Arlington, VA

From themed attractions to hydroponic farms, locals have dreamed up novel ways to revitalize Crystal City Shops (1750 Crystal Dr), an underground mall.

The shops, which rely largely on foot traffic from Crystal City office workers, have been struggling during the pandemic. But with Amazon’s arrival spurring new development, some local groups have been brainstorming a new future for the half-mile corridor.

Last week, the best ideas were proclaimed winners of the “Underground Challenge,” developed by Livability 22202, a group that includes the Arlington Ridge, Aurora Highlands and Crystal City civic associations.

“The Underground Challenge was organized to spur creative thinking about the Crystal City Underground and its future with the change and new development now happening in Crystal City and National Landing,” said Livability 22202’s press release. The group said that subterranean shops are “much loved by local residents.”

The challenge was sponsored by JBG Smith, which owns the shopping center, and the National Landing Business Improvement District, which serves the Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard neighborhoods. The three groups founded a working group to liven up the sparse hallways.

People submitted creative writing pieces, videos or business plans to revitalize the buildings, corridors and plazas that were built a half-century ago.

“Entrants celebrated their fondness for the underground, pointed out its quirks and features, and proposed new ideas for its future,” said the press release.

These ideas included libraries, museums, urban farms or spaces for kid-friendly STEM activities.

Patricia Heath’s “Underground Energy” won first place in the “Write Underground” category:

“There are myriad issues to be addressed, and I don’t have all the answers (and likely don’t know all the challenges),” Heath wrote. “What I do know is this: the Water Park may be the outdoor personification of our Crystal City urban village, but the Underground is its beating heart and circulatory system, literally and figuratively.”

Runners-up in the creative writing category included Neena Gupta’s “In Search of a Protagonist” and Matthew Mercado’s “Dr. Mercado’s Diagnosis.”

Kari Klaus won the video category with a vision of a Las Vegas-inspired Underground.

Videos from the runners-up Emma Benson and Eric Cassell offered “fond — and satirical — commentary on the existing Underground experience.”

Business plan category winner Matt McKinstry suggested the “Under Grange,” a network of indoor hydroponic farms and agri-tech startups that grow vegetables, greens and herbs, and support cheesemaking and beekeeping, to supply local restaurants.

Runners-up included Michael Hong, who suggested a Museum of Science Fiction and venues for live music, and John Chapin, who imagined security-related businesses settling into the Underground.

“The community’s robust level of engagement in the ‘Underground Challenge’ truly reflects their passion for great places and appetite for continuous reinvention,” said Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, the president and executive director of the National Landing BID, in a statement. “National Landing is fortunate to have such a committed community of residents focused on positive efforts that will improve the neighborhood for all.”

The contest’s judges included Robert Siegel, former co-host of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered; Arlington videographer Eric Courtney; and Arlington authors Rick Hodges and Kim O’Connell.

Livability 22202 said it plans to share ideas from the Challenge in future discussions about the underground.

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Six years after redevelopment discussions began, a plan to upgrade a block of aging brick buildings in Courthouse is winding through Arlington County’s levels of review.

“The Courthouse Landmark Block (2050 Wilson Blvd) is currently under review via our site plan review process,” said Jessica Margarit, the communications manager for the Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development, in an email.

An online engagement opportunity focused on transportation, sustainability, community benefits and construction opened Monday and will run through Sunday. County Board consideration of the project is expected in the next few months.

“The Planning Commission and County Board intend to consider this application during Winter 2020-21,” Margarit said.

Greystar Real Estate Partners is proposing a 20-story apartment building with ground-floor retail, rooftop amenities and open space, as well as a below-grade parking structure. The development would replace the one- to three-story brick buildings, including the now-closed Summers Restaurant, just east of the Courthouse Metro station entrance.

The proposal includes keeping, with some changes, the façades of two buildings deemed to be historic.

“Our concept is to embrace the site and its position as one of the highest elevations in the Clarendon-Courthouse area, as well as a prominent building in all directions,” said architect Stephen Smith of Cooper Carry in a September meeting.

The building will have 418 residential units and 160 parking spaces. It will also have 17,000 sq. ft. of retail space with 61 retail parking spaces. The proposal includes prominent ground floor retail spaces with the tower set back a bit from the street, “producing a lighter, more enjoyable pedestrian feel on the sidewalk.”

“It became clear to us when we first approached the site and looked at the sector plan’s recommendations, the site’s very unique and highly visible location in the heart of central Courthouse meant that the site has a lot of design response,” Smith said.

