Alexandria has gotten knocked down, but is looking to get back up again in 2021.
In a report outlining the city’s response to the dire fiscal impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (ADEP) outlined the allocation of grant funding to businesses in the city. Beneath lingering concerns about the years it will likely take to return businesses to a pre-pandemic levels of vitality, the report outlined some of the major new tenants and changes coming to the city in the next year or two.
AEDP’s optimism for these new economic boosts for the city is also twinged with a touch of uncertainty for what the future of the city’s office usage looks like.
Potomac and North Old Town
One of the biggest changes is the new Institute for Defense Analyses Headquarters under construction at 730 E. Glebe Road near the Potomac Yard Metro station. The building will be a 370,000-square-foot office space, relocating the offices from the Mark Center in the West End to a larger, more accessible site.
“It’s one of the things that’s visible as you come into Potomac Yard,” said Stephanie Landrum, CEO of AEDP. “The other two office buildings were delivered over the course of the last year behind it and behind that is the Metro. The cluster of those things is starting to visibly tell the story of what Potomac Yard is morphing into.”
Landrum said Potomac Yard epitomizes the kind of living, breathing change that’s part of living in a growing city.
A little to the south, Landrum said there is a similar transformation taking place in Old Town North.
“In Old Town North, where there’s a pretty significant cluster of activity,” Landrum said. “We’re starting to see this really cool mix of reimagined buildings, like conversion of the Crowne Plaza and 801 N. Fairfax — where chamber of commerce used to be — and conversion of American Physical Therapy building; and that sort of investment combined with brand new — like Gables, The Muse, and the bus barn construction.”
Unlike Potomac Yard, where much of the old commercial space is being demolished to make way for the newer development, Landrum said development in North Old Town requires a more subtle touch.
“With Old Town North, it’s not plowing everything and starting over,” Landrum said. “It’s a patchwork of redoing existing and building new stuff. [When it’s finished] you will see architecture from the 1940s and from the 2020s. It’s a cool and interesting story.”
In the West End, the belle of the development ball has been Landmark Mall, where Inova is slated to anchor a large new mixed-use development with a relocation and expansion of its Alexandria hospital.
“All West end residents want is a central gathering place, a town center,” said Landrum. “Now, at Landmark, they will be able to replicate the same successful mix of uses [as Potomac]. What’s awesome about Landmark is having an economic driver in the hospital. There will be doctor’s offices and other health-related spin-off businesses that want to be in proximity.”
But Potomac Yard and Old Town are boosted by Metro accessibility that helps to make them regional destinations. Landmark doesn’t have that level of transit accessibility today, though development may benefit from the area’s close proximity to I-395.
Landrum said the city is currently working through plans of boosting transit accessibility to Landmark, though convincing Metro riders to hop from the train onto a bus is often a difficult prospect.
“The city is adding alternative modes of transportation,” Landrum said. “For bus rapid transit (BRT), there’s one in Potomac Yard that is still in its beginning stages of ridership. Before the pandemic, we started to see positive momentum there. For the West End, we’re hoping for a similar line to connect Van Dorn Metro to the Pentagon Metro. What we’re trying to do is provide people with as many options as possible.”
One of the advantages of the hospital is that it gives the surrounding developments what might cynically be called a captive audience.
“Honestly, that’s why landing Inova was critical,” Landrum said. “It’s a thing people figure out how to go to if they need to.”
But as things look up at Potomac Yard and Landmark, Carlyle stands as a warning for how quickly that new glitz can fade. On paper, Carlyle had everything Potomac Yard is getting: an accessible Metro station, multiple large anchor tenants, some extensive housing options. But in some ways it also had Crystal City-levels of lifelessness that even the opening of the National Science Foundation couldn’t wash away.
Landrum said the problem was that, at the outset, there wasn’t enough emphasis paid on giving people things to do there, or places that made it feel like a unique destination.
“In Carlyle, we’ve very committed to bringing people back,” Landrum said. “We’re looking at continuing to find ways of bringing people to Carlyle. It’s a beautiful place, clean and done really well, but it lacks character. The retail and restaurants that have opened there are trailblazers, there aren’t many of them. The ones there, locally-owned and unique, are helping to break through the sort of generic kind of feel.”
“What employers want to see is more use of the public space, like bringing in street vending and some of the more urban districts downtown,” Landrum said. “The kinds of things [Business Improvement Districts] do.”
As people venture back out into the world, Landrum said there’s potential for the Carlyle Community Council and the Eisenhower Partnership to take advantage of that — and the recent arts festival was a good start.
” It’s about finding more things like that to do in that space,” Landrum said. “It’s great. All the bones are there, now we just need to add a little more spark. From our perspective, it’s a top office space we promote.”
Future of Office Space
With Landrum emphasizing the new office space being developed at Potomac and Carlyle, the elephant in the room is: what if office space doesn’t come back into demand post-pandemic?
“How much office space [is needed], particularly the demand moving forward, is the big question that every urban place is trying to get the answer to,” Landrum said. “We have talked, over the course of the last month or so, with every major employer. ‘How do you return to the office? What do you think of it? Across various industries the overwhelming answer has been ‘we need to get back to in-person.'”
Landrum said that surveyed businesses have said that they believe staff are more productive when they work together and have face-to-face meetings, but the idea of forcing employees back into offices prematurely can be contentious: as Washingtonian CEO and President Cathy Merrill discovered when magazine staff refused to publish for a day after Merrill threatened the livelihoods of those at the magazine who opted to continue working from home.
“What they also agree on is: that doesn’t mean every person needs to come into the office, 9-5,” Landrum said. “[There’s] a hybrid approach, giving flexibility but also a reason to come into the office to work.”
Landrum said that means the culture of post-pandemic offices will rely more on making sure those working spaces are healthy and surrounded by restaurants and things to do to offer an incentive to come into the office. Successful offices will have to sell themselves on being part of a vibrant community.
For Landrum, this means building an infrastructure around new developments that’s more than just roads and transit options.
“We recognize that in order to attract more businesses to the city, they require a certain amount of infrastructure,” Landrum said. “For the first ten years on the job, I’d have told you infrastructure was good roads and transit. For the last few years, I would tell you it’s al about workforce. They want to make sure they can attract people who are diverse and have interesting credentials and can fill a variety of job descriptions.”
Those necessities also include places to live, and Landrum said part of preparing for new development is ensuring a housing stock that’s not just luxury apartments, but workforce housing as well.
“Economic development is more than just attracting and doing deals,” Landrum said. “It’s building mixed-use communities.”
Gradually, Landrum said interest is starting to come back, with new businesses starting to invest in office spaces in Alexandria as progress is made on attractions like the Potomac Yard Metro station and new amenities start to fill the gaps left by the pandemic last year.
In short: if you build it, they will come.
“We’re seeing proof of the overall vision,” Landrum said. “If you create really vibrant, interesting mixed-use communities, people will want to work there.”