Full skyscrapers, looming over empty streets.

Those of us who identify as urbanophilic—to which I include myself a great deal of the time—have long bemoaned the lack of density afflicting many of our American urban centers, which impedes these places from achieving not just the level of on-the-street liveliness heralded by Jane Jacobs—the first great autodidact urbanophile—but their basic capacity to deliver fundamental services to their municipal constituents. Needless to say, a low-density city has fewer people per square mile and, therefore, a smaller population spread over its jurisdiction, which, in turn, nearly always equates to a higher cost per person to provide the fundamentals: trash pick-up, mass transit, road resurfacing, adequate streetlights, park maintenance, et cetera. Consequently, the lowest density cities often suffer from the lowest capacity to provide good public services, because such services impose a far greater cost burden to a smaller population spread over a great land area. While many low-density cities can remain prosperous with weaker services while still satisfying their constituents’ modest expectations, their executives and legislators will find it much harder to change these conditions if the demand for services increases without a concomitant, hefty tax increase.

In short, cities should be dense—or, at the very least, denser than their purlieus. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to assert that density is the most powerful, fundamental characteristic distinguishing urban areas. With few exceptions—Detroit comes to mind—even the lowest density metropolitan areas tend to have denser cores than the periphery.

Fortunately, in many larger and medium-sized American cities, the public sector’s recognition of the importance of high population density has collided with a renewed public taste for dense living. In other words, many cities that experienced long-term population declines through much of the 20th century have started to rebound, with most of this growth transpiring in the cities’ downtowns and the immediate surrounding neighborhoods. Places like Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Haven and Richmond have begun to reverse their staggering population losses, and, while in many cities the recovery remains relegated to a handful of old neighborhoods in or near the center, the return shows little sign of abating. And, as a result, in many respects, the sort of bustle we ascribe to cities during the early 1900s is starting to return, though obviously commingled with contemporary cadences, like cars.

But does density correlate to vitality—the streetscape activity that contributes significantly to urbanism’s allure? The visual evidence out there would suggest a measured answer: not necessarily. Just take a look at the Newport neighborhood in Jersey City: built on former rail yards in the 1980s, it offers one residential skyscraper after another, with a population density in the immediate area on par with much of Manhattan. But, as I blogged about a few years ago, the streets remain sleepy outside of select little bursts at the beginning and end of the work day. And on the weekends, Newport is a high-rise cemetery. No pedestrians or life at the street level, despite thousands of people living in the rarefied space above us.

The same could be said for many neighborhoods in Arlington County, Virginia, which claims a similar spillover function to Washington DC, comparable to Jersey City’s proximity to New York City. Crystal City, the neighborhood of Arlington immediately south of the Interstate 395 bridge into Washington DC (and just south of The Pentagon), has hosted office and residential high-rises for decades, thanks to its strategic location, and their presence continues to grow, no doubt amplified by the insatiable public demand for rental units in this intensely transient metropolitan area. U.S. Route 1 serves as the arterial for Crystal City, and, for over a mile, the general landscape looks consistently like this snapshot provided by Google Street View.  Tall buildings everywhere. And the apartments and condos keep coming, sprouting southward and key points along Route 1 and Virginia’s WMATA (Metro subway) stops, granting the residents of these goliaths unprecedented access to the heart of the Washington central business district and the National Mall. In more recent years, the high-intensity development has continued into Potomac Yard, the next neighborhood south of Crystal City, for which Route 1 also serves as its spine.

But high density and mixed use do not guarantee a thriving streetscape, as proven by a fairly new edifice near the boundary between Crystal City and Potomac Yard.

Crystal City mixed use

The featured building stands to the left/background in the photo above, while the sign on the right advertises all the retail offerings that occupy it. In an area with lower real estate values, everything captured on that sign would probably constitute a large strip mall, offset from the highway by an expansive parking lot. You know the look: completely unfriendly to pedestrians. But in Crystal City/Potomac Yard, the stores rest underneath at least five stories of residences, and an underground garage hosts all the parking. Among these many shops, the grocery store Harris Teeter serves as the anchor tenant.

