Safeway's grocery store in Crystal City will close March 5, a change that some say was brought on by economic revitalization efforts that are altering the landscape of the entire neighborhood. Its branch on Columbia Pike will also close in the next 30 days.
Safeway has opted not to renew its lease, according to Craig Muckle, the company's public affairs manager, because the Crystal City store is not meeting expectations amid growing competition.
"By and large, it does not suit our needs," said Muckle. "The reasons are varied. Crystal City is an area with a lot of competition. It's always difficult to close a store down, because people rely on us for their needs."
Part of the reason for Safeway's departure involves development plans under way in Crystal City by Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty, the company that is spearheading the neighborhood's ongoing revitalization. Smith's plans for Crystal City include a 60,000-square-foot retail and restaurant complex and the demolition of a garage that accounted for 400 parking spaces. The loss of those parking spaces has meant some lost revenues for Safeway. Negotiations with local developers, he added, went on for a long time.
"We normally have a lot of long-term leases," he said. "When one is coming up for renewal, we don't wait until the last minute."
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEES are being offered jobs at other branches of the supermarket chain. Yet losing a grocery store in Aurora Highlands, the neighborhood surrounding Crystal City, would be an inconvenience to residents.
We hate to see that Safeway go," said Cheryl Mendonsa, president of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association.
During a recent meeting of the association, Chris Garland, Charles E. Smith's vice president of development, presented the company’s plans for the site and for Safeway.
"They are trying to get Safeway into another property that they own," Mendonsa said. "There are conflicting viewpoints as to whether they were forced out or invited to stay. That would certainly be our preference, to have a grocery store nearby. He told us they had just chosen not to renew their lease."
According to Tom Newman, director of real estate for Arlington's economic development office, Charles E. Smith's work in Crystal City has already altered the area in a significant way since the company unveiled its development plans in 2003.
"Charles E. Smith was the impetus around most of the revitalization in Crystal City," he said. "He advocated for the two-way streets and expanding retail there. We're very supportive of those efforts because they make the area more accessible to people."
GROCERY STORES in Arlington, said Newman, are a booming business. In the last 15 years, seven have been built or are under construction. Since 1999, grocery store chain Harris Teeter has opened three and is building two more. Safeway's departure, he said, is surprising.
"I was somewhat dumbfounded when I heard Safeway was leaving," he said. "In a location like Crystal City — where you have a large work force and lots of condos, but there aren't many grocery stores— they had something of a captive audience."
Newman revealed that Safeway's branch at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Courthouse Road will also be closing in the next 30 days. It will likely be demolished by its new owner, MacArthur Development. A condition of the sale, he added, is that no new grocery store may be built on the site, troubling news to some longtime residents along the Pike, who have seen their neighborhood undergo dramatic changes in the past few years.
"I use it weekly," said Bill Sullivan. "As long as I can remember, I've never seen an empty storefront on Columbia Pike. If you listen to some of the people pushing for revitalization, you'd think Columbia Pike was this blighted thing. It's not."
Columbia Pike is another neighborhood seeing the changes brought on by development. Residents, he said, are concerned that the loss of businesses like Safeway on the Pike is just one more signal of gentrification. Rising rents on commercial space in the wake of revitalization efforts, he added, could force out many of the small stores that line the street. It could also mean a loss of affordable housing in the area.
"If you push up rents on stores, housing costs will jump, too," he said.