Thursday, October 26, 2023

Baltimore could have had this

What could have been

Even on this grey fall afternoon, they stood out as new and shiny among the somewhat tired looking neighbors: Two new office towers, over 300' tall,  a million square feet each, with fifty thousand square feet of first floor retail and a pre-school backstopped by a 1.2 care park designed by Field Operations,  Opened early this year, this explosion of new office space in a time of international office malaise and vacancy is like a small miracle. As we will see in a moment, all this could have been in Port Covington, where some forlorn new office buildings face their own uncertain future. Instead, the project rose in Crystal City. What is Crystal City like?

Merlin and Jasper (Photo: ZGF website)

Crystal City

It is an office satellite with Metro access located in Arlington County, across the Potomac from the District of Columbia. Not bound by the height restrictions and the many bureaucratic hurdles of the nation's capital, Crystal City began to flourish as an office monoculture right around the time when the DC Metro system opened. Unlike several other Arlington County subway stops, this one wasn't conceived as a mixed use transit oriented development. Instead, the place was fueled by the nearby Pentagon. More Gunpowder Hill than Silicon Valley. 

The U.S. Patent Office and the Institute of Defense Analysis established offices in Crystal City in the late 1960s. The Crystal City Metro Station opened in July 1977 and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) station opened a few years later. Millions of square feet of mixed-use development have been built to date, making this region a primary activity center. (County website)
Crystal City and Pentagon City are mashed together, the latter another Metro stop, a mall and shopping mall. 
Piling it on in Crystal City, dense but not
beautiful (Photo: Philipsen)

[in 1976] the County Board approved the Pentagon City Phased Development Site Plan (PDSP) to provide for mixed-use development focused around the Pentagon City Metro Station. The plan included: more than 1.5 million square feet of office/commercial space; 1,600 hotel rooms; 5,450 dwelling units including a nursing and retirement home; open space and regional shopping facilities.
When the base realignment BRAC rolled around in 2006 the Baltimore region was the winner (Fort Meade was slated for growth) and Arlington County lost steam.  Many defense oriented contractors and firms left. 

The pandemic, the new trend of working from home that leaves so much office space unoccupied and the growing online shopping didn't bode well either for these two office and airport hotel burgs on the Potomac, no matter that they feature several condo towers from which one one can see the National Mall and watch the airplanes land at the nearby National Airport. The twin conglomerates are not exactly known as the pinnacle of hipness. Most people know them from looking right when they get stuck on Route 1 on their way into DC. x for a hotel near the airport. There are 4600 rooms to chose from. 
Child-friendly: Playground and pre-school
(Photo: Philipsen)

But then two miracles happened and the cluster now re-baptized as National Landing became the envy of the nation. First in 2018 it became the winner the of a national competition that included 238 US cities and was called the  "Hunger Games" by Wired Magazine and then in 2022 some of the defense glory came back wit Boeing declaring that it moved its headquarters here from Chicago.


Baltimore was one of the contestants in the "Hunger Games that had promised 50,000 jobs. With Port Covington Baltimore offered what seemed a very plausible location. The reader will have guessed by now that we are talking about Amazon HQ2, the corporate plum that made mayors salivate all across North America. In a true Cinderella story, Arlington County and the State of Virginia landed the winning bid, in spite of their comparatively puny half  billion dollars of incentives. Baltimore was so soundly rejected that as the only large East Coast City it didn't even make it into the final round.

"The HQ2 project will be — in the right place — an opportunity for true urban revitalization and community invigoration. Establishing its headquarters in Baltimore, a majority African American city, is a public statement of Amazon's investment in diversity and inclusion," (Baltimore Pitch)

Two questions arise: 1. What did Crystal City have that Baltimore didn't and 2. how do things in Crystal City look five years later? Let's begin with the second question.

So how did things turn out for Crystal City?

For starters, Arlington County had to split the Amazon bonanza with Queens, New York. Then Amazon canceled the New York portion of the deal and began building slightly over 2 million square feet as phase 1 in the area now rebranded as "National Landing". For comparison, the full build out of HarborPoint in Baltimore foresees about 3 million square feet of development. As of now only 8000 employees work in the two buildings that are now completed and could accommodate about 14,000 workers. Phase 2 of the the Amazon development, the double helix is on pause for the time being. Surprisingly, Arlington has not yet paid any of the incentive money which it had wisely tied to the improvements Amazon had promised and the State had not yet paid anything either as of March of this year.

