By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009
An eyesore. A ghetto. An area poised for improvement. That's how some residents of Prince William County's Triangle community describe the place they call home.
Located along Route 1 just north of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Triangle for decades has been defined by the untidy highway corridor lined with dilapidated buildings, fast-food joints, less-than-stellar hotels and multiple auto dealerships.
One of the most run-down stretches in the county, it just became more unsightly, but residents hope that is actually a sign of progress as the county tries to revitalize the area.
County officials bought and demolished 40 buildings -- which housed mostly businesses -- along about a mile on Route 1 through Triangle as part of a plan to bury all utility lines and turn the road into a six-lane divided highway with new landscaping, a walking trail and a bike path.
The corridor is dotted with construction vehicles, building rubble and dirt mounds. A good chunk of the commercial base is gone. Residents said they are now pinning their hopes on the county's vision to "beautify" the road, turning it into a marketing tool that will attract new business to the stalled community.
"This has taken a toll on the community, because it looks like Triangle has been hit by an atomic bomb," said Daniel Cosner, 55, who lives about two miles west of Route 1 in Dumfries. "This is painful to watch to some degree, but if you look toward the future, you know it is going to look a lot better than it has in decades."
Several blue-collar, racially diverse neighborhoods in Triangle abut the highway. Some of the people there are longtime residents, while others are more transient, coming in to work at neighboring Quantico. County officials estimate the median household income of the roughly 7,000 people in Triangle is two-thirds of what it is in the rest of the county.
Officials from Alexandria to Prince William have spent the past 12 years discussing how to revitalize Northern Virginia's stretch of the historic highway that traces the eastern coast of the United States. Prince William, however, is the first to step up, using almost $70 million from previous bond referendums for the project.
"They have been talking about this as long as I can remember, and thankfully it's finally off the ground," said Cosner, a native of the neighborhood. "This will help modernize Triangle and address traffic. It's progress, and I'm glad it's happening."
County Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R), whose district includes Triangle, said work to widen the road and bury the wires is expected to take two years. After that, the plan is to create a six-lane traffic circle at the edge of Quantico's base and build the Village of Triangle -- a town center development that would house shops and restaurants.
"The Triangle area is very old and very untidy. This had to be done," said Caddigan, who added that she has made it her main project since she took office nearly 20 years ago. "We are right near the beautiful new [National Museum of the Marine Corps], which brings people from all over the world. Prince William is a proud county, and we want this place to look nice and be a place where tourists stop when they come in."
Caddigan said the effort to change Route 1 has taken so long partially because of lack of funds. But even after the bond referendums solved that problem, the county still had to convince the Virginia Department of Transportation that the road needed to be six lanes, she said.
Some residents are cautiously optimistic that development will follow.
"I don't have a lot of confidence, but I sure hope new business comes, as long as it goes with the area," said Triangle resident Teresa Anderson, 45, who now looks outside her back window at mounds of dirt instead of a graffiti-covered 7-Eleven. "It doesn't need to be as ghetto as it has been, but I also don't want 10-story buildings."
Planning and community development experts said Prince William is making the right decision to begin a revitalization effort in the middle of a recession, because the area will be ready for new development when the economy turns around.
"It takes years if not decades to get into trouble, so it will take years to get out," said David Leland, managing director of Leland Consulting Group, who chaired a study of the Route 1 corridor. "I've seen a lot of transformations before, but it depends on the leadership and commitment of [the county]. This is not just a project -- this is a business the county has to invest in if it wants to see results."
Robert E. Lang, an urban affairs and planning professor at Virginia Tech and co-director of its Metropolitan Institute, said it will take more than new trees and highway lanes to turn Triangle around. He said the county must focus on creating a sense of place and making the Village of Triangle a reality, a project that lacks funding and investors.
"This is a challenging thing to do, and I'm respectful of people's efforts to do it," Lang said. "Prince William has a little bit of a better environment to do it in. . . . Being in Washington and south of the city, you might look like a genius without really trying. You can do a project that anywhere else in the country might fail but will thrive here."
Planning experts said Triangle is in a good position to change because it is near "recession-proof" Washington and the Marine Corps museum. Prince William will also benefit from the coming base realignment and closures, which will bring thousands of jobs to Quantico and Fort Belvoir.
"Something that will be a huge driver for visitation there is the Marine Corps," said Tom Eitler, vice president of advisory services at the Urban Land Institute. "It's not like they are trying to do this in a place where there is no draw. People will be coming to Triangle."
Although some residents said they miss the convenience of having shops and burger joints out their back door, they agreed that it had to be done.
"There was a lot of history along the Route 1 corridor that is now gone, but this is 2009 and we have to accept changes," said Ron Emmons, 74. "I think it is going to be a beautiful thing. I've seen the drawings for it, but to really see it done . . . well, it is really going to be something."