Group Honors Tysons Builder

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 1999; 7:31 AM

The first time Gerald T. Halpin was offered a 125-acre tract of farmland in the middle of Fairfax County -- at 6 cents a square foot -- he said no. Too expensive, he told his real estate broker.

But a year later, a massive highway called the Capital Beltway was under construction through the property. At 8 cents a square foot, the land that eventually would become Tysons Corner suddenly seemed like a better deal.

"The highway system here was going to be better than anywhere," recalled Halpin, who was honored Sunday as the Citizen of the Year by the Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations. "This was the west entrance to Washington. This was the west gate to Washington."

With the purchase of that land, Halpin's company, the West Group, was born.

A yellowed photograph in his lobby depicts Tysons Corner then: a single country store surrounded by acres and acres of empty land. Now the largest landowners in Tysons, Halpin and his partners spent the next 35 years transforming that rural crossroads into one of the nation's top locations for commerce.

Halpin, 76, and his company flourished during the boom times, building headquarters for some of the nation's biggest corporations: Freddie Mac, Unisys, Gannett and SAIC. During the 1980s, the price of the Tysons land that Halpin bought for 8 cents a square foot rose to $54 a square foot. In all, there are now about 140 office buildings and apartments on the property Halpin's company developed.

Halpin has since broadened his interests. He has founded other companies, including one that recycles metals out of sewage sludge. He was a founding member of Bell Atlantic, and he serves as chairman of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation.

But in selecting him for Citizen of the Year, the federation focused on his civic activities in Fairfax County, where he has lived for almost 40 years. The group called Halpin a community activist who has donated his time and money to improving the county and a developer who values the environment.

Jean Packard, a former Board of Supervisors chairman and a top official at the federation, said Halpin's Tysons Corner office parks are an ideal that other developers should strive to emulate.

"He's a very environmentally conscious person," Packard said. "For someone in his position as a CEO, I find that unusual. He's done his best to make sure that his developments fit in as much as possible with the community. It's a good example of a environmentally sensitive and attractive office park."

But Tysons also has become one of the most crowded parts of the region, and the recent target of some in the community who say it's growing too fast. A representative for the American Automobile Association has been critical of recent decisions by the Board of Supervisors to approve construction plans in Tysons. And a group of residents marched last week in front of Halpin's office during the morning and evening rush hours to protest the area's increased development.

Halpin brushes aside those concerns.

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