Greystar will fashion a pedestrian promenade along N. Uhle Street between the Courthouse Metro station and the development

“This is intended to become a vibrant and broad pedestrian walkway lined with trees and active retail uses and distinctive lighting,” said John Beinert, the director of development for Greystar.

The pathway comes with two challenges, accommodating a utility vault and a four-foot elevation change. To overcome these, the promenade will have a slight bend to move around the vault, creating “a more dynamic and inviting experience,” and the green space will be terraced to solve the grade-change problem.

Retail space will line the promenade and an elevator lobby will provide access to a garage below-ground.

“Making this new space active and engaging is our highest priority,” Beinert said.

Other proposed community benefits include additional improvements to the streetscape, LEED certification, and contributions to the county’s public art and affordable housing funds.

Two existing buildings will be preserved and their façades redone with historically accurate design and materials.

These are the First Federal Savings and Loan Building (2050 Wilson Boulevard), constructed in 1946, and the Investment Building (2049 15th Street N.), constructed in 1948. They are identified as “important” on the County’s Historic Resources Inventory.

Greystar, meanwhile, has picked up another project in Courthouse. The company is now planning to redevelop the former Wendy’s site, across from the Landmark block, into another residential tower, according to the Washington Business Journal.

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The two retail occupants of a squat commercial building at the intersection of Lee Highway and N. George Mason Drive have now both moved out.

TitleMax, which opened at 5625 Lee Highway in 2014, closed recently and has cleared out of the space, which was previously a 7-Eleven store. A sign on the door directs customers to a remaining TitleMax location at 6198-C Arlington Blvd, in Seven Corners.

No explanation for the closure was given.

Next door, long-time local business Sam Torrey Shoe Service closed in July after the owner decided to move to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

TitleMax’s presence in the neighborhood drew some controversy early on.

Then-County Board candidate Christian Dorsey called the business a “predatory lender” and pushed for its lease to be terminated in the event that a proposed land swap between property owner Virginia Hospital Center and Arlington County happened. A land swap went through, but the Lee Highway property was not included.

Through a PR rep, Virginia Hospital Center said that it is still deciding what to do next with the property.

“TitleMax and Sam Tory have terminated their leases,” the rep told ARLnow. “The Hospital has made no decisions about the future of the site.”

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Morning Notes

Storm Results in Minor Damage — Isaias only caused minor damage in Arlington as it roared past the D.C. area as a tropical storm. Arlington received about 2 inches of rain and some gusty winds as the storm passed. The rain did cause Four Mile Run to top its banks and cover the bike path near Carlin Springs Road. [Twitter]

Thousands of Local Renters Seeking Help — Arlington County “has been besieged with requests for help — in the eight months before the county declared an emergency because of the pandemic, her division received 821 requests for financial- and eviction-prevention assistance. Between March and May, that number was 2,378. The county hired temporary workers to supplement the county workers, who are working from home, and is trying to assist residents, some of whom don’t have Internet access and must rely on sending and receiving forms by mail.” [Washington Post]

Lots of Retail Rent Not Getting Paid — “Retail tenants have been hardest hit during the pandemic, across the board and for JBG Smith. The company collected 58% of rent due from those tenants in the second quarter, compared with nearly 99% for office and 98.5% for multifamily… JBG Smith is exploring the possibility of incorporating ghost kitchens, or food preparation facilities for delivery-only meals, to fill some of the void created by empty retail spaces as a temporary measure.” [Washington Business Journal]

Arlington GOP vs. WaPo Reporter — The Arlington County Republican Committee, in response to a Washington Post article about its chairman’s social media posts, posted the following on Twitter last night: “#FakeNews opinion columnist @psullivan1 was forced to change her slanderous headline… She apologizes for Communist China, but falls all over herself for a headline. lol, Peopermint Patti” [Twitter]

This One Time, Not at Band Camp — “APS has decided to cancel all August activities until further notice. The WL marching band camp for 2020 has been canceled.” [Twitter]

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Morning Notes

Local Business Owners Still Waiting for Loans — “Like many business owners across Northern Virginia, Cyrille Brenac is still waiting to hear back from his bank about his application to the Paycheck Protection Program… For Brenac, who lives in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, the money would help him rehire about 50 employees of his two French restaurants he laid off when the economy abruptly shut down as the result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.” [Connection Newspapers]

