Hidden behind trees along Route 1 in the southern part of Fairfax County, the nearly century-old Army post known as Fort Belvoir has morphed into a bustling town, where mothers push strollers along pristine streets, couples order sushi at the supermarket and friends — often in camouflage uniforms — can meet for a movie.
The post has had minimal connection to the Northern Virginia communities that surround it, save for the river of traffic pouring from the gates each afternoon and clogging roads for miles. But the sense of isolation is starting to evaporate: With about 80,000 cars driving in and out of the installation’s main post each day, military officials are trying to become better neighbors to people in the area.
Army officials are working on a number of initiatives that would open Fort Belvoir’s gates to the public, or at least make life easier around the main post. Since the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure effort, the number of workers there and at three nearby, affiliated military installations has soared 60 percent to just over 51,000 — more than twice as many employees as at the Pentagon.
To help ease what has become some of the region’s worst traffic congestion, a new road will open in June that allows commuters to cut through the 7,800-acre main post between Route 1 and Telegraph Road. It is a gesture of faith in a post-9/11 world, which could salve lingering resentment from when another, less secure road — Woodlawn Road — was closed to the public after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Department of Defense has dedicated $180 million toward a Route 1 road-widening project set to begin in the spring, which could lay the groundwork for rapid-transit bus or train service.
And, as part of a congressional mandate to reduce military costs, military officials are considering allowing the public to use Fort Belvoir’s golf course and athletic fields and partnering with surrounding local governments on waste management and other municipal services.
“We recognize that we’re part of a community,” said Col. Gregory Gadson, Fort Belvoir’s commanding officer. “We’re not this distinct entity by ourselves, in isolation.”
In many ways, Fort Belvoir resembles any suburban community. It boasts a sprawling indoor mall, recreational football and basketball leagues, and 2,176 houses with well-kept front lawns and two-car garages — a far cry from the traditional barracks that dominated the fort in an earlier era. Each month, an average of 116 babies are born at the new state-of-the art military hospital.
A majority of the military and civilian personnel who work on the post live outside its gates, a connection to the outside world that military officials say they are starting to focus on in a new way.
“They use schools in the community and public facilities,” Gadson said of those who live off-post. “So, in some ways, maybe we are trying to open ourselves up. It’s really about where we can find common ground that benefits all.”
Fairfax officials are seizing the opportunity to strengthen ties to the post. Mostly because they believe it will give them a stronger say in Fort Belvoir’s future.
For years, officials have been frustrated by what Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) described as the military’s indifference toward problems caused by the base realignment.
As Fort Belvoir has grown, so have demands on local resources — on police and fire crews, for example, and the increasingly crowded elementