When Jay Corbalis was interviewing for a job at JBG Smith Properties in March 2018, he said there was no mention of what would soon become the developer’s most high-profile partner: Amazon.com Inc.
Sure, there were plenty of rumors that the tech giant would pick Arlington for its massive second headquarters. But Corbalis said he accepted a job as JBG Smith’s new point man for transportation infrastructure in the Crystal City area without knowing for sure whether Jeff Bezos’s megafirm would be coming to town.
It turns out that Corbalis, the Bethesda developer’s vice president of public affairs, made the right choice. Amazon picked the newly dubbed “National Landing” area for HQ2, and brought with it an infusion of state funding into the very projects Corbalis was working on.
While things like a second Crystal City Metro station entrance, the transformation of Route 1 and a pedestrian connection to Reagan National Airport were all part of Arlington County’s long-range plans before Amazon was in the picture, the company’s arrival added a huge amount of urgency. And that thrust Corbalis into one of the most important roles in the entire company: making sure that Amazon’s new neighborhood meets the tech giant’s high expectations.
How did you get interested in smart growth? It’s always been my passion, from when I was a kid. My parents really like to travel, so we would visit these cool global cities like Rome, and London and Mexico City. I grew up outside Philadelphia, so I would come back from those places and think, "Why can’t we be as dynamic as those places?"
So how did you decide to come to D.C.? I was working on these issues in New Jersey from the policy side, but I was young and impatient. I wanted to make something happen now, and I knew there were a lot of developers who thought the way I did. And I knew D.C. was a place where the market was moving in that direction. So I picked up and moved down here and crashed on some friends’ couches until I could find a job.
How did you get to JBG Smith, in particular? I was studying real estate development part time at Georgetown, when I met Evan Goldman, back when he was running the Pike and Rose project for [Federal Realty Investment Trust]. He brought me on with a portfolio there that was at the intersection of development and public policy, and did that for a while. So when JBG did their merger with Vornado and picked up all those properties in Crystal City, they started looking for someone to bring a version of what he did at Pike and Rose there. And my experience on that was really unique, and a good fit.
Why is that focus on infrastructure important for the company? When JBG Smith became a public company and got all that land in Crystal City, it just flipped its business model on its head. They went from being short-term player to one with a decades-long time horizon, so it made sense to think on a macro level as an urban planner. If you only own one building and you’re going to sell it, you might not hire someone like me.
Amazon's arrival in Crystal City thrust Jay Corbalis into one of the most important roles at JBG Smith: making sure that the company’s new neighborhood met the tech giant’s high expectations.
So how would you describe what you do? I’m tasked with navigating our role in the transportation landscape and looking at the public sector investments in transportation and seeing what our role is in that. Look at the second Metro entrance in Crystal City [which JBG Smith is developing on Arlington County’s behalf]. We look at that and say, our best role is to partner with the county directly. In each of these cases, I’m asking, where does JBG Smith best fit into the landscape in a way that’s consistent with what we’re doing on the private side?
The pandemic has people staying away from public transit, and is squeezing the finances of transit agencies. How has that impacted your work? It’s impossible to know how this will all turn out, but we’re not worried about the long-term viability here. In fact, it’s the opposite: we’re bullish on value of National Landing. Amazon has been consistent that they still need a place for their employees and National Landing makes all the sense in the world for them for all the same reasons as before. And our strategy is a long-term one, we’re obviously continuing to pursue it in spite of the current situation.
So Covid-19 hasn’t delayed any of these projects? Other than the obvious that we’re now meeting online, I’ve actually been impressed and pleased that in all of these cases the projects are moving forward as anticipated. If you’d asked me as of January 1 where they’d be on October 1, I would’ve said the same thing then as I would now.
How has the pandemic changed how you work? I’ve been fortunate that what I do translates in large measure to being entirely online. But sometimes I do still need to go down to Crystal City because there’s a thing on a drawing you just really want to look at in person.
How have you tried to stay sane during quarantine? It’s so refreshing to go out for a run with my 18-month-old daughter in tow. I’ve got a running stroller and I’ve been trying to run along the Sligo Creek Trail most days.
Vice president of public affairs, JBG Smith Properties
Residence: Silver Spring
Education: Bachelor's in urban and regional studies, Cornell University; master’s in real estate, Georgetown University
Family: Wife and daughter
First job: Landscaping work over the summer in high school