Downtown Fort Belvoir
Army Post in Fairfax County Gets a Taste Of Off-Post Living With Its Own Town Center

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

In the suburban jumble of southern Fairfax County lies an oasis of pleasant living straight out of a classic small town or cozy city neighborhood. Residents can roll out of bed and walk downstairs to a handsome Main Street lined with a coffeehouse, corner grocery and barber and adorned with vintage-style lampposts, signs and clocks. They can stroll along the sidewalk and greet their neighbors. They can walk to work without worrying about a car.

There's one catch. To visit, people have to show identification at an armed checkpoint. And to live in the town, people have to join the Army or marry a soldier, because this Main Street is in the middle of Fort Belvoir.

"We're just bringing in a little taste of off-post," said Col. Brian W. Lauritzen, Fort Belvoir's commander, who was clad in his usual camouflage and boots as he picked up a coffee recently at the street's new Starbucks.

Belvoir has been in headlines for the challenge it faces in absorbing 22,000 employees over the next five years as part of the military's base realignment process. But a less-noticed transformation is underway: Large sections of the post are being remade according to the principles of "new urbanism," a planning and architecture movement that seeks to create walkable and friendly communities, such as Kentlands in Montgomery County, using traditional building styles and compact layouts.

The centerpiece of this effort is the housing being built across the post for the estimated 2,100 families who call Belvoir home. The post's charmless townhouses and apartment blocks are being replaced by 15 "villages" of Colonial- and Federal-style homes clustered around playgrounds, narrow streets and communal mailboxes. The new approach is being used at several other posts across the country under a military push to improve housing by partnering with private developers.

Setting Belvoir apart, though, is its "town center," a one-sided brick Main Street with 11 shops on the ground floor and two dozen two-level apartments on the floors above, which are within walking distance of several villages as well as the post's library, gym and dental clinic. Army officials say it is the first project in which they have mixed retail and residential spaces in a single building.

It also distinguishes Belvoir from most civilian development. Apartments above ground-floor retail establishments, once a fixture of U.S. towns and cities, are rare in suburban communities built in the last half-century or so, partly because of zoning rules and lending policies that discourage mixed property uses. For many planners, putting housing over ground-floor retail has become a kind of retro and cutting-edge holy grail that promises to cure ills of suburban living such as overdependence on cars, lack of affordable housing and social isolation.

As unlikely a client for new urbanism as the military might seem, planners say it especially stands to benefit from the approach. Building closer communities is important, they say, in a place where spouses and children often are left alone for long stretches, where residents are forever being transferred to new postings and where neighbors hail from diverse places. Planners praise the military for recognizing this, and the Congress for New Urbanism gave the Army an award in June for its overhaul of Belvoir.

"It's all part of a larger idea about making a community a pedestrian-friendly place, and that's as important on a military base as in the civilian sector," said Neal Payton, a principal with Torti Gallas and Partners Inc., a planning and architecture firm in Silver Spring that designed the Belvoir villages and town center. "How do you assure that the young spouse of a soldier deployed overseas -- who's out there on his or her own, who doesn't know anybody and is without a social safety net -- [has] a social framework to allow the bonds of community to form? By creating a walkable community, you're more likely to have those serendipitous encounters."

The Army puts its embrace of new urbanism in simpler terms: It wants to improve the quality of life for soldiers and their families.

"This is the place Army families raise their children and where soldiers receive their training, and when you're out there in Baghdad looking at the enemy, you don't want to be thinking, 'Is my family safe and well taken care of?' " said Keith E. Eastin, the Army's assistant secretary for installations and environment, at a recent ribbon-cutting for the town center.

The move to new urbanism is tied to the military's efforts over the past decade to privatize its housing. In the past, the military built and maintained post housing. But the budget for housing fluctuated, and maintenance demands piled up. In the 1990s, the Department of Defense decided that it made more sense to contract base housing to developers and give service members an allowance that could be used off-post or paid to developers for rent on base housing.

So far, 72,000 homes have been rebuilt at 33 installations, many of them with new urbanist designs. Not that it has always been easy to persuade the military to innovate. Christopher Guidi, an executive with Clark Realty, said it took some work by Clark and Torti Gallas to win approval for the town center concept.

"The Army historically is just very traditional . . . and this was another step away from tradition," Guidi said of the town center. "There were people who told us this wouldn't work in the Army, that people don't want to live this way. There were supporters, and there were some doubters."

The supporters are being proved right. Soldiers have snatched up all of the town center apartments, which, in a break with Army rules, are open to all ranks. With three or four bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths (with dual vanities in the master bath), the apartments are essentially identical to the new village townhouses, except they are on top of the shops and have a deck instead of a yard.

Brian Wickett, a Coast Guard yeoman working in Ballston, moved into one of the units with his wife and 13-year-old son recently and was raving about it a few days later. They have the same proximity to shops that they did at their apartment in Arlington, except with much more space: high ceilings, 2,000 square feet and a two-car garage. They do not mind not having a yard, because plenty of athletic fields are nearby for their son, who was about to walk down the street for a haircut.

"Take this to Arlington, and it would be a million dollars," Wickett said. "I'm tickled to death to be here. For military housing, this is good. We've got the biggest kitchen we've ever had."

Other soldiers and their spouses said they are not interested in moving into the apartments because they would not want the noise of living above the street. There have been some complaints about the new villages as well -- the small driveways and garages are not large enough for the pickup trucks favored by many soldiers, and some don't like being in close quarters with neighbors.

But on the whole, the new approach has been welcomed. The playgrounds at some villages are so well used that the grass is wearing thin. Business is going well at the town center, which has a gift shop, vitamin store, sports collectibles shop, cigar store and furniture rental shop. (The pedestrian traffic can seem thin at times, given the extra-wide sidewalks that were required by the Army's security rules to guard against car bombs.)

There is also talk of building a complementary side of the street, which would help make the town center seem less marooned since it faces a sprawling gas station and an older, unprepossessing coffee shop with green carpeting and a distinctly un-Starbucks lunch menu featuring a barbecue ribs platter.

That Belvoir may be on the way out. On a recent morning, Hope Pilecki and Heather Bailey, soldiers' wives, strolled on the new sidewalk with their babies. Residents of nearby villages, they talked about the convenience of walking to the dry cleaners without having to drive to the other end of the post, where some of the shops used to be and where the main grocery and department stores remain.

"They've got everything here," Pilecki said. "It's easier to come here if you only need a couple things."

Well, not everything, Bailey said. "The only thing missing," she said, "is a restaurant."

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