County Board Salary Raise Unlikely — “The COVID-19 health pandemic and resulting economic downturn have snagged another victim – big pay raises for Arlington County Board members. Raises totaling more than $50,000 spread across the five board positions, which were included in County Manager Mark Schwartz’s pre-virus budget proposal in February, have been red-lined out.” [InsideNova]

Bearded Goat Barber Dies During Home Isolation — “We’ve already had quite a tragedy of our own — a barber who was in recovery from heroin addiction. He told us a couple times in the first few weeks, ‘It’s not good for me not being busy like this… not being able to work.’ We didn’t know just how bad it would be for him. He relapsed and got a bad batch and died.” [InsideHook, Facebook]

Campaign to Help Nurses, Restaurants Raises $30k — “The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO) began its ‘Buy a Nurse Lunch’ initiative several weeks ago to raise money for restaurants along Columbia Pike in Arlington, while simultaneously providing meals for nurses and medical staff at the Virginia Hospital Center. In just two weeks, the organization says that over $30 thousand was raised, providing much-needed revenue for small, locally-owned restaurant.” [WJLA]

County to Consider More Retail Conversions — “For many years, county officials were insistent that retail be placed in office and residential buildings in certain areas. The problem – as developers apparently knew but county leaders seemed to miss – is that retail spaces are dependent on visibility and foot traffic, which each can vary widely even within the same building. (At one business-organization meeting years back, developers simply shrugged their shoulders, saying they often penciled in ‘zero’ for the expected revenue.)” [InsideNova]

Local Man Recounts Coronavirus Experience — “He had been in the hospital for seven days when doctors declared he might not make it out alive. His blood oxygen levels sank. His lungs struggled. The ventilator helping him breathe, doctors at Virginia Hospital Center said, did not seem to be doing much good. Nurses called his family. His family called a priest. They wanted to make sure Francis Wilson, 29, received last rites before the end.” [Washington Post]

Raccoons Rescued from Trash Can — “Officer Cameron got a surprise yesterday when she responded to a call about a raccoon stuck inside a bag inside a trash can. After she ‘unstuck’ the raccoon, she found 2 raccoon kits with her! Officer Cameron made sure they were all safe, releasing them to a quiet place nearby.” [Animal Welfare League of Arlington]

Arlington Musicians Play Mozart From Self-Isolation — A group of Arlington musicians joined those from elsewhere to perform Mozart: Serenade No. 13 in G Major, K. 525 ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ (1st movement) remotely. [YouTube]

Falls Church Senior Care Centers Face Outbreaks — “Three Falls Church area senior homes are now confirmed to be fighting outbreaks of the coronavirus, with Chesterbrook Residences telling the News-Press today that a total of 17 of its residents and staff have tested positive for COVID-19.” [Falls Church News-Press]

Flickr pool photo by P Ranfone

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(Updated at 12:10 p.m.) With In Style Pet Salon and Commonwealth Restorations coming to Williamsburg Shopping Center (2902 N. Sycamore Street) the retail block is now 100% full.

“It feels great,” said Nick Kalis, who runs the shopping center as part of the Kalis Development Corporation. “In years past, it was very normal, but retail leasing today is more of a challenge.”

Kalis said the In Style Pet Salon, a pet grooming location, should open sometime in the next 30-60 days. Commonwealth Restorations — a home design, renovation and construction firm — should open in 60-90 days, he said.

Kalis also emphasized that Commonwealth Restorations isn’t closing their office at 2430 S. Kenmore Street, but this second location will operate as more of a showroom and opportunity to interface with the public.

Kalis said challenges in the retail industry have led to more emphasis on service-oriented tenants for shopping centers.

“The bigger story here is that shopping centers face two challenges,” Kalis said. “A lot of people build these big warehouse parks with phony retail because they’re not properly zoned for a lot of uses but compete with us for tenants. The second challenge is every retailer in Arlington moving more to finding service-oriented tenants… So more and more, you’re finding service [and restaurants] in these shopping centers.”

Other tenants at the shopping center include Smoking Kow BBQ, Jin’s Dry Cleaner, Williamsburg Deli, 7-Eleven, Deli Italiano, Two The Moon, Peking Pavilion, Zinga Frozen Yogurt, Tenley Nails, United Bank and the Williamsburg Barber Shop.

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There’s little doubt that a retail apocalypse is underway, though there is some debate about how to assign blame.

Store closures and imminent closures in Arlington since last summer include Abercrombie & Fitch, Swatch and Papyrus at the Pentagon City mall; World Market in Pentagon City; Rite Aid in Crystal City; and Pier 1 in Rosslyn. Malls in Tysons have also seen a spate of recent closures.

