By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005
Carved out of a colonial estate in southern Fairfax County, Fort Belvoir has for decades functioned like a self-sufficient island. Twenty-two thousand workers, most of them civilians, trek there for work each week, but they mostly spend their money at the base's gas station ($2.07 a gallon for regular unleaded), its restaurants, shopping mall and commissary (at $87.5 million in sales last year, the highest grossing base store in the world).
Military retirees roam its two 18-hole golf courses.
But since the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure commission released its recommendations in May, local officials say expectations are growing that this part of Fairfax County will finally come to resemble its neighbors in Tysons Corner and Reston, with sleek glass office buildings and upscale retail replacing the auto body shops and dollar stores that are now outside the base's gates.
The proposed relocation of 18,420 Army and civilian personnel to Fort Belvoir and its largely vacant Engineer Proving Ground would probably have federal government contractors following them down Route 1, buoying that section of Fairfax.
"Ever since the BRAC announcement, there has been a heightened level of interest and activity from the commercial development community," said Richard Neel, president of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corp. "The people are coming."
"We're interested in understanding what development opportunities there are," said Margarita Foster, a vice president and market research director at Cassidy & Pinkard, one of the firms that has begun scouting the area. "We have clients who are Department of Defense contractors, and they are relying on us to keep them informed about availability of office space."
Hotel chains have also called around, looking to find available parcels. "I have no doubt that if I'm looking [other hotels] are looking, too," said Robert S. Mannon, senior vice president for development at Marriott International Inc. "We're following the jobs and the trends in the market, and they're all headed to Belvoir."
Military bases and agencies produce mixed effects on local economic development. Just as their arrival can produce spinoff businesses, their closing can open large tracts of land to private investment.
In the Washington area, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has referred to the area around Fort Meade and the National Security Agency as the county's "gold coast."
"There's been incredible job growth generated by both Fort Meade and NSA, which in turn attracts defense contractors," said Jody Couser, an Owens spokeswoman, referring to Lockheed Martin Corp., Titan Corp. and other defense contractors clustered in the National Business Park, an office park near the two facilities.
The District has had less success with Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and that facility's proposed closing is expected to spark interest from developers in a newly available expanse of urban land.
"I don't think Walter Reed itself generates economic development on Georgia Avenue," said D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, who represents the area around the hospital. "The proof is in the pudding: Walter Reed has been there for decades, and if it was going to spur economic development it would have done so a long time ago."
Fairfax County hopes the mix of agencies coming to Fort Belvoir will resemble the Fort Meade model. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and other smaller agencies now in leased space around the region rely on the kinds of technology-oriented contractors that have helped keep Northern Virginia booming, but which have failed so far to gravitate to Fort Belvoir, a hub for logistics and administration.
The arrival of contractors would in turn boost southeastern Fairfax County in an important category: top quality "Class A" office space. The highway corridor near the base has approximately 1 million square feet of office space -- only 1 percent of the total in the county. The Springfield district near the Engineer Proving Ground has another 4.9 million square feet.
By comparison, Tysons Corner has 32 percent of the county's office space and the Reston-Herndon area has 23 percent.
Increasing the daytime office population is a goal for county officials because, unlike residential development, commercial buildings add tax revenue to the county coffers without adding too much demand for trash collection, schools and other expensive services. Office workers eat lunch, drop off dry cleaning and pick up groceries on their way to and from work, which often creates a vibrant retail business sector, too.
County officials have been expecting that dynamic to develop around Fort Belvoir for more than a decade now. In the late 1980s, when the Army moved its engineering school to Missouri, Congress approved a plan to redevelop the 820-acre Engineer Proving Ground, with private developers getting rights to build there in return for constructing office space for the military.
The plan, which some called "Crystal City South" after that suburban area's close connection between military agencies and private development, foresaw construction of 8.7 million square feet of offices, a projection since cut to 3.6 million, and, in reality, ignored: A shovel has yet to break ground.
With prospects for development increasing, Fairfax officials are starting to think about the impact, and wonder whether the federal government is going to help ensure that the transition is smooth and well-planned.
The primary challenge is clear to any observer who watches traffic exit Fort Belvoir's Tulley Gate on a weekday afternoon. Most vehicles turn left onto Route 1, clogging an already congested roadway. Add 18,420 predominantly civilian employees to the installation, potentially thousands of federal contractors to its immediate environs, and an expected 1 million visitors a year to a proposed Army National Museum opening on the base in 2009, and it's a recipe for congestion.
"When this was described to me, my reaction is that it is an incredible opportunity but an awesome challenge," said Gerald W. Hyland, who represents the Mount Vernon district on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
"People tend to lock in on numbers. There's this number: 18,420. The $64,000 question is: Where do these people currently call home?" said T. Dana Kauffman, a Fairfax County supervisor who represents the Lee district north of Fort Belvoir.
Fort Belvoir officials said they are trying to figure that out with Zip code surveys, but they might not be able to compile all the data in time. Even though the Pentagon outlines a six-year timeline for realignment, Army officials said that they plan to get it done in four.
County officials argue that, with the process now moving quickly, their federal counterparts should do all they can to help out. In earlier plans for the proving ground, the Army agreed to develop a transit link to Metro and put in place other traffic-easing measures to accommodate the expected increase in workers that never materialized.
The local officials note that Fort Belvoir's own chief planner was surprised by the magnitude of the base realignment recommendations, and was only weeks away from releasing a new planning blueprint for the base when the influx of new people was announced.
"BRAC is a secret process," Hyland said. "If they didn't know, how would you expect Fairfax County to know that the Army was going to send 18,000 people to Belvoir?"
But federal officials are offering little assistance at this point. At a recent public meeting on the base recommendations, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said, for example, that he didn't think a Metrorail extension to the Fort Belvoir area was likely.
And Army officials said that, while they may be bringing the people to Belvoir, it will be up to the county to make the most of it.
"What happens outside the gate," said Fort Belvoir spokesman Richard Arndt, "isn't our purview to fix."