Own Offices Mock Plan For 'Green' Fairfax

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Fairfax County Government Center, a 670,000-square-foot hulking horseshoe of an edifice, is so big that if you straightened it out and stood it on its side, it would stretch 90 stories into the sky.

In that case, it would be perfectly suited to anchor the kind of pedestrian-friendly, transit-dependent community of homes, shops and jobs that county officials say is essential in Fairfax to reduce traffic, keep quality of life high and limit climate-changing carbon emissions.

But as it is, the five-story mass of granite and glass, which rises squatly from an isolated, 86-acre sea of asphalt and lawn near Fair Oaks Mall, is suited to nothing of the sort. For years, critics have said the government center is an emblem of sprawl: far from Metrorail, sequestered by divided highways, intimidating to walkers and bicycle riders.

With its million-dollar utility bill, this seat of county government seems at odds with a new initiative to paint Fairfax green.

Even Gerald E. Connolly, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors and author of the campaign, concedes that in a county that practically defined sprawl, it will take more than a truckload of low-wattage light bulbs and a few hybrid cars (in a fleet of more than 6,000) to transform a government with a physical form that mirrors the expansive suburb it serves.

"You can't even find the place," Stewart Schwartz, director of the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, said of the government center. "It's always been a symbol of spread-out, automobile-dependent development."

In his "Cool Counties" initiative announced two weeks ago, Connolly set out to make Fairfax a symbol of something entirely different: eco-friendliness and compact, urban development patterns. The multimillion-dollar program, being developed with the Sierra Club, is intended to decrease government emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases by increasing the use of wind power, clean-burning vehicles and environmentally friendly building techniques.

The program would also encourage greener living among the county's nearly 1.1 million residents by providing incentives, such as tax breaks, to motorists, developers and homeowners for certain "green" initiatives.

"We need to be replacing those vehicles with hybrids," Connolly said. "We need to be replacing light bulbs with longer-lasting, eco-friendly fixtures. We need to be looking at retrofitting the buildings in terms of storm water."

Even by Connolly's reckoning, the task will be daunting, particularly at the main government center -- a campus built to serve a car-driven culture at a time when energy conservation and carbon reduction were not nearly the political priorities they are today. The center opened in 1992 to great controversy over its $100 million price tag but not over its location, fuel efficiency or access to transit. That criticism came later.

And now, with Connolly's initiative, the building's five-story atrium and cavernous corridors of empty space seem even more out of step. The place is so big, sitting on a campus alongside two smaller government buildings, that infrequent visitors regularly get lost navigating it. Lisa Sprouse of Centreville, entering the building for a tai chi class on a recent evening, said the first time she visited the complex she didn't know which building she was looking for.

"I was impressed -- it's in a very beautiful setting," said Sprouse, who moved to Fairfax from Pennsylvania 12 years ago. "But I was in the wrong building. I was like, 'Oh, okay. They've got two buildings.' "

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