Meanwhile, Ballston Common Mall recently underwent an extensive renovation. Instead of retail stores, of which there are but a few, the newly-rebranded Ballston Quarter focuses on restaurants, entertainment, fitness and other “experiential” businesses.

The prime suspect in the retail woes is the rise of e-commerce — driven in large part by a company that’s opening a large new office in Pentagon City. But there are other potential factors: long-time retailers not adapting to the current consumer environment, private equity firms loading retail chains like Toys R Us up with debt and watching them deteriorate, and an over-building of malls and other retail space.

Regardless of the exact set of causes, it is consumer behavior that ultimately controls the fate of retail businesses. So this morning we’re wondering: do you shop at physical retail stores more or less now than you did in 2018?

Let us know why in the comments below.

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Morning Notes

HQ2’s Towering Height — “Amazon.com Inc.’s planned pair of office towers at Metropolitan Park will have the same number of floors as the residential building next door. But the HQ2 buildings will lord over The Bartlett by nearly 60 feet. The 22-story HQ2 towers are expected to hit 322.5 feet at their highest point, according to plans submitted to Arlington County. JBG Smith Properties’ The Bartlett, with its Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market on the ground floor, is 22 stories but only 264-feet-tall.” [Washington Business Journal]

Retail Sales Up in Arlington — “Year-over-year retail sales in Arlington showed a boost in the first quarter of 2019, according to new data. Total retail sales of $767.2 million countywide were up 1.6 percent from $755.3 million during the first three months of 2018, according to figures from the Virginia Department of Taxation.” [InsideNova]

Univ. of Phoenix’s New Arlington Campus — The for-profit University of Phoenix this week will be celebrating the grand opening of its new Northern Virginia-D.C. Metro campus at 4401 Fairfax Drive in Ballston. [Eventbrite]

Heat Doesn’t Stop Youth Baseball Tourney — “Even as some events cancelled due to the extreme heat warning on Saturday, many people are still got outside. That included hundreds of young players from across the area who turned out for the Arlington Babe Ruth – Doc Bonaccorso Summer Classic Baseball Tournament in Arlington.” [WJLA]

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Amid difficulties for American shopping malls, Arlington’s two malls are betting on new eateries to turn more diners into shoppers.

Management at the newly-renovated Ballston Quarter and the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City say elevated dining options — from Ballston Quarter’s trendy local eateries to newer, healthier options at Pentagon City mall — are becoming an increasingly important part of mall design.

Commercial real estate experts say food options are now the key driver of mall traffic.

A new study released by the International Council of Shopping Centers shows that 40 percent of customers choose which mall they go to based solely on the food there, and nearly 38 percent of those surveyed said healthy options were a priority, according to CNBC.

“People increasingly value experience-based shopping and place higher expectations on how they spend their time,” said Will Voegele, senior vice president of mixed-use development for Brookfield Properties, in an email to ARLnow. “We designed the revitalized Ballston Quarter with the community in mind and our vision reflects a strong focus on experiential retail, innovative food and beverage concepts, and diverse entertainment offerings to create a new all-season neighborhood experience with the density of an urban center that is purposeful, thoughtful and unique.”

Voegele said part of the redesign for Ballston Quarter was to maintain a focus on local vendors for the 25,000 square-foot food hall.

“The uniform array of national names that we associate with the traditional food court does not provide the richness and authenticity that is so important to our mission at Ballston Quarter,” Voegele said. “Families and young professionals still want grab-and-go, but they are also looking for better quality and healthy dining options. Food halls offer the perfect solution in this case.”

Voegele said the new food hall design has gradually supplanted the traditional fast food-oriented food court of the archetypical ’80s and ’90s malls.

“The fundamental design of the traditional mall no longer supports the way people like to shop and dine as consumers are craving visually stimulating and creative experiences,” Voegele said. “The boxy retail behemoths of yesterday are just not practical for today’s landscape.”

Healthy options were also a big part of the expansion and renovation of the Pentagon City mall.

“Fashion Centre at Pentagon City has introduced enhanced dining options over the recent years, including Matchbox American Kitchen + Spirit, honeygrow, Sugar Factory and Shake Shack,” management at the mall said in an email. “In addition, the center added modern furniture, finishes and additional seating during the renovation in 2016 to offer an even better experience for shoppers visiting the dining pavilion.”

