Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Amazon awarded HQ2 to Northern Virginia’s “National Landing.” Locals know it as Crystal City. For neighborhood boosters, it’s a shot at a much-needed rebrand.
Amazon surprised almost no one last week when it announced that it would split its “HQ2” between two neighborhoods: New York’s Long Island City and Northern Virginia’s Crystal City. Or, make that Northern Virginia’s National Landing—a neighborhood that basically nobody in the Washington area had ever heard of before. That part, at least, raised some eyebrows.
National Landing, in essence, represents an aggressive rebranding campaign from Amazon and its new partners in Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia. The name was chosen by local economic groups and the area’s lead developer, JBG Smith, who have been working on creating an overarching brand for three existing neighborhoods: Crystal City, Pentagon City, and Potomac Yard. (To complicate things more, the “National Landing” brand is intended to encompass those three neighborhoods, but they’ll each retain their distinct names, too. So Amazon will be in both National Landing and Crystal City.)
For all the disdain and jokes it’s gotten, branding expert Geoff Cook thinks National Landing is here to stay. Such is the power of a tech behemoth.
“It meets the criteria that you have a very powerful critical mass behind it constantly using ‘National Landing’ in all of their communications and in everything they do,” said Cook, founding partner of the New York-based branding company Base Design, which works on neighborhood rebranding campaigns.
That critical mass will come from Amazon and its PR team, and from a good handful of the 25,000 employees that will come from outside the region. It will come from the name’s creators, who came up with the name to “erase the jurisdictional lines“ among the three existing neighborhoods in Northern Virginia. It will likely come from local business owners who are eager to embrace the change. That’s not to mention the onslaught of media attention that’s more or less put the region on the national map as National Landing.
Rebranding a city or neighborhood to make it trendier is a tricky business, and more efforts fail than succeed. The name itself is tied to an identity that people build around their neighborhoods, says Claudia Coulton, the founding director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University. “The naming of neighborhoods sometimes can change gradually, but there are situations when an external event results in a fast or overwhelming change that people don’t feel that they have control over,” she said. That’s when it becomes contentious, as old-timers see it as an encroachment of their cultural identity.
In Washington, D.C., for example, a neighborhood group’s push to rename a thriving commercial part of the already well-defined Adams Morgan neighborhood as “SoMo,” mimicking a New York City neighborhood naming convention that’s has spread across the country, became the subject of ridicule by Washingtonians. And you’re unlikely to recognize the southern part of NYC’s Harlem neighborhood as SoHa, a moniker that not only received backlash from longtime residents but also spurred a state senate bill that would prohibit real estate companies from renaming traditionally recognized neighborhoods without consulting the community first.
Whether a new name takes hold, Coulton said, in part depends on how different social networks within an area organize to support or oppose it, and their relative sizes. She called the push for National Landing, with the backing of a giant like Amazon, a unique event compared to past efforts.
In general, real estate developers and local officials rename neighborhoods for three main reasons, Cook says: to bring in business and financial investment, to encourage tourism, and to foster civic pride. If you measure success that way, the team behind National Landing can look for inspiration just a few miles away, in the D.C. neighborhood known as NoMa, short for “North of Massachusetts Avenue.” The name first appeared in the 1990s, followed by the creation of the NoMa Business Improvement District in the 2000s.* In 2011, D.C.'s transit officials renamed the New York Ave. metro stop to NoMa, cementing the neighborhood’s new moniker. The area itself has gone from being mostly empty lots or warehouses to having trendy coffee shops, luxury high-rise apartment buildings, and retail. All in all, the reimagining of that area came with $120 million in public and private investments.
In other places, it’s not just about the name. To really create a brand around it, some neighborhoods call in experts like Cook. In 2015, his firm led a massive—and largely successful—campaign to rebrand New York City’s Meatpacking District in a way that highlighted its transformation from gritty to fashion-forward, but still reflected the locals’ pride of its history (and, it should be noted, retained the neighborhood’s name). “There was a fondness for the past, but an equal appreciation for everything that has come and will come,” Cook said, “from nightlife to a district that houses fashion, culture, technology, and hospitality.”
The National Landing brand may have staying power because of the dearth of civic pride around that area today, at least in Crystal City, where Amazon’s headquarters will be and where much of the transformation will happen. “There hasn’t been that sort of historical identification of residence,” Coulton said. “It was never a cultural entity.” In fact, when the Washington Post interviewed local business owners about Amazon’s move, one longtime owner of a local strip club told the paper, “Whatever Jeff Bezos wants is fine with me.”
And when I asked Cook what he thinks of when he hears Crystal City, he replied: “Corporate.” It’s not hard to see why: Currently, the neighborhood is known for its quiet nights, and abundance of beige buildings erected for a workforce that has largely left the area, leaving 2 million of the 10 million square feet of office space empty.
In contrast, renderings from JBG Smith paint Crystal City as a trendy place you might actually want to put on a postcard: sleek glass towers that light up the skyline and overlook vibrant plazas and bustling retail centers. JBG Smith also plans to build at least 750 multifamily residential units in anticipation of Amazon’s move next year, according to its website.
It’s the kind of vibe Crystal City Business Improvement District has always wanted for the neighborhood, which is why CCBID president and executive director Tracy Gabriel called Amazon’s move a tremendous win. “It’s is going to help accelerate the transformation already underway and reinforce our effort to create a vibrant city center and a mix-used urban neighborhood,” she said. Already, it’s been making Crystal City a tech and innovation hub, acquiring a handful of startups, accelerators, and nonprofits, as well as Lyft’s regional headquarters.
“Branding is all about perception,” Cook said, “and the name is a starting point as to what one wants that perception to be.” He calls the name National Landing a smart move in that it allows Amazon to expand its investment to an entire area. In fact, “I, being from New York City, immediately associate National Landing with Washington, D.C.—overnight,” he said. “If you are perceived as being linked to Washington, D.C., as opposed to a lesser known city, then that perception [makes the region] more inclined to lure top talent.”
Whether Crystal City will become just another Amazon city remains to be seen. Gabriel emphasizes that each neighborhood of National Landing will retain its distinct character, and that name is not intended to replace “Crystal City.” But she also noted that keeping the neighborhood’s distinctness will be “a balancing act” going forward.
If all goes as planned, officials and Amazon are betting on National Landing to scream “cool and contemporary”—drowning out the grumbling of dissatisfied locals on Twitter. “National Landing,” as one of DCist’s slogan suggestions reads, “Who Says You Can’t Force A Nickname?”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the origin of the name NoMa.