Crystal City restaurants, retail get ready for Amazon’s arrival

'It's going to be 25,000 new customers, essentially' (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

Geoff Dawson can’t help but smile when he looks out the second-floor window of Highline RxR — a bar he and Peter Bayne opened in Crystal City, Virginia, three years ago.

Inside the 7,000 square-foot space, bartenders and servers rearrange chairs and restock glasses ahead of the Wednesday afternoon rush. Outside, the sound of construction fills the air.

“This is HQ2,” Dawson said, gesturing to the space around him.

Last November, Amazon selected the Crystal City and Pentagon City areas of Arlington, Virginia — also known by its rebranded name, National Landing — as the new location for its second headquarters (HQ2). The tech giant’s $2.5 billion investment will bring 25,000 jobs to the area, plus new residences and retail space, planned by real estate developer JBG Smith.

A rendering of the planned development for National Landing. (Courtesy Virginia Economic Development Partnership)

“Everybody’s really excited and everybody’s asking, ‘What is going on?’ ‘When are they coming?’ ‘When are butts in seats?’ And I think everybody’s heard a bunch of different answers,” said Bayne, who runs multiple bars with Dawson via their company, Tin Shop.

Around the corner from Highline’s Crystal Drive entrance is an Amazon-related project that Dawson and Bayne are especially excited about: The demolition of an old office building and the construction of new apartments. Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, president and executive director of the Crystal City Business Improvement District (BID), said the neighborhood has 3,600 residential units “already in the pipeline for development.” Many are hoping these new homes will mean more weekend activity in Crystal City.

Dawson and Bayne said Highline is “a happy-hour machine” during the week, thanks to the office buildings that surround it. But business late at night and on weekends isn’t as steady.

The impending arrival of Amazon, however, is causing the business partners to rethink Highline’s concept. They’re considering opening for lunch during the week, and are preparing for more crowds on Saturday and Sunday. They are even drafting catering menus “and stuff to take care of office meetings and kind of do a little bit more outside of our four walls,” Bayne said.

“We’ll be a happy-hour super-machine,” Dawson added.

Highline RxR overlooks Crystal Drive in Arlington, Virginia. The bar is close to new development taking place in anticipation of Amazon’s arrival with HQ2. (Pierre Edwards/Courtesy Highline RxR)

A few blocks away, Aaron Helfand, head chef at Jaleo, is already feeling Amazon’s impact. He said the restaurant’s lunch crowd has reliably been “the power-lunch people” from nearby nonprofits and government offices. But lately, he has noticed more locals stopping by Crystal City to check out the changes. He has also seen traffic — both foot and vehicular — picking up.

“It’s been pretty exciting in the last couple months or so as people are arriving,” Helfand said. “We’re here to feed them and give them some of the best paella we can.”

Gabriel, with the Crystal City BID, has also seen an uptick in the number of people visiting Crystal City. She said small changes, such as improvements to public spaces, are bringing more folks out to regular events, including the weekly farmers market. And all of the action is prompting local businesses to ready themselves for more to come.

“A lot of owners are taking this opportunity to reinvest in their establishments, so some of them have improved their facilities in anticipation of Amazon and the arrival of other companies, as well,” Gabriel said.

Thad Parsons, owner of Crystal City Wine Shop, doesn’t have big plans to makeover his storefront, which overlooks construction on the corner of Crystal Drive and 20th Street. But he does see the National Landing redevelopment as an opportunity to grow his business.

“It’s going to be 25,000 new customers, essentially,” Parsons said.

Thad Parsons has a front-row seat to the National Landing projects at play. His Crystal City Wine Shop overlooks the development of new residential buildings at 20th Street and Crystal Drive. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
Thad Parsons has a front-row seat to the National Landing projects at play. His Crystal City Wine Shop overlooks the development of new residential buildings at 20th Street and Crystal Drive. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

Gabriel said daytime traffic in Crystal City took “a little bit of a dive in the last decade,” and so most of the feedback she is hearing from local business owners about Amazon’s arrival is on par with the positive reactions from Parsons, Helfand, Bayne and Dawson.

“I think they recognize that things aren’t going to happen overnight, but they are feeling the momentum and the energy and the optimism about the future,” Gabriel said.

“And I think one of the reasons our businesses are really excited about Amazon is that Amazon, itself, has expressed a desire to get employees engaged in the community. Instead of having very campus-centric on-site offerings, the company really urges its employees to go out and take advantage of local businesses and support local businesses.”

When asked if current business owners are worried about the potential for increased rent from elevated property values, Gabriel said, “The overwhelming sentiment … is more excitement than concern.”

She added: “We’re hopeful that everyone can stay and grow and that new businesses will also be attracted to the area.”

JBG Smith’s plans for National Landing include a 130,000 square-foot entertainment and shopping destination, anchored by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The development’s website also promises additional “locally sourced amenity retail.”

Tin Shop has already been approached about doing another concept in the Crystal City area. Bayne said it’s something worth exploring, but they’re not ready to break ground just yet.

“We’re waiting to see what happens and how quickly and how big it gets,” Bayne said.

“To get back into lunch, to have steady evening business would be a huge thing here, and that’s probably the big upside for us,” Dawson added.

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