There is a unique neighborhood now rising along the Potomac River in northern Virginia. It mixes the best aspects of corporate, philanthropic and government organization, producing an amenity-rich hub with thousands of jobs. But it also represents the cronyism and misallocation of these institutions, and how, ultimately, this leads to sterile urbanism. Still known to locals as Crystal City, the area’s more specific boundary is called “National Landing.”
If it sounds familiar, that’s because it was Amazon’s choice for HQ2. In 2018, the logistics giant announced a dual second headquarters in New York City and Northern Virginia. When political opposition killed the New York office, the firm consolidated operations at the NoVa campus. This led to a wave of further investment into the area, and its renaming.
Based inside the city of Arlington, National Landing is a linear strip located immediately west of the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. It consists of the neighborhoods Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Potomac Yard (technically in Alexandria). The area is known for its malls, but is otherwise considered sleepy and lacking in culture, especially since military operations consolidated in the early 2000s.
But Northern Virginia as a whole has seen significant growth in the last few decades, due to federal contracting. Submarkets such as Tysons, Reston and Rosslyn-Ballston are like newly-risen cities.
National Landing, according to JBG Smith, the area’s lead developer, could join the club. The area will host as many as 38,500 Amazon employees once the firm completes buildout, and JBG Smith boasts that it is already Virginia’s largest walkable downtown.
Many investment sources brought the neighborhood to this level, besides Amazon. The Pentagon is just outside National Landing’s boundaries, and undoubtedly causes spillover activity. Within the neighborhood are offices for PBS, Bloomberg, and Booz Allen Hamilton. A Business Improvement District, National Landing BID, was formed by local businesses to fund community events and street improvements, such as a tree-lined main street along Crystal Drive.
Another key BID initiative is to improve U.S. Route 1, which now bisects the area as an elevated freeway. The goal of the BID’s “People Before Cars” campaign is to turn the portion of Route 1 running through the densest parts of National Landing into a walkable boulevard.
The neighborhood is well connected from a transportation perspective—the Washington Metro makes four stops within and around the National Landing footprint; Crystal City and Pentagon City are served by several bus routes; and it is in close proximity to I-95. Most notably, much of National Landing is less than a mile from Reagan National, and local business leaders look to connect the two via a pedestrian bridge and potentially a commuter rail station.
Another National Landing initiative is to implement 5G internet connectivity. As I explained in a recent article, 5G, which functions based on a critical mass of cellular infrastructure, is ideal for dense urban neighborhoods. That is why local interests want to make National Landing the first place in America to employ 5G neighborhood-wide.
“AT&T and JBG SMITH envision National Landing as a canvas for smart city innovation in industry clusters such as defense, cybersecurity, cloud/edge computing, internet of things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI),” a press release states.
The 5G connectivity will, for example, allow testing for autonomous vehicles and immersive retail. Virginia Tech is opening a satellite campus to plug tech and engineering grads into this ecosystem, serving as yet another big institutional presence.
Lastly, like other parts of NoVa, National Landing is getting a lot of high-rise development, since that is not allowed in Washington, D.C. Together this is creating what amounts to a futuristic super neighborhood—one that is high-rise and mixed-use; focused on placemaking; tech-oriented; and within walking distance of a major airport. During a recent visit, I was even impressed by the smaller details, such as all the foot traffic and how well-used the parks were.
But there was also something missing—which speaks to the problems with how it and similar urban neighborhoods develop in the 21st century. More than an organic process, it is one stooped in government intervention.
For one thing, much of the reason National Landing has grown is because development is not allowed elsewhere. Arlington County forbids even modest density increases in single-family neighborhoods, some of which surround National Landing. This inflates land values in the few areas where development can happen, meaning only well-capitalized corporations can afford to locate there. National Landing had a Starbucks, Chick-fil-a, Ruth’s Chris and other chains, but not many small businesses occupying its retail or office space.
Amazon moved there because the Arlington County board approved a $23 million incentives package. While the company will reimburse some of this indirectly through philanthropy, it’s still a handout other businesses won’t get.
Most importantly, the economic success of the entire Washington, D.C. region is “artificial”, in that it is propped up by the rest of America. Federal income taxes paid from nationwide fund an army of Washington politicians, bureaucrats, and public-private contractors, while corporations must fund lobbyists to compete in an increasingly-regulated business landscape. The metro has by far the nation’s highest per capita incomes for this reason, which is reflected in booming neighborhoods like National Landing. But it is due to a process that extracts from the larger U.S. economy.
The built landscape throughout metro Washington reflects these top-down qualities; it is sterile, corporate, fortified, and faceless. National Landing BID made more of an attempt than elsewhere in the region to bolster the public realm; but it still has the same manicured feel.
In a market-based system, cities are more messy—in a good way. There is less collusion between business and government, meaning more ability for small actors to compete. This is reflected at street level with a larger number and greater diversity of people, businesses and property owners. National Landing is the opposite, but for better or worse, still testifies to the quality neighborhood that can be built when lots of private, philanthropic and government capital floods in.
This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content manager Ethan Finlan.