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Locals look to save Crystal City’s Restaurant Row ‘soul’ amid nearby redevelopment

Restaurants in Crystal City (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated on 12/7/21 at 2:30 p.m.) With a bevy of development looming, a band of residents, restaurateurs, landowners and business leaders are trying to preserve the “soul” of Crystal City: “Restaurant Row.”

For many years, a collection of small, independently owned restaurants have operated along 23rd Street S., between S. Eads and S. Fern streets, including the locally famous LGBT nightlife spot Freddie’s Beach Bar and Restaurant.

But the people who frequent and run these business wonder where the long-term viability of this corridor fits into the flurry of development nearby: Amazon’s HQ2 in Pentagon City, JBG Smith’s extensive development pipeline in Crystal City, and Arlington County’s Crystal House Apartments affordable housing project, among others.

As all these projects take shape, the group has reprised a rallying cry from two years ago, reiterating that Restaurant Row needs some attention — but not the kind that stamps out its unique character.

“With all this stuff happening, what about 23rd Street, the sole soul for Crystal City for decades?” said Rob Mandle, the National Landing Business Improvement District Deputy Executive Director, in a recent Crystal City Citizen Review Council meeting. “What are we going to do over the course of the next five years while the rest of National Landing transforms?”

Those are still open questions for members of the CCCRC, who earlier this month met with restaurant owners and landowners to discuss ideas for investing in Restaurant Row, which was identified in the Crystal City Sector Plan as a “major community asset with local businesses that should be preserved or protected.”

This line has puzzled county planner Matt Mattauszek for two years.

“What does that mean, ‘preserve and protect?’ What are the exact mechanics of that?” Mattauszek said. “I don’t think anyone on our side wants to lose any opportunities in terms of that protection element while maintaining it as a destination.”

Ultimately, he said the community needs to develop a clear set of priorities before the county can help.

Members of the CCCRC and local landowners have long- and short-term ideas for preserving and updating Restaurant Row.

Aurora Highlands resident Michael Dowell says he wants conditions that facilitate updates to the aging buildings that preserve their feel. Otherwise, worsening infrastructure will force out tenants and make the buildings ripe for redevelopment.

“The thing we want to preserve is that community feel of 23rd Street restaurants,” he said. “They’re human scale, they have a lot of local ownership, and there is a huge variety there.”

Some said the area needs more street parking, a long-time concern for residents that has resurfaced as the county embarks on its Crystal House development project. As part of the project, a parking lot between 22nd and 23rd Street S. will be turned into townhomes known as “Crystal House 5.”

An aerial view of existing Crystal House Apartments and renderings (via Arlington County)

Speeding is also a problem, said Darren Buck, an Aurora Highlands resident and Transportation Commission member. He suggested a comprehensive rezoning effort from S. Ives Street to Route 1 that would bring in a traffic signal and better lighting and create a streetscape that establishes Restaurant Row as a destination.

“One of the assets of Restaurant Row is the human-scale buildings, their disparate ownership… It resembles Del Ray, and one thing Del Ray has is a corridor,” he said. “Del Ray hit the magic formula: they took what was a concentration of activity and iteratively expanded that.”

The boundaries of a resident’s idea to rezone 23rd Street from S. Ives Street to Route 1 (via Google Maps)

Such an effort would take years and require lawyers, however. So folks also had ideas for short-term upgrades.

“We’re hoping to expand the area a little more over here so it’s more pedestrian friendly, and we’re hoping to revitalize the neighborhood so it’s a safer environment for everyone,” said Mary Voutsas, the daughter of Stratis Voutsas, who manages a trust that owns several of the buildings along the street.

She envisions a mural and string lights in a nearby park, as well as better street lighting and permanent crosswalks. Freddie Lutz, owner of Freddie’s Beach Bar, said the aesthetics should look more “historic.”

Meanwhile, the National Landing BID is developing “cutting edge” plans for wayfinding in the area, Mandle said. Additionally, the organization is planning to activate the area with family-friendly and nightlife activities.

Representing Arlington’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Pamela Van Hine said much can be done to the “awful” streetscape, such as additional trees, benches and places to park scooters and bicycles.

“Our view is to keep the soul and the culture of 23rd Street without stymieing any progress,” Voutsas said.

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