This year’s Artomatic—the irregularly-scheduled, low-barrier orgy of creativity that’s taken over several empty buildings since its inception in 2000—feels vaguely post-apocalyptic. Wandering through the cubes and hallways of a recently vacated office block in Crystal City is disorienting; one can sense the presence of the Defense Department workers who once filled them. Life-size marshmallow Peeps, floor-to-ceiling splatter paintings, and artful piles of detritus seem to mock their memory.

Previous Artomatics have recently* taken place in brand-new buildings. If this one has a morbid pall, it’s because when the artists leave, their playground will be demolished.

The situation of 1851 S. Bell St., while extreme, mimics the quasi-urban district it inhabits. Crystal City itself has an antiquated, inhuman layout, with buildings jumbled between two barely passable boulevards. The structures give little consideration to how you might walk between them, creating dead ends and featureless canyons. That’s because you’re not supposed to walk outside at all: A network of underground tunnels connects hotels to offices, apartment buildings, garages, and the Metro.

To liven things up, the Crystal City Business Improvement District tried a macro version of Artomatic, decorating the most putty-hued expanses with abstract, inoffensive miasmas of color. Columns under the freeway are painted red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The tunnels are now lined with blown-up photographs of outdoor scenes, allowing passerby to pretend they’re not scurrying around underground.

But Crystal City is struggling with more than just outdated buildings. The Artomatic site is the epicenter of a mass exodus. In 2005, the military’s Base Realignment and Closure process laid out a strategy for reshuffling personnel onto existing bases, leaving whole floors empty across Northern Virginia—and especially Crystal City, which had grown up to serve the ancillary businesses and agencies that didn’t fit in the Pentagon across the highway. The city is only about halfway through losing 13,000 of the 23,000 jobs it had in 2005, and there’s no way for landlords to lease those spaces back fast enough to avoid a marked feeling of emptiness, which hurts other small businesses.

“They used to pour across the highway,” Freddie Lutz says of the displaced office workers. He’s owned a sports bar on 23rd Street for 11 years, but has considered moving since losing most of his lunch business. “I don’t know, I just don’t see those spaces filling up.”

But this was a great time for Crystal City to lose half of its tenant base. The town, a relic of late-1960s non-planning, needed to be knocked down and built anew. BRAC, as painful as it’s been in the short term, is pretty much the only thing that could have allowed that to happen.

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Since its inception, Crystal City has been a company town. In the 1960s, developer Charles E. Smith started putting up high-rises over a bunch of railyards with little attention to how they fit together. Like most company towns, it wasn’t a very interesting place.

“My vision of Crystal City when I was a kid was that it was a concrete wasteland,” says Harmar Thompson, a senior vice president with Lowe Enterprises, which owns a couple buildings there now. “Like, why would you want to go there?”

Half a century later, the city’s monolithic ownership—Vornado, which merged with Charles E. Smith, still owns 7.4 million of the 11.3 million square feet of office space—has turned into an advantage. Faced with the prospect of losing a huge chunk of its tenant base, the company threw itself behind a master planning process that in 2010 produced a sweeping and detailed vision for the long, skinny town. Since it owns many of the “public” spaces, and owns enough properties to strategically place tenants so that some can be redeveloped, Vornado is able to execute.

The plan imagines a dramatic transformation: A 60 percent increase in density with three times the number of residents and 650,000 square feet of new retail; thirty-five new buildings over 30 years; a large central green space programmed like Manhattan’s Bryant Park; a streetcar that connects to the rest of Arlington.

Is all of that achievable?

The retail part will be difficult. It’s possible—the gradual disappearance of defense-oriented tenants, who thought ground floor retail made them vulnerable to truck bombs, means landlords can put businesses on the street. Vornado’s already started, with a new row of restaurant spaces on Crystal Drive.

But it’s almost exclusively restaurants. Service retailers, like drycleaners and nail salons, are inside the tunnels, which residents of the buildings above said during the planning process they liked and wanted to keep. “It’s almost an affectation of 1960s planning,” says Terry Holzheimer, Arlington’s chief of economic development. “And yet people love it.”

Meanwhile, all the big chains have stores in malls at Pentagon City and Tysons Corner, and don’t need to open competitors a half mile away. A Safeway closed in 2005, forcing Crystal Citizens to walk south to Potomac Yards’ Harris Teeter for groceries. Nobody seems to have an answer for what, if anything, will fill that gap.

“In the longer term, I think the retail model is shifting a little bit,” says Angie Fox, head of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, citing a recent pop-up fashion event as an example of the type of thing that might happen more often in the future.

Retail follows residents, and the plan imagines 39,000 of them within 30 years. So far, it’s off to a good start. After the Patent and Trade Office decamped to Alexandria in 2007, Vornado added six stories to its former building and turned it into glassy apartments with mod, swoopy interiors and the best roof deck in the city. It’s now almost entirely leased, as is another new apartment complex on the north end.

The harder part is turning a bunch of apartment buildings into a community. The BID has programmed activities—movie nights! 5K races! Free Zumba in the park!—but not much has risen organically. There is no residents association on the east side of Jefferson Davis Highway. On a Monday night, office workers grab dinner and hustle home; the brand-new Long Bridge park has only the occasional jogger or couple walking through it. Even a Starbucks in the bottom of a residential building is only open until 2:30 p.m. on the weekends.

The most immediate problem, though, is filling all that newly empty office space. The rest of Arlington’s powerhouse Metro-centric towns each have a reputation for something: Clarendon’s funkier and more residential, Rosslyn has corporate headquarters in highrises, Ballston is a magnet for science and tech, Courthouse is the center of government. If Crystal City isn’t just the back office of the Pentagon anymore, what’s going to be its new thing?

Right now, Crystal City’s boosters argue that its advantage is accessibility. “There’s not another neighborhood in America that has an airport you can walk to,” reminds Fox (as if you could forget that, with the constant roar of planes overhead, and the screech of metal on tracks).

That’s a big source of Crystal City’s resilience, but not its brilliance. Eventually, it has to become a place with a better reason for being than the ability to get somewhere else.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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* CORRECTION, June 26: Due to a reporting error, this article originally said that previous Artomatics had “mostly” taken place in new buildings. In fact, while the last two venues were new, the previous five were in older buildings as well.