The following feature article was funded by our new Patreon community. Want to see more articles like this, exploring important local topics that don’t make our usual news coverage? Join and help fund additional local journalism in Arlington.
With Amazon hoping to open a headquarters in Arlington, Crystal City’s transportation network can’t seem to stay out of the spotlight.
Major redevelopment is coming whether or not local resistance turns the e-commerce giant away, but the attention-grabbing headlines and all-at-once infrastructure proposals don’t reveal how mobility investment is a gradual process – or how Crystal City has been steadily improving its transportation infrastructure since long before the HQ2 contest even began.
Crystal City has long been slated for some major transportation investments: Long Bridge reconstruction could enable MARC to bring commuters straight from Maryland to Crystal City and let people bicycle straight to L’Enfant Plaza. A new Metro entrance would make it much easier to connect to bus service. A remodeled VRE commuter rail station would enable larger and more trains, Metroway expansion will strengthen ties with Pentagon City and Alexandria, and a pedestrian bridge to the airport would take advantage of the fact that DCA is three times closer to Crystal City than any other airport in America is to its downtown.
These projects are big: big visibility, big impacts, big cost. They have all been in the pipeline for years, and Amazon is bringing them renewed attention and new dollars.
However, these major investments aren’t the only projects that will update Crystal City’s decades-old transportation infrastructure. Just as important as these headline-making proposals are the more incremental projects that, block by block, are making Crystal City an easier place to get around — and, just like their larger counterparts, these smaller projects have been given some extra weight by HQ2.
Old Visions, New Funding
One document has guided much of Crystal City’s development for the past decade: the Sector Plan. The Crystal City Sector Plan made many suggestions for possible improvements. Not all of them have yet come to fruition, but many have, and the plan continues to drive Arlington’s conversation about Crystal City.
That conversation has recently become a little more ambitious. Amazon’s HQ2 announcement brings not only attention, speculation and more than a little resistance — it will also bring very definite funding. Arlington and Alexandria, combined, “have secured more than $570 million in transportation funding” while the commonwealth of Virginia has committed to $195 million for the same.
This new funding flows mostly toward old designs, all of them focused on alternatives to the car. Arlington’s Incentive Proposal discusses 10 transportation “example projects.” Five of them fall within Crystal City itself, of which all but one follow ideas that originated in the Sector Plan (the remaining project, VRE station expansion, isn’t new either).
Moving Block by Block
Most of Crystal City’s streets were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and followed the “modernist” school of city planning.
They separated pedestrians from cars as much as possible, often putting pedestrians in bridges or tunnels; located stores in malls rather than on sidewalks; and spaced out intersections widely so that cars could accelerate to highway speeds. The Sector Plan calls to convert these into “Complete Streets” that will “accommodate the transportation needs of all surface transportation users, motorists, transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.”
It can be easy to think of transportation investments as one-off projects. The CC2DCA pedestrian bridge to the airport, for example, is an all-or-nothing endeavor. Half of a bridge wouldn’t be very useful for anybody.
Because of its focus on the street level, the Sector Plan calls for gradual change. It endorses street transformation projects that can be completed incrementally — block by block, street by street, improving the area’s transportation network over time. It seeks “to balance any proposed investments in transportation infrastructure with improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing network, so that the maximum benefit can be delivered at the lowest cost.”
This approach pairs well with Crystal City’s desirability for land developers. Most significant developments in Arlington are governed by the site plan process, through which the county negotiates with developers for community benefits — which might include a street renovation. Robert Mandle, chief operating officer of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, explained that “as a redevelopment plan, many [Sector Plan] improvements were anticipated as occurring in conjunction with opportunities presented from redevelopment.”