Housing USA: A Flood of Investment Lands in National Landing

6 min read

It’s rare that the financial forces of government and industry collide to an extreme degree in any one city neighborhood. As someone who’s traveled much of the U.S., I’ve seen plenty of divestment, even in places that are centrally-located. The area I’m profiling this month used to be somewhat like that, but has seen a flood of public, private and philanthropic capital that may cause it to eventually rival surrounding boomburbs in Northern Virginia.

“National Landing” is a stretch of Potomac River coastline that overlooks Washington, DC. Locals sooner call it Crystal City—“National Landing” was a moniker invented by Amazon marketers—but its new name speaks to the area’s future ambition.

The decidedly non-technical border of National Landing includes parts of Pentagon City, Crystal City and Potomac Yard, a quiet area north of Old Town Alexandria. The heart of the area, called National Landing BID, is a main-street-style strip along Crystal Drive that is right across from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The area has long been considered sleepy by locals, a nondescript stretch of fragmented land and aging office buildings. The main economic anchors once included government headquarters (most notably the Pentagon); the airport; and large shopping centers, like Pentagon City Mall. As late as 2016, the New York Times noted that the area “because of federal cuts had become a virtual ghost town, [but] is quietly and persistently reinventing itself.”

These changes have accelerated since 2018, when Amazon announced, after much publicity, that it would put its HQ2 in Crystal City, dubbing the area “National Landing.” The e-commerce giant, working with local public real estate investment trust JBG Smith, is leasing 537,000 square feet of office space and has purchased several other buildings. As of December 2020, Amazon has moved 1,600 employees into National Landing, but that number will eventually hit 25,000.

Amazon joins various other household corporate names that have located in the area, seeking cheaper rents than what is found elsewhere regionally. These include PBS, Booz Allen Hamilton and Bloomberg Industry Group.

It has led to an explosion of investment and public focus there. Here’s a list of examples, which is not exhaustive, but gives a sense of the transformation taking place:

  1. Reagan National Airport’s Project Journey construction will expand the airport’s security and capacity.
  2. Pedestrian bridge: Arlington County has awarded a $4.2 million contract to design a 2,000-square foot connection between the airport and National Landing BID, which will extend over George Washington Memorial Parkway.
  3. 5G Smart City: AT&T and JBG Smith are working to make National Landing the nation’s first 5G neighborhood. 5G is a satellite network that brings hyper-fast internet to cell phones. But the plan is to deploy 5G technology to other neighborhood functions, creating a “smart city” that attracts other tech companies besides Amazon, and becomes a testing ground for new innovations, like autonomous vehicles and immersive retail.
  4. Virginia Tech Innovation Campus: One of the state’s largest universities also wants in on this giant tech incubator. Virginia Tech is opening a satellite campus in Potomac Yard, giving post-grad students a pipeline to job opportunities.
  5. $4 billion in transportation investment: Among the projects being funded at different governmental levels include new stations and extensions for Amtrak, WMATA’s Metrorail and Virginia Railway Express.
  6. Parkland: Much investment has been put into trails and parkland to service National Landing, most notably Long Bridge Park, an esplanade that overlooks the DC skyline.
  7. U.S. Route 1 retrofit: There’s a major lobbying effort underway—spearheaded by JBG Smith and National Landing BID—to make this above-grade expressway into an urbanist boulevard that focuses on multi-modal transportation and pedestrian safety.

There are, of course, other investments being made in National Landing beyond this list – including affordable housing. JBG Smith, by virtue of building so rampantly throughout National Landing, has, both, set aside many units as affordable and contributed millions to the Arlington County Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

But, the big contribution comes from Amazon, which earlier this year announced a $2 billion Housing Equity Fund. Some of these funds will go for affordable housing in Seattle and Nashville, where Amazon also has a corporate presence. The Arlington portion, reports Virginia Business, will include a $340 million below-market loan fund and $42 million in grants for the Washington Housing Conservancy. With the money, WHC will purchase land or buildings within Arlington to be preserved for affordable housing. So far, this has included the purchase of Crystal House, a luxury tower near Amazon’s future headquarters where the nonprofit will stabilize rents.

The question, following all this investment, is just how long it will take before National Landing feels like a true urban neighborhood. I visited several weeks ago for the first time, hoping to find the answer.

The aforementioned BID section along Crystal Drive does function like a somewhat legitimate downtown area; that night, I stumbled on a weekly concert series—Fridays at the Fountain—that had attracted hundreds of people to Crystal City Courtyard Green. Other highly-activated areas include the areas around Costco, Whole Foods and Metropolitan Park.

But National Landing has a long way to go before catching up to other parts of Nothern Virginia. The biggest suburban office submarket in metro Washington is now by far Tysons, VA, thanks in part to the Tyson’s Corner revitalization. The Rosslyn-Ballston area in Arlington County has become a bona fide central business district, thanks to decades of intentional government effort to shift growth there. Old Town Alexandria remains one of America’s best-restored Colonial Era neighborhoods.

National Landing has much growing to do before it reaches the prominence of these areas. Yet I could see this happening in a decade or two. If the public and private investments listed above come to fruition, then National Landing will be a large multi-modal hub with a large employment base that walks to work; will be a “smart city” incubator that links a prestigious university with top-notch tech firms; and will have, to put it literally, a “neighborhood airport” that local jetsetters can walk right into and access the world.

 If Amazon’s nine-figure affordable housing investment is deployed well, National Landing will also become, at least to a degree, a place where multiple income groups can live.