But does this translate into sales at other retail options in the mall? Voegele said the Ballston Quarter’s food hall, Quarter Market, has seen consistent traffic across all age groups — and events like Quarterfest last weekend boosted its local profile. The study said transactions increase as much as 25 percent at malls with quality food and beverage options, with shoppers who eat at the mall spending 15 percent more per trip.

Shoppers inside Ballston Quarter weren’t so sure. While several said they came for the food hall and loved the dining options, many also said this wouldn’t necessarily translate into going into the upstairs part of the mall to shop.

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For years, businesses have come and gone from the retail space on the ground floor of the Eclipse condo building in Potomac Yard. Now relief may be on the way.

The Arlington County Board is set to vote this weekend on a site plan amendment that will allow the landlord of the 3600 and 3650 S. Glebe Road buildings to lease the retail space to “retail equivalent” businesses, defined as:

Uses that have characteristics similar to retail such as the hours of operation, the customer base and the level of activity that provide visual interest and create an active street life, but are not retail uses. Uses include but are not limited to museums, galleries, day care uses, medical and dental offices, colleges and universities and hotel lobbies; as well as certain innovative office elements and residential amenities such as fitness centers, community rooms, etc.

The tiny shopping plaza is located in a roundabout between the two buildings, well off the beaten path — north of the busy Potomac Yard Shopping Center in Alexandria but south of Crystal City. To the west, across Route 1, is Arlington’s sewage plant.

A procession of sit-down restaurants has tried and failed to open and attract customers. One even had to put out a press release after they learned that Google Maps was steering would-be customers to an empty plot of land several blocks away. And that’s not to mention the extended closure of the adjacent Harris Teeter store, the block’s biggest draw, following a major sewage backup in 2012.

“The applicant has experienced sustained difficulty in attracting and retaining retail tenants for certain base retail spaces since 2006, when its Retail Attraction and Marketing Plan (RAMP) was approved,” the staff report for the site plan amendment notes.

“This space, along with others, are located on an interior circle drive, off South Glebe Road, and the applicant sites the lack of visibility as an obstacle for retaining retail tenants,” the report adds. “Recently, a physical therapy practice sought to lease a retail space, but could not be certified for occupancy because it is an office use, rather than retail use.”

Currently, the circle is home to a small collection of restaurants and service businesses. Should the County Board approve the change, it may be able to attract other businesses more equipped to survive in the low foot traffic area. No changes are proposed for the Harris Teeter space, the staff report notes.

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A developer is planning to raze two office buildings on 601-701 12th Street S. in Pentagon City and build four new towers with residential, office, and retail space.

That’s according to a preliminary site plan filing with Arlington County. The plan also notes that the property’s current occupants — the Transportation Security Administration — are soon leaving the county.

Renderings in the filings from property owner Brookfield Properties depict four buildings planned for the area:

  • a 14-story, 240-foot high southwest tower for office space
  • a 20-story, 235-foot high southeast tower for residential or hotel use
  • a 24-story, 275-foot high northeast tower for residential or hotel use
  • a 26-story, 300-foot high northwest tower for residential use, with a penthouse

The company’s proposal says the development will occur in phases and will include “new access to the Pentagon City Metro, upgraded streetscapes and sidewalks, a new internal pedestrian pathway, public open spaces and outdoor seating” as well as public art.

Brookfield’s plans indicate that retail space is planned along the ground floor of the four towers and along 12th Street S.

Tysons-based law firm Venable LLP submitted the proposal, which included a request to make an exception to the site’s limits on building height and density for the project, on behalf of Brookfield.

The document notes that, “the proposal will help address the significant increase in demand for residential housing and hotel space, which will only grow considering the potential for office development in the region.”

The plan says it aims to “ease congestion on surrounding roads by integrating with nearby sites, improving internal circulation, and connecting to Metro.”

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is currently using the two buildings on-site and is scheduled to move out next fall, per agency spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

“The new building will be located at 6595 Springfield Center Drive, Springfield,” said Farbstein.

The TSA had been planning to stay at the property, which is next to the Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters and across the street from the Pentagon City mall, until mid-2020.

TSA announced in 2015 that it would move to Alexandria in a bid to save $95 million over the next 15 years, but the move was later overturned by a federal judge.

Brookfield Properties describes the two, 12-story buildings currently occupied by the TSA as, “aging, obsolete” and “unattractive.”

The county posted the address of the project on its website under “Preliminary Development Proposals” last week. However, the process of obtaining the plans revealed the county’s permitting and zoning offices were adapting the way they process records requests.

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