(Updated at 9:40 a.m. on 8/1/23) If you build it, they will come.
That is the philosophy guiding the planned construction of the east entrance to the Crystal City Metro station, for which Arlington County inked a contract earlier this month.
First floated in 2002, the idea of a second Crystal City Metro entrance remained on the local radar before becoming one of the suite of transportation projects the county and state agreed to deliver in order to secure Amazon’s (recently opened) second headquarters in Arlington.
This month, Arlington approved a contract with JBG Smith and Clark Construction, which together agreed to build the second entrance for no more than $117 million. Design work is not yet complete, however, and the new entrance may not be ready until 2027.
The new entrance will be located at the northwest corner of Crystal Drive and 18th Street S., a couple of blocks from the current entrance.
Although a few years away, project proponents say the project will bring visitors closer to Crystal Drive, a part of Crystal City undergoing significant change, and will create a “transit hub” connecting people to rail (VRE and Amtrak), buses and the airport. Doing so, they say, will make using Metro more convenient and, thus, encourage additional ridership, which remains below pre-pandemic levels.
“This east entrance really brings transit where it belongs, into the heart of a commercial district,” says Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, the president and executive director of the National Landing Business Improvement District.
“Crystal Drive is a commercial spine and there are many enhancements and new destinations that will deliver soon and will seamlessly connect to the entrance,” she continued. “In 2024, we will realize a truly reinvisioned Crystal Drive.”
The Crystal City Water Park, set to reopen this September with a number of food vendor stalls, would be across the street from the new entrance. A retail strip with Mah-Ze-Dahr, Tacombi, and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is steps away, while two dozen other retailers are set to move into Crystal Drive over the next year, including a new restaurant called Surreal.
Proponents say the second entrance will facilitate connections to other transit modes. Getting between VRE and Metro, for instance, can be a confusing hassle, says local civic association president Eric Cassel.
“Everybody who is a tourist or something like that, they have a hard time finding it currently, it’s kind of hidden away,” he said. “People don’t take transit as much because it’s difficult to transfer between that and buses and everything else. One of the reasons to make a focal point of a transit hub is to get people who would otherwise drive to take transit.”
The new station will also make hopping on the Metro a bit less of a slog for people who live or work in the neighborhood.
“This new entrance would save me and others 5 minutes of walking up the hill to get to the current entrance,” says Jay Corbalis, public affairs vice president for JBG Smith.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot to some people, but when you think about that every day, twice a day, for thousands of people, it starts to add up why it’s an important project,” he continued. “It changes the geography of National Landing. It brings that many people closer to the rest of the region.”
When JBG Smith came to Arlington in 2019 with an unsolicited bid to build the station, Metro ridership was on the rise after a slump in the mid-2010s. Although ridership is recovering post-Covid, if ridership grows at its current rate, Crystal City would not fully return to 2019 levels at least until 2025.
The Crystal City station, once championed as one of the most-used in the network, currently ranks 23rd for rider traffic — 4,546 daily entries — behind Rosslyn, Ballston, Pentagon City, Pentagon and National Airport in Arlington, per WMATA data. It ranks 52nd in terms of its ridership growth over last year.
The ridership rates do not rattle Corbalis.
“Metro is a key part of our long-term plans in National Landing and we are confident that we’ll be a critical part of the plans in the future,” he said. “Given the timeline these projects take to realize, we never had a doubt this was the right path even with current ridership impacts, which are slowly moving in the right direction.”
It may be years before the transit benefits of the entrance are fully realized, as the airport pedestrian bridge, VRE station and at-grade Route 1 are also years away. Corbalis said he is not worried that these will fall by the wayside and partially negate the benefit of this station.
“Even though it feels long, it’s all part of a bigger plan,” Corbalis said. “We trust those plans… We’re not worried this will be a one-off. It’s part of bigger strategy.”
The project is also not threatened by the fiscal cliff WMATA is facing with its operating budget, according to County Board member Takis Karantonis. Funding comes from state, regional and local sources — separate from the operating budget with the $750 million shortfall.
He says this is not a reason for stopping what was set in motion years ago.
“I don’t think it’s prudent to put projects that are reasonable and serve long-term growth in the freezer prematurely,” Karantonis said. “By the time that we will be signing the contracts to go ahead with the entrance, I very much hope that the fiscal cliff will have been resolved to a significant extent.”
Karantonis acknowledges the second entrance comes with a hefty price tag, but says it is within a normal range for projects of this caliber.
“We are trying our very best to be on top of that and to limit the risk that is embedded in the Capital Improvement Plan so that we maintain predictability on cost — no surprises,” he said.
The project cost was “hotly debated” among County Board members, he said.
“This is a legitimate question but perhaps above the pay grade of Arlington to answer — why public construction projects are so immensely expensive — but it’s not an unreasonable amount of money, compared with everything else we’ve done,” he said.
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