buildings home, like the General Services Administration and Environmental Protection Agency followed, too. The underground mall hollowed out. Nowadays, it’s a lonely concourse lined with empty storefronts, aging civic art, and a few random shops that feel appropriate to the desolation, like the Washington area’s only puppet dealer.

Above ground, there are a few signs of life in street-level restaurants like an outpost of José Andrés’ tapas joint Jaleo. While the office buildings sit largely empty, a few are sparsely inhabited by gyms and coworking spaces. And Crystal City’s not without its eccentricities: You can eat at one of the country’s last revolving restaurants, where a congressman from Pennsylvania was once arrested for getting in a drunken brawl. A few locals swear by the breakfast at the Crystal City Restaurant—which is a strip club that opened in 1963.

If you wanted excitement pre-Amazon, you’d have to cross the highway into Pentagon City, which has a Whole Foods, a smattering of well-regarded restaurants, and an above-ground, noncreepy shopping mall. But maybe that’s part of the reason everyone is excited about rebranding Crystal City. Even the strip club’s owner is ready for a reset, telling the Washington Post, “Whatever Jeff Bezos wants is fine with me.”

That’s exactly the kind of mood that clears urban spaces for the likes of Amazon. In Crystal City, it’s getting a neighborhood that’s fallen into disuse but not disrepair. In the wake of Northern Virginia and New York winning, proposals from a few of the also-rans have surfaced, like Philadelphia’s, which would’ve offered up the city’s old shipping and rail yards for redevelopment. Or look at Toronto, where Sidewalk Labs, the urban technology division of Alphabet Inc., is transforming docklands into a gadget-laden “smart city” called Quayside.

In transforming Crystal City and its surroundings into “National Landing,” Amazon will rebuild as it sees fit: sweatshirted tech workers zipping between buildings on their e-scooters; trendy restaurants that nudge up market prices of cocktails, tacos, and salads; promises that despite the high incomes and high rents, the company is creating community; and cashless payments everywhere. It’s easy to make Twitter riffs about how hokey the new name sounds—I will punch my screen if I see one more suggestion that Amazon’s new digs be called “Reagan Landing”—but it’ll stick quite easily.

So maybe 10 years from now, when Washington is home to 25,000 new Amazonians, rents are even more astronomical than today, and Alexa has become the voice of the Metro’s public-address system, we’ll hunger for the pre-HQ2, pre–National Landing days. But when asked to name what we miss about Crystal City, what will we say? It won’t be the puppet shop.