A superficial survey of Market Square at Potomac Yard would suggest it abides by all the typologies of an urban edifice. It offers density, a mix of uses, carefully shielded underground parking, and even some attractive, landscaped exterior plazas.IMG_7505But where are all the people? I took these photos at close to noon on a Saturday, so no one can blame the deserted character on bad timing. It was a beautiful June day. Lots of people shop for groceries on Saturday, so Harris Teeter should have throngs of pedestrians milling about the entrance, right? A stroll around the perimeter of this building reveals the problem.IMG_7503To the right in the photo above is the side of the building directly facing U.S. Route 1, the highway from which Harris Teeter would get most of its visibility from passers-by. It’s a surging six- and eight-lane arterial, engineered for vehicles to move at speeds uncharacteristic to an urban environment. So that’s part of the problem. But the density of housing doesn’t seem to spill out onto the sidewalks either. Let’s take a look at the opposite side of the street.IMG_7504IMG_7510IMG_7511Nothing but car dealerships. While other portions of Crystal City benefit from high-density buildings on both sides of Route 1, down here near Potomac Yard, real estate pressures have not yet scared away all the low-intensity uses. (I suspect that, thirty years ago, the majority of Route 1 hosted dealerships. Granted, the dealership in question is Porsche, so it speaks favorably of the income density in Arlington County.)

Thus far, Market Square at Potomac Yard only benefits from population density on one side of the street—a street that doesn’t encourage pedestrianism in most respects, beyond the presence of a sidewalk. But could pedestrians walk up to the Harris Teeter if they wanted to? Let’s return to the building’s perimeter.

IMG_7508

Those green awnings with the Harris Teeter logo directly above would typically offer visual cues to an entrance. But, so far, nothing.

IMG_7506

IMG_7509The awnings are a ruse—nothing more than a decorative feature to instill warmth and three-dimensionality to a flat façade. They offer shade to shrubbery. Not useful at all. So, are there any openings on the side of the building facing the highway? Nope—just an employee entrance, or a fire exit.IMG_7512At the corner of the building, we encounter a desire trail up a modest slope to the back of the development, where a courtyard cleaves Market Square into two nearly identical buildings.Crystal City apartment buildingIMG_7515IMG_7516

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At the courtyard, we see the entrances to some of the other commercial offerings, but still nothing for the Harris Teeter. Finally, pivoting around the corner to the final side, AT LAST there’s an entrance…

Crystal City Harris Teeter

…an entrance to the parking garage. This is how you have to get in to the development to access the grocery store.IMG_7521IMG_7523IMG_7524At least there’s a sidewalk adjacent to the vehicular ramp leading toward the ticket gate. And finally, turning the corner, we encounter the Harris Teeter entrance.IMG_7526_editsBut there you have it: the only way for a pedestrian to enter the Harris Teeter is via the ramp in the parking garage. Not a single door from the outside.

It appears the developers recognized three common characteristics to human behavior, manifest through their design of Market Square at Potomac Yard. Number 1: people don’t walk to grocery stores if they can help it; most shop with full hands, and, outside of old ladies in Manhattan, the appeal of wheeling around a mesh grocery cart has proven quite limited. Number 2: the real source of the density to the area—the residences above—will only need to hop on an elevator to get to their Harris Teeter. No front door needed. Number 3: Crystal City and Potomac Yard are only facsimiles of urbanism in terms of persons per square mile. From an urban design perspective, the scale of the streetscapes, the positioning of the buildings, the flow of traffic along the streets—none of it really duplicates the walkable feel of a commercial strip, like the U Street corridor in Washington DC, and certainly not anything we’d encounter in Manhattan, Boston or even Baltimore.

The lesson this teaches us urbanophiles—again—is that density, though a sine qua non to thriving urban landscapes, isn’t the only ingredient. And it’s certainly not the ingredient that requires the most care and cultivation. Getting high density is relatively easy, pending zoning regulations and general community approvals (the latter of which can prove to be a real beast). The sensitive, nuanced arrangement of windows, entrances, plazas, parking ramps, and even awnings is something much trickier—something that neither the real estate developers nor the team at The Kroger Company (the grocery conglomerate that owns Harris Teeter) really considered, not necessarily out of hostility to pedestrians, but because they knew it wouldn’t matter in the long run…at least not in this part of Arlington County.

Crystal City is a concatenation of mega-structures along a superhighway, not that different from most of the urbanism in Dubai, another city of countless skyscrapers but barely any real street life. It’s Virginia’s answer to Newport in Jersey City. So it’s dense, it’s fueled by transit, it’s close to a city center, and its inhabitants can walk to most of the shopping they’d need. But urban it ain’t. Well, you can’t win them all. At least the city of Washington DC has its share of mega-structures with grocery stores at the street level. And in our nation’s capital, you can walk right in the front door from the sidewalk.

8 thoughts on “Full skyscrapers, looming over empty streets.

  1. Chris B

    This is “Nurbanism”, one step beyond New Urbanism/suburbanism’s “hide the parking”. It’s “hide the front door”. An Indy example is O’Marsh Lockerbie: inaccessible from either street frontage along the building. It’s only accessible from the interior “parking court”.

