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Science and Tech Firms Find Like Minds in Ballston

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009; PW03

California has Silicon Valley. Dulles has the technology corridor. And Ballston has its own "science corridor," a quaint little neighborhood overflowing with science and technology-related organizations and outfits.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced plans last month to move to Ballston in 2012. Its facility will be near the Metro station, in a concentrated neighborhood that is home to the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Research Office and Virginia Tech's Advanced Research Institute, among others.

The area houses "an ever-growing list of science-related organizations," said Terry Holzheimer, Arlington County's director of economic development.

There were 3,265 physical, engineering or biological research jobs in Arlington in 2005, according to a 2007 research study on which Holzheimer worked. He estimated in an interview last week that about 4,000 employees from science, research and federal agencies are in Arlington now.

"It starts making Ballston 'sticky' as a science center," Holzheimer said. "When people want to be in that cluster of science and technology, they may be there because others are there. It also starts setting kind of a brand for the area. We've tried to brand Ballston as a science center, and there's enough 'there' there to make that a legitimate claim."

Branding is helpful for the county from an economic perspective, Holzheimer said. "Our economic base is based on who's here, and to have high-wage jobs that hire the smart people who live here and produce wealth and income within the community is what any economic development agency wants to do," he said.

Having interrelated companies in the area also helps keep office space occupied, Holzheimer said.

Arlington has economic clusters of defense contractors in Crystal City and Rosslyn, as well as information technology firms through the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, he said.

"We think it's getting stronger with time," Holzheimer said. "As we continue to work with the agencies, the universities and find more linkage, we do believe it'll be a much bigger piece of our economy and economic activity in the county."

DARPA is "the central research and development office" for the Defense Department, according to its Web site.

It is relocating because its lease is expiring, and the agency needs additional space that fit its "very specific requests, very specific needs," said Michael McGill, spokesman for the Public Buildings Service of the General Services Administration's national capital region. The GSA serves as the federal landlord, managing more than 95 million square feet in the Washington area.

"First of all, they needed to be near the Pentagon," he said of DARPA. "Secondly, they needed to be near other science-based research groups."

When the GSA began looking for a new home for DARPA, the research organization's work and workforce gave it unique requirements for its next address, McGill said. Ballston was the only feasible site, he said.

The National Science Foundation moved from the District to Ballston in 1993, said Marc Rothenberg, its historian.

When the foundation began its 20-year lease that year, Ballston did not have a lot of other science organizations, Rothenberg said. Media reports at the time described the NSF as a "catalyst" that was "going to add prestige and attract high-technology companies with our presence," he said.

The high concentration of like-minded outlets creates a "neighborhood," Rothenberg said. "I think there is a sort of mutually reinforcing aspect to having other technical and scientific organizations around."

That could enable some of the 1,400 employees of the Office of Naval Research, for instance, to be in contact with some of the 1,700 employees at the NSF.

The Ballston location of Virginia Tech's Advanced Research Institute "provides a platform for Virginia Tech's engineering and computer science researchers to interact with counterparts in academia, government and industry," the institute's Web site says.

The Ballston Science and Technology Alliance is a nonprofit group, incorporated in 2007, that aims to facilitate dialogue among science and technology workers, as well as with the general public. Its board has representatives from Virginia Tech, George Mason University, Arlington and the National Science Foundation, among others.

"It's the same thing that makes Silicon Valley work: It's the density and the clustering," said Kaye Sloan Breen, the alliance's executive director. "All the new collaborative innovative efforts are taking place on the fringe of disciplines."

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