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.
He points out that the roads in his office parks--West Park and West Gate--are rarely crowded because of careful planning that includes wide roads and walking paths for employees. Mass transit eventually will come to Tysons Corner to relieve some of the problems, even if many people continue to drive.
Besides, he says, the traffic problem in Tysons is really no worse than those in other thriving downtowns such as Washington, New York or Boston.
"You can see some traffic jams here," Halpin said. "But are they any worse than downtown Washington? This is what you are really comparing it to. You can't compare it to Leesburg."
Halpin says Tysons will continue to grow as long as the executives of companies continue to believe it's a good place to do business. Last month, the West Group asked the supervisors for modifications to zoning plans on a half-dozen office buildings.
"Will we build? We won't build unless there's a market there," he said. "If there's a market there, then people must not be too unhappy, right? That is growth. And when it comes very fast, you get a lot of criticism."
Halpin's role in that growth has occasionally spawned controversy.
Last year, his company caused cries of outrage by taking advantage of a new county tax break aimed at revitalizing older parts of Howard. By tearing down a vacant building, the West Group received a $4 million tax break on the new, $30 million office building it put in its place.
And the West Group has been attacked for months by McLean residents who oppose the company's plans to develop a residential community on Evans Farm. A group called the Coalition to Save Evans Farm has been trying to raise money to buy the land and convert it into a public park.
Halpin says that effort is a waste of time. He won't sell the land even if the residents had the money because he made a deal with the land's current owner.
"When we took it from Ralph Evans, we told him what the development plan might be, and we said we wouldn't sell it," Halpin said. "We don't go back on our word."
But despite the occasional flare-up, many in the community praise Halpin for his community service and for his efforts to protect open space and parkland.
A self-described "tree hugger," Halpin points with pride to the many acres of land his company donated to the county over the years. In the late 1950s, Halpin even took a mortgage out on his home so he could lend the county $36,000 to buy land that would become Burke Lake Park.
At one of his office buildings on West Group property--occupied by Freddie Mac--Halpin built underground parking for thousands of cars so he could preserve 11 acres of trees.
"I'm very strong in favor of parks," he said. "I think they're a big plus if the county can afford them. I think it may be more important to preserve space for soccer fields and football fields than just big open spaces of green."
Packard said Halpin also was chosen as Citizen of the Year for his involvement as part of the team that negotiated with the National Park Service to create Wolf Trap Farm Park in McLean.
"He's told me that Fairfax County has been good to him and that whenever possible he wants to repay that," Packard said. "He's repaid that in his generous lending of his time and expertise as well as his money."
Halpin, a former member of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, has been actively involved for decades in shaping the county's future.
Several current supervisors describe Halpin as an informal adviser. His company also gives generously to candidates for public office. During one meeting last month when a West Group project was being discussed, more than half of the supervisors announced publicly that they had received money from the company.
"He's been a real leader in thinking about what things should look like in the future," said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence). "He is a real force in Tysons Corner."
Perhaps the strangest moment of Halpin's community involvement came during the 1960s, when he was chosen to orchestrate the temporary takeover of Fairfax County by the tiny town of Clifton.
As Halpin recalls it, Fairfax's political leaders were trying to fight off annexation attempts by the City of Alexandria and neighboring Arlington County. Alexandria already had annexed Landmark Mall. If those jurisdictions continued to have their way, the economic engines of Baileys Crossroads and Seven Corners would have been snatched away from the county.
Under state law, towns had more powers than counties to prevent annexation. So Halpin was tasked with gathering enough signatures to allow the town of Clifton to annex all of Fairfax--just for a weekend, but long enough to prevent the annexation.
For three months, Halpin gathered signatures. But before a referendum could be held, a county judge nixed the idea. Clifton remained a tiny town. Fairfax remained a county. And Seven Corners stayed in Fairfax.
"We could have been Clifton for a little while," Halpin said.