A new name is not yet a new "city"

The two 22 story 300' tall office buildings (Merlin and Jasper) together form what is called MetPark. The footprint could easily have fit into Port Covington which already features similar structures, although not quite as fancy. On first blush the two buildings look like Siamese twins except that the local fire department cut the connection of the two third level roof decks about the two lobbies. 

The buildings are quite green: They are scheduled to receive LEED Platinum certification for rainwater recycling, operable windows on all floors, bicycle parking, plenty of EV charging stations, some mass timber construction and a massive off site solar farm that is offsetting the large electric load the fully electrified building generates. Only the restaurants on the first floor refused to entirely get rid of gas and continue to use gas stoves in their commercial kitchens. 

The campus features everything a techie would want: A bike store, cool restaurants. Wide sidewalks with lush plantings, and protected bike lanes up front, a child care center with a beautiful outdoor space and even a dog park. (Even Amazon's offices are said to be dog friendly). The refurbished Metro Park on top of the garage was designed by Field Operations, the company which designed the Highland in NY and is also working on the Middle Branch masterplan realization. 

Amazon states on its own HQ2 website that it "made more than $161 million in donations and cash grants to local nonprofits and charitable organizations, and created over 2.5 acres of public park space." The offices don't look as futuristic as Apple's donut HQ but reflect the fact that office workers want experience and that could office buildings should be good urban neighbors. Access to the office cubicles

Generous sidewalks and planters designed by Field Operations
(Photo: Philipsen)
that few are allowed to visit  begins on the second floor of each tower with a three-story zone that Amazon calls “Center of Energy”. This "distribution level" is conceived as a gathering and communication space for the workforce. The general public, meanwhile is allowed to enter the two main lobbies which are oriented to the park and towards each other and not the street. This allows maximal retail frontage along the front. There is also a 700-person event space constructed with glulam beams. It is open for public use by the local community. The buildings were designed by ZGF Architects, the interior design was created by Gensler Architects.

In spite of these many attractive results, it is sobering to see, that  five years after the decision, only less than 25% of the promised HQ2 jobs have actually realized and some would say that phase 2 is not certain. 

Should Baltimore mourn the loss? Port Covington continues to develop, the loss of Amazon, the shrinking Under Armour HQ and a dead office market notwithstanding. For a while people wondered why Baltimore didn't even make the shortlist, then moved on. Everyone had their favorite explanation from crime to schools and from lacking transit to a lack of a well trained workforce.  Baltimore's chief business attractor, Bill Cole of BDC hinted that the last reason may have been the decisive factor. 

2.5 acres of park in the back.
(Photo Lucas Jensen/Amazon)
"What we have heard repeatedly from them both in our exit call is that they are looking for a place that is tech-talent ready to go on day one. What they said was, 'You need to keep doing what you are doing to grow tech talent, focusing on STEM education, keep working with Johns Hopkins (University) to endure. You have tech talent in the region." Bill Cole, BDC

The lack of incentives couldn't have been it, even though it wasn't made public what they would have been. But Montgomery County, also vying for HQ2 made the cut either, in spite of $5 billion in incentives that Governor Hogan had put into the mix.  Who knows if Hogan's incentives would have been couched as cleverly as Virginia's which didn't have to pay up yet due to the metrics not yet having been met. Baltimore's assumption that Amazon's diversity problem and Baltimore's equity problem would find enough overlap was certainly wrong. ESG or not, if push comes to shove, a corporation will pick the white affluent well trained area over a poor, majority black city any day.

Access for all: The lobby (Photo: Philipsen)

There probably many lessons to learn from the HQ2 process. One is that it doesn't pay to participate in a game of "who can throw the most money after a profitable tech company". 

Amazon wouldn't have solved Baltimore's problem, nor does it solve Crystal City's lack of urbanity. For being a real and authentic city with an attractive quality of life, there is no silver bullet, no substitute for persistent and steady work.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also my articles about the City after the office on my compendium blog. 

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