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Inside PBS’s still-looking-new headquarters in Crystal City

The PBS headquarters at 1225 S. Clark Street in Crystal City still gleams and smells as if it’s new, despite it being about three years since the national public broadcasting network first hoped to move in.

That’s what happens when a pandemic puts well-laid plans on ice.

“It was crazy,” PBS’s Chief Executive Officer Paula Kerger told ARLnow, sitting inside the company’s headquarters and by big windows with the Potomac in the distance. “We had designed the space. We had ordered the furniture. We had started some construction. And then Covid hit.”

PBS had been just a half mile down the street at 2100 Crystal Drive for about 13 years before recommitting to Arlington and Crystal City in 2019. Prior to its mid-aughts move to Crystal City, the company was headquartered in Alexandria.

The company’s 16-year lease to take over five floors in the JBG Smith building on S. Clark Street began in September 2020 and is set to expire in 2036.

While exact financial details were not disclosed, the company did not have to borrow money for the build-out unlike what was the case with the last building, Chief Financial Officer Tom Tardivo said.

All the needed funds came from private donations, the company’s general funds, tenant improvement allowance from JBG Smith, and several grants. This included one from Arlington County’s economic development authority in the amount of $500,000.

It was important to the company to stay in Crystal City, Kerger said, because of the relationship it had built with the county and the community over the last decade plus.

“We were one of the first companies that moved here that was not affiliated with the Pentagon or a defense contractor,” she said.

Keger also noted that PBS was in negotiations with JBG Smith prior to Amazon announcing its decision to open its second headquarters several blocks away, in Pentagon City, in late 2018.

“I had a sense that they were heading our way,” she said. “Having a lot of other creative and tech people [here] is a huge advantage for us.”

Plus, PBS employees wanted to stay in Crystal City. The proximity to the Metro, National Airport, and a growing culinary scene were all things that were cited by employees as reasons to stay in the neighborhood.

The plan was for PBS to move into its new headquarters in mid-2020. But that, of course, didn’t happen. It’s only been about a year since employees started gradually coming back to the PBS offices, said Kerger.

What they encountered was a far different space and building than the old one they hastily left behind on Crystal Drive when offices shut down in March 2020.

For one, it’s a bit smaller of a space than PBS previously had. The company now occupies five floors and about 120,000 square feet, compared to about 130,000 square feet at the old building.

They did this by cutting down the number of private offices and focusing on creating more “collaborative spaces,” meaning spaces that could fit larger groups of people.

“We wanted more opportunities for people to come together to do their work,” Tardivo said while walking around the building with an ARLnow contributor. “Remember, though, this was prior to the pandemic when all the design work was being done.”

Kerger admits that they designed the space under “a different assumption” and there were “many moments where I thought ‘Oh my goodness, we built the wrong space.'”

But as people have returned to work, it became clear that big open spaces may actually be preferable, especially since not everyone is in the office all the time anymore.

Each individual employee comes to the office on average two days a week, Kerger said. That means out of the 400 people that the space is planned for, about 100 to 200 are in on any given day. That number doesn’t particularly worry Kerger since she believes that will change in time.

“My feeling is this is going to end up being the right configuration,” she said. “As more and more restaurants get built out… right now, we’re at the end of Crystal City that doesn’t have a lot, but that will change. And as all these other spaces get ready to open, I think more and more people will be interested in being back.”

At the end of PBS’s current lease at 1225 S. Clark Street, it will mark three decades for America’s national public broadcaster in Crystal City.

Leadership is already signaling that they want to remain here well beyond that.

“This is our home. It’s been our neighborhood now for over 20 years,” said Tardivo. It’ll be at least another 14. And hopefully longer.”

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