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Remaking Southeastern Fairfax

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

On the morning of Sept. 29, a tour bus chartered by the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority pulled into the parking lot of Smitty's Building Supply, a lumberyard catering to the area's booming home-building industry. The invited group of real estate developers, commercial brokers and Fairfax County officials on board compared the view out the window to a color photocopy handed out earlier, which drew bright red lines around Smitty's 8.2 acres of land, as well as a contiguous 15.4 acres containing two mobile home communities, a small church, an Asian restaurant and a roofing company.

"I had no idea what a bus and two police cars were doing in my parking lot. I didn't get invited," said Rick Smith, one of nine children of Nelson "Smitty" Smith and Patricia Smith, who founded in 1975 what was known for years as Smitty's Lumberteria in an old roller rink on Richmond Highway in southern Fairfax County.

The visitors were there to plot the future: On a spot of land occupied by two-by-fours, trailers and fake palm trees, the county's economic development team urged the group to envision modern office buildings with, perhaps, some retail on the ground level so tenants in business attire would have a place to grab a morning latte or have lunch with clients.

As land becomes scarcer close to the Capital Beltway and traffic congestion increases, Fairfax officials are encouraging developers to look south and build office parks and complexes on property that by the county's boom-time standards is considered underused. Office development, chiefly for government contractors and technology firms, is a prime foundation of Fairfax's economic strategy -- to the extent that even thriving businesses like Smitty's can be deemed a poor substitute for another well-placed commercial building. With the Pentagon set to relocate as many as 21,000 defense workers to Fort Belvoir over the next six years, the county is hoping that the surrounding area can take on shades of Tysons Corner or the Dulles corridor as private contractors follow the flow of work.

Developers are starting to propose changes to the county's master plan, while businesses like Smitty's, the residents of a nearby mobile home park and the families at a small Christian school contemplate major changes ahead.

"Could it be possible that they could take such a successful school and shut it down for the sake of commercial profit?" said Yvette Smith, who learned through a community newspaper that the property that houses the Agape Christian Academy is among 13 locations being promoted by the county as ripe for redevelopment. Smith's daughter graduated from the six-year-old private school last year.

It is still uncertain whether the defense workers being relocated to the area will move onto Fort Belvoir's sprawling 8,656 acres or to the 820-acre Engineer Proving Ground northwest of the base next to Interstate 95. In the next few months, Army officials are planning to issue a $60 million contract for a master developer to oversee planning and construction of 6 million square feet of office space on federal property to house the incoming workforce.

Wherever the federal workers end up, private contractors are expected to follow, particularly if new office space sprouts up in place of Smitty's or the Agape school, just a few minutes' walk from Belvoir's Walker Gate.

Residential builder JPI already has filed to amend the county's comprehensive plan so it can build 500 residences, offices and retail space on 25 acres around Smitty's. Farther up Richmond Highway, JPI has submitted site plans for a similar mixed-use development at the 34-acre Kings Crossing development. Small landowners also are putting together projects. Abdul Javid, for example, said he is laying plans to add 80,000 square feet of office space and a hotel on his 8.8-acre property.

Replicating Northern Virginia's office-driven economy in southeastern Fairfax means consolidating bits of land into larger parcels, eliminating the existing patchwork of small businesses and restaurants. Some of the county's most affordable housing -- two mobile home parks -- may also disappear.

The availability of land relatively close to the District has already given rise to some higher-end residential development, as builders such as Centex Homes erect $700,000 houses and townhouses right off the highway.

"Before the [base relocation] decision, there really wasn't a market down there" for new office space, said Richard Neel, president of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corp., which gave advice on which sites to include in the bus tour.

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