    I am reminded of my first visit to Atlanta, in the 90s a year or two after the Olympics. The airport hotel shuttle pulled into “porte cochere” after “porte cochere” downtown. (Air quotes, because the entries were uniformly the cutaway corner of the first floor of the downtown mega-brand hotels, and it was difficult to tell which brand.) Of course that’s where the “main” entrances were, but just to the elevator/bellman lobby. It was set up like Harris Teeter in your story: everyone will come and go by motor vehicle.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks, Chris, I definitely thought of the O’Marsh Lockerbie in Indy when I was searching for this entrance. But at least that’s an original structure that was subtly retrofitted to the modern, auto-oriented era. And, should a new buyer take over the O’Marsh (O’Kroger?) it wouldn’t involve many exterior changes to return to the entrances fronting Alabama Street. In this Crystal City case, I’m not sure what they’d be able to do, since the Harris Teeter is underground along with the parking. I guess they’d upgrade a fire exit, perhaps.

      It’s a logical (albeit somewhat lazy) response to a more deep-seated trend: despite the pedestrian friendliness of the districts themselves, most people are still getting to these areas–DT Indy, DT Atlanta, Crystal City–via car.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Word today is that the store lease was acquired by a group that is buying up cast-off stores in western Ohio and eastern Indiana and is unlikely to invest much in them. Sort of Sun Capital lite. The partnership that owns the building has objected to the buyer’s assumption of the lease because they did not submit any financials or financing plans.

        WRT “front door”, any grocery has a fairly substantial internal “front end” that has to be oriented to the single point of ingress/egress. O’Marsh does have an attractive pedestrian “court” off the Alabama St. side that perhaps could be converted into a more-protected walkway to the front door.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the O’Malia’s O’Marsh will open itself to Alabama Street under ownership changes. Clearly grocery stores need all their ingress/egress to remain concentrated along once side, where the checkout lanes get clustered. And I agree that the O’Malia’s entrance could be far worse.

          The only thing that might spawn a complete reconfiguration of the interior of that grocery store would be a radical change to the physicality of the entire block: i.e., if the parking in the back were to get developed into a multi-story building that prompts outsiders to enter from a different direction. Even then, it probably wouldn’t change things.

          Reply
  2. Brian M

    Excellent caveats here. Is this the inevitable reality of suburban (even dense) suburban America. How far should we go to encourage???? force???? amore pedestrian friendly environment?

    I am writing a zoning ordinance at the moment that is a “hybrid” form based/conventional zone, and this is illustrative of the problem for zoning and design standards for the transformation of a traditional old strip commercial area.

    Of course, the width and speed of the “stroad” is the big problem, here, but given the necessary traffic volumes, reducing or traffic calming may be difficult.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Indeed, Brian, you tap into the yin to my blog article’s yang. (Also mentioned in my response to Chris.) As walkable as these areas might be, how much does it matter when, fundamentally, over 95% of people arrive to the areas from outside via personal cars? Few grocery stores in urban districts would be able to sustain themselves exclusively by the residences above them and within a quarter-mile away (the distance most people are willing to walk).

      The problem is tantamount to the issues faced in greenfield-based New Urbanist developments that are unable to support much retail, because they’re too closed off to the outside world (i.e., not visible to drivers along high-traffic roads ) and the residents themselves aren’t enough quantity to sustain good consistent business.

      Reply
  3. dan reed

    this isn’t the only story in Arlington! Crystal City has some serious failings, but go to Clarendon or anywhere along the Orange and Silver lines and you can see urbanism (new and old) that works as well as anything you’d see in DC. It’s for good reason that Clarendon Boulevard was named one of APA’s Great Streets in America in 2008.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the message, Dan. You are absolutely right that Arlington County has far better examples of well-designed buildings that accommodate pedestrians. Heck, even Crystal City has better examples…including some that are a decade or two older than this one. I guess this particular development came as a surprise because I know that it’s still fairly new–the actual building is called The Eclipse and was completed in 2007 http://www.highrises.com/washington/eclipse-on-center-park-condos/ . And I only discovered that there was no pedestrian entrance while I was walking the perimeter of the building, looking for one (and taking these photos). Surely they could have made at least one or two concessions for pedestrians?

      I’d agree that much of Arlington County has more smartly designed buildings and streetscapes. I quietly blogged about this not so long ago, making note of how a drive-thru bank near the Clarendon metro stop was the last vestige of an auto-oriented development; everything else around it had translated to a higher and better use: mixed, multi-story buildings, with offices, apartments or condos built above street-level retail. http://dirtamericana.com/2017/02/orange-line-property-banking-value/

      Reply

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