By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
The Army said yesterday that it will build a national museum at Fort Belvoir instead of on a nearby site that local officials warned would worsen the congestion expected with the military's planned relocation of thousands of employees to the area.
The reversal came under pressure from Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who share local officials' concerns that Belvoir's expansion could create a traffic disaster.
"We've got transportation chaos looming over the horizon here if we're not careful, and the Army museum situation was just going to exacerbate it," Moran said. "What the Army wanted to do was create a destination point on I-95 contiguous to one of the worst traffic congestion points in the Washington area."
The Army had been planning to build the National Museum of the Army a few miles northwest of Belvoir at the Engineer Proving Ground, a mostly vacant 800-acre parcel along Interstate 95 just south of the Springfield interchange. Army officials said the site had the space needed for its plan to let developers build an 80-acre hotel and entertainment complex around the museum, which would have helped pay for the museum.
But Fairfax County officials opposed the site, calling it the worst feature of the plan for Belvoir's expansion. They said they were already concerned about the Army's use of the proving ground to house most of the 22,000 employees being relocated to Belvoir under the military's base realignment program instead of putting more on the 8,000-acre main post.
Adding the museum and its estimated one million annual visitors to the mix would have caused a traffic nightmare along I-95 and routes into the proving ground, Fairfax officials said. They also noted that they had hoped to build a park on the half of the proving ground slated for the museum and that putting the museum on the grounds of the main post would put it much closer to other tourist sites near Richmond Highway (Route 1), including Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall and Woodlawn.
The Army held firm for months, even hosting a session for dozens of developers interested in building a hotel, conference center, restaurants and shops around the museum at the proving ground. But yesterday, the Army said it will build the museum on the north half of the main post, at the Kingman Road entrance off Fairfax County Parkway.
"We are persuaded that the Kingman site better supports the region's traffic needs and the desires of our community neighbors," Keith E. Eastin, assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment, said in a statement.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) applauded the shift. "The community appreciates that the Army is listening to us," he said.
The reversal came after Moran and Warner, expressing disapproval of the Army's plans to lease out land around the museum on the proving ground for the hotel and conference center, threatened to pass legislation preventing the development. Moran said yesterday that because the museum is supposed to be paid for with private funding, it was inappropriate to pay for it partly by leasing out public land to developers. Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) also argued that focusing private development on Army property undermined revitalization of the area around Belvoir.
Now that the Army has agreed to the move, Moran said he is not fully opposed to revisiting the possibility of leasing land around the museum's new site for development to help pay for it. What matters most, he said, is that any funds from the Army's leasing of Belvoir land should, for now, go toward road improvements needed for the expansion.
Eastin said the Army is no longer planning to lease out land to pay for the $300 million museum, which is scheduled to open in 2013. This leaves the question of how the museum will be funded. Private fundraising has not been going as well as museum boosters had hoped, according to those familiar with the project.
"We're going to have to look at the financing in the days to come and look at what's feasible and what are the best options," Army spokesman Paul Boyce said.
Fairfax officials said that the Kingman location is not as ideal as Pence Gate, which they had long favored. One of the main entrances to the post off Route 1, it would have put the museum even closer to the other historic sites. The Army plans to build a hospital at that gate and said putting a museum there would overload that entrance.
Local officials said that despite moving the museum to the main post, much remains to be done to prevent traffic problems as workers relocate over the next five years. The Army has estimated that road improvements will cost $600 million, but it is unclear how much the federal government will cover. Fairfax officials also want the Army to put some of the transferred employees at a warehouse site adjacent to the Franconia-Springfield Metro and commuter rail station.
"We're still dealing with adding twice the population of Falls Church onto half the land mass -- with no funded road improvements," Kauffman said.