Alexandria Military Site on the Rise

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

A clanking red crane with a giant mechanical hammer smashed pilings deep into the bottom of a vast hole near Interstate 395 and Seminary Road last week, helping lay the foundation for a 17-story tower that will be part of a billion-dollar military complex.

Military officials touted the project as a key piece of a puzzle that has faced federal and local authorities since it was decided to shift more than 19,000 defense workers to new offices in Northern Virginia.

The move is part of a nationwide effort to close bases and leave rented space, to save money and increase security. And it has raised concerns across a region that has some of the country's longest commutes.

The original plan was to ship all the workers to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County. But state and local officials balked, arguing that the clogged roads couldn't handle the onslaught. Defense officials looked at three alternatives, two in Alexandria and one in Springfield, near a Metro station, for housing 6,400 employees.

In September, the site beside I-395, known as the Mark Center, was chosen, frustrating some officials who wanted to see the jobs and other development concentrated around a Metro station.

Two days before Christmas, construction workers began excavating the site, which will also house a 15-story tower and have a fenced perimeter, "clear zones" and other security measures. Last week, defense and development officials shoved 10 shiny shovels into sandy soil poured out on plastic in an area that will become a parking garage with a bus station.

"It's going to be a safe building, and it's also going to be on military ground, so we're not paying leases to people," said Travis Edwards, a spokesman for the Base Closure and Realignment Commission effort at Fort Belvoir.

The buildings are also slated to be ready relatively quickly, a key legal requirement. They have a deadline: Sept. 15, 2011 -- at noon. "People have to be in the building and working that day," Edwards said. Moving to Springfield would not have allowed them to meet that deadline, military officials said.

To mitigate traffic problems at the Alexandria site, workers will be encouraged to carpool and take mass transit, Edwards said. Some will have to: The site will intentionally include too few parking spaces.

"It's not to save money. . . . We're going to build 60 percent parking," or 3,904 spaces, Edwards said. About 30 percent of the workers who will commute to the complex take mass transit to their current jobs, he said, although many of them work near Metro stops.

Not everyone is convinced the move makes sense. Shifting jobs away from rail is bad planning, said Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who represents the Springfield area and calls the choice of the Alexandria site "a major mistake."

"These employees deserved to have transit options. They have them today," McKay said. "Now they will [be] sent in relentless traffic, fighting their way up I-395 at a steady 20 mph clip on a good day. I-395 is impassable now at Seminary Road. I can only imagine" thousands more cars at that intersection, he said in an e-mail.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company