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Arlington Plans BRAC Recovery

County task force calls for business assistance program and new development framework to attract tenants to Crystal City.

To combat the impending exodus of thousands of defense workers from Crystal City as part of the federal Base Realignment and Closure process, the county is planning to establish a job assistance center and develop an incentive package to encourage companies to relocate to vacated space.

In a report released last week, Arlington's BRAC Transition Task Force further recommended that the county aid small businesses, aggressively pursue state and federal funds to mitigate the impact of the loss of 17,000 jobs and work to transform Crystal City into a more vibrant downtown destination.

"We can't say today what all the answers are," Marty Almquist, the task force's chair, told the County Board members during a June 15 meeting. "But if we don't start working now, we will get caught flat-footed."

OVER THE COURSE of the next decade an estimated 17,000 defense workers and private contractors will leave leased office space in Ballston, Crystal City, Pentagon City and Rosslyn, and transfer to Fort Belvoir in southeastern Fairfax County, Fort Meade outside Baltimore and other military bases across the country.

Arlington will lose nearly 8 percent of its total workforce and almost 4.2 million square-feet of office space, including 30 percent of room in Crystal City, will be vacated.

Crystal City will likely feel the adverse effects of losing thousands of jobs in a short time period, but Terry Holzheimer, head of the Arlington Economic Development office, refers to BRAC as "serious but manageable."

Despite the forecasted loss of 17,000 jobs over a period of several years, county officials said they are optimistic about Arlington’s ability to rebound from the economic hit. BRAC presents an opportunity to restructure and diversify the county's economy and transform Crystal City into a more vibrant community that is not beholden to a single industry.

"A more diverse economic base will be a good thing in the future for Arlington and will result in a more resilient local economy," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.

Due to Crystal City’s prime location, safe environment and lower taxes and costs, board members said it would have little trouble attracting technology, retail and hospitality businesses.

"Despite BRAC, Arlington's assets haven't changed," said County Board member Jay Fisette, further citing Metro accessibility and proximity to Reagan National airport. "Crystal City offers the whole package."

THE TASK FORCE, which began meeting earlier this year, advised the board members to create a transition center in Crystal City to supply job placement assistance, retraining and career advice to small contractors and local entrepreneurs.

The retail and hospitality industries in Crystal City will likely experience economic fallout in the interim period, as customers who presently eat lunch or do their dry cleaning in the neighborhood move elsewhere.

Earlier this month the county established a Crystal City planning group to set guidelines for future development in the corridor. Their aim is to produce a recipe for growth that will encourage new construction, potentially transforming Crystal City's skyline.

To maintain Arlington’s economic viability, the committee’s report asserted that the federal governments should provide the county with the same degree of recovery assistance available to communities losing military bases.

The county is also seeking state money to relocate research agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, within Arlington, Chairman Zimmerman said.

What Crystal City desperately needs, the task force concluded, is a large meeting space for conferences that will serve as an epicenter of the neighborhood's activities. They suggested the county place a conference center there, if the current negotiations for one in nearby Pentagon City do not come to fruition.

"Where is the heart? Where is the big open space," asked Task Force Chair Almquist. "Either a conference center or performing arts center makes sense."

ALMQUIST'S QUESTIONS raise the central challenge the county faces: How to turn Crystal City from a staid office park into a lively neighborhood where people flock to restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues after 5 p.m.

"This is [the board's] opportunity to establish a Crystal City legacy and create something so vibrant and dynamic that has been lacking there," said Glen K. Davidson, a member of the task force.

New restaurants like Ted’s Montana Grill and Jaleo have infused the neighborhood with a sense of excitement, but the corridor has far to go before it reaches the vivacity of Clarendon or Shirlington.

"We're slowly creating a street environment with a two-way Crystal City Drive and higher quality restaurants," Zimmerman said.

The addition of the North Tract aquatic and athletic facility just to north of Crystal City — to be completed at the same time as defense agencies are leaving— will give Arlington a "competitive advantage" over other localities, County Manager Ron Carlee said.

"It will be one of the premier recreational opportunities anywhere in this region," he added.

County officials acknowledge that part of Crystal City's problem is that, fairly or unfairly, it is perceived as solely a business enclave sandwiched between the Pentagon and the airport.

"In the community in general the response we get is 'Crystal City is confusing. I don't know how to get there,'" Almquist said.

A new transportation system along Potomac Yards, as well as a planned streetcar network that runs from western Columbia Pike to the Pentagon, could help change that view and help attract new tenants.

Yet there is a great deal of uncertainty that looms over the entire BRAC process and complicates the county's efforts to line up new tenants.

It is highly likely that the first batch of expired leases, which will be up next year, will be renewed because the buildings the spaces those agencies are due to relocate to will not be ready.

"It's hard to implement a planning process with all the steps in play and when we don't have a definitive timeline," said County Board member Barbara Favola.