Americana Hotel redevelopment in Crystal City fraught with unknowns, tricky terrain

In the shadow of Amazon’s HQ2, the Americana Hotel stands vacant and ready for redevelopment.

The hotel at 1400 Richmond Highway, which JBG Smith purchased in late 2020, is in a prime location. Met Park, the first phase of Amazon’s headquarters, is across the street. PenPlace, the project’s second phase, is down the road. The Crystal City Metro station is a block south.

But the prospect of building apartments and retail right next to a global tech company’s second headquarters came with two issues: physical problems with the land and questions about when, and how, neighboring properties and Route 1 would change.

The Americana property slopes down significantly. It abuts an elevated portion of Route 1 that the Virginia Department of Transportation proposes lowering. The building is surrounded by apartment buildings, a hotel and a VDOT-owned patch of grass, all of which could be redeveloped or reconfigured in the future.

JBG Smith representatives say the proposal, filed in April and accepted by the county this month, accounts for these conditions and questions. They say it meets a county zoning requirement that towers be separated by 60 feet and a recommendation in the Crystal City Sector Plan that podiums be separated by 40 feet.

“We have designed the building around trying to maintain the maximum flexibility for that future development, but there is nothing in the current plan that is in any way not compliant or fully in accordance with the sector plan and zoning ordinance,” land use attorney Kedrick Whitmore told members of the Long Range Planning Committee this summer.

The aging Americana Hotel — which was once featured in a Russell Crowe movie — would be replaced with a 644-unit, 19-story tall building with 3,674 square feet of ground floor retail, according to the application materials. A below-grade parking garage would provide 191 on-site parking spaces and an existing garage at the Bartlett Apartments (520 12th Street S.) would provide an additional 206 off-site spaces.

The developer aims to achieve LEED Gold certification.

“The building includes work-from-home, fitness, and other amenity spaces, as well as outdoor access to balconies and two rooftop terraces with unobstructed views of the surrounding landmarks,” Whitmore wrote in a letter included in JBG Smith’s application.

And the developer aims to break ground before VDOT gets started on rebuilding Route 1 at-grade. VDOT plans to wrap up a second study phase of the proposed changes early next year.

“We do acknowledge that’s an issue we have to discuss with county staff and VDOT,” Jack Kelly, a Vice President with JBG Smith, told the LRPC. “We made high-level assumptions on setbacks, based on what we know about the future alignment of Route 1.”

The developer also had to do “a lot of guesswork” to design around potential redevelopment projects for the adjacent Embassy Suites by Hilton Crystal City National Airport, The Paramount apartments and the VDOT parcel, said Malcolm Williams, an associate with JBG Smith, in the same meeting.

The VDOT land is anticipated to redevelop “sometime following the Route 1 multimodal improvements, where this section of elevated highway may become at-grade,” county planner Kevin Lam said at the time.

The proposed building is a tight fit. Arlington County planning division staff sought LRPC members’ perspectives on two building sides that go right to the property lines, potentially reducing the buildable area available to the owners of the adjacent properties when they seek to redevelop.

The building footprint for the proposed Americana Hotel development (via Arlington County)

Summing up the county’s conundrum, Planning Commission member Tenley Peterson said, “Is it fair that the person who gets there first gets to define the future build-to line for somebody else and they will get to use less of their space because the person who got there first encroached, potentially, on what is their fair build-to space.”

Whitmore disagreed with this characterization.

“We’ve seen other projects in Crystal City where the existing buildings have set the perimeter of where the setback has to be measured from,” he said.

He said the project would be “unbuildable” if it were to be set back any farther from the property line.

And, because it was not included in the Crystal City Sector Plan, future commission meetings will have a lot of discussion about but not a lot of formal guidance to reference for issues like public open space and transportation, Lam said.

“This is obviously a very challenging site and that’s probably why it wasn’t shown as a development site in the sector plan,” said Judy Freshman, representing the Crystal City Civic Association.

She predicted the building’s footprint will create conflicts between moving traffic and vehicles stopped for pickup, drop-off and delivery. She also questioned how JBG Smith can build without more specifics from VDOT about Route 1.

While generally supported by elected officials, the county and the business community, the proposed at-grade crossings could put more pedestrians in harm’s way.

Planning Commission member Jim Lantelme agreed with Freshman.

“The Route 1 face could be radically different based on whether it’s dropped to grade and how close or how far the curb ends up being,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns.”