National Landing — the Northern Virginia neighborhood carved out for Amazon's second headquarters (HQ2) — has been been on the receiving end of major investments and media attention in recent months.
Amazon recently unveiled its $2.5 billion construction plan for its four towers and surrounding amenities in the area, notably featuring a centerpiece 350-foot glass helix structure decorated with local trees and foliage.
The National Landing Business Improvement District (BID) also recently showcased its $4 billion worth of transit projects designed to help the area become "America's most connected downtown." The plans include new stations in the Washington region's Metrorail system, a pedestrian walkway that connects to the nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a two-track rail bridge and more.
Amazon has also recently made significant investments to preserve local housing equity. The company committed $381.9 million in below-market grants and loans to build and preserve over 1,300 affordable homes in Arlington, VA, where National Landing is located.
As the area continues to undergo numerous transformations in its construction, housing and transit sectors, Smart Cities Dive caught up National Landing BID's President and Executive Director Tracy Sayegh Gabriel to learn how the group plans to incorporate sustainability, equity and walkability into its plans for local growth and "people-centric" development.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: How is walkability being incorporated into the National Landing BID?
TRACY SAYEGH GABRIEL: In National Landing, we are benefiting from being a rapidly evolving area that is enabling us to be a story of sustainability, equity, innovation and reinvention. And this is really because we have a significant amount of investment, to the tune of $8 billion in private investment, which gives us the opportunity to shape the area in ways that creates a more compelling, sustainable and inclusive future.
A big part of the role of National Landing — as it is with so many urban centers — is accommodating growth. And for a place like National Landing, it came of age at a time where it was about drivable density, about car-centric design. And so with investment, it is a major opportunity to reposition the area and our legacy infrastructure to be people-centric, and have animated streetscapes.
We are realizing this in terms of walkability through repositioned buildings and new construction that delivers on activated streetscapes. We are doing it through art on buildings and in place-making. It makes it more fun and delightful to walk through our areas... and really begin to shrink the gap and create an on-street environment that allows for a multiplicity of modes, but really also put people first.
What do those activated streetscapes entail?
GABRIEL: We have an infrastructure and urban design that came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s, which was really more internalized in its relationship to the streets. So we have a legacy of internalized retail, retaining walls [and] monotonous designs. What we're seeing with new development is the opportunity to really focus on the first 20 feet of the building frontage — vertically speaking — to really create an active and engaging environment with new storefronts, attractive street furniture, great street trees and maybe even biophilic design along our streets.
And when we think activated streets, we also think streets that are attractive for different modes, whether it's bikes or scooters... there's such a connection between street design, building design, the creation of ground floor amenities and the experience of walkability.
Speaking of some of those more active modes of transportation, pedestrian and cyclist safety have seen new risks during the pandemic due to drivers traveling at faster speeds. What are the area plans to account for pedestrian and cyclist safety?
GABRIEL: We are a cyclist community sitting right on one of the regional networks' great trail systems that enable people to bike in and out of our district [and] to places far off in our region through the Mount Vernon Trail. Making sure that we equally pay attention to our bike network in the area is so crucial and important.
One of our great challenges is that we have a highway that runs through our district. From our perspective at the BID, we've been focused on advocating for turning that highway that is elevated in portions into an urban boulevard with a people-centric design. And we really believe that's what can stitch together our neighborhood and create the level of pedestrian safety and connectivity that is what residents, visitors, and people who work in the area really demand of their neighborhoods' ability to be able to safely and comfortably walk throughout the district.
Amazon is expected to bring 25,000 jobs to National Landing by 2030. Typically, that would also mean the construction of a lot more parking spaces in the area as well. Is the National Landing BID taking a different approach to parking due to its goal to become a more walkable destination?
GABRIEL: In the area, we are sitting on an airport, we've got multiple Metro stations... [and] a bike trail system. It's this wealth of transportation options that is really driving some of the growth and interest from employers.
But the thing that's most exciting to us is that we're not resting on those great transportation modes. But what we're actually advocating for and seeing is a $4 billion portfolio of transportation investments that are going to deliver a next generation of mobility for our area.
Right now, we're over-parked. We originally built during a period that prized the automobile, but we were also fortunate enough to grow into a Metro system, and a number of other modes opened up possibilities for growth and development that are truly sustainable.
What we're seeing with new development is a ticking down of parking requirements. So we are focused on being a transit-oriented community, a multimodal community. The future is not cars. The future is multiple modes, and that's why our area is doubling down on transportation, even when a lot of communities are turning their backs on it at the moment.
And what role will green space play to promote walkability?
GABRIEL: One of the things that makes our area so well-positioned for growth is the commensurate investments in parks and open space that make it not just about the quality of development, but the quality of life that can be yielded through growth.
One of the things that's happening in conjunction with new development is invigorating those park spaces that might be background spaces now to be in the foreground with beautiful biophilic design. What we've been very focused on is the creation of a green network, a series of open spaces that give you opportunities to walk through our district, to enjoy a sense of nature in the city and also add to the overall connectivity, and the delight and walking through the area.
If you look at the helix design that Amazon recently unveiled... A really exciting component of that project is that deep commitment to sustainability, but also the biophilic design and the blending of indoor [and] outdoor. And that same language of "trees" and "lushness" is something we are looking to bring to all aspects of the district, including at the street level. Much of that will be realized through new development as we incrementally change the on-street environment with street trees and invigorated landscapes.
Amazon's entrance to the area hasn't been fully welcomed from the start, and has received some backlash over affordability concerns. How are you planning to foster equity in the area, and what do you anticipate might be some of the biggest obstacles to making that happen?
GABRIEL: With great opportunity comes great responsibility. We're fortunate that with the scale of investment they have, we do have the opportunity to build an inclusive future for for our district. [We] are setting out to ensure that our whole entire community can benefit from development and from change.
We're also fortunate that affordable housing is an essential component to growing an inclusive community and we have seen incremental improvements on our affordable housing, but it was really a game-changer when Amazon announced their $2 billion dollar equity fund and the Washington Housing Conservancy investments. We were their initial investment for that fund with Crystal House. And the scale of that [investment] with 600-plus affordable units enables us to make significant in-roads into building the kind of community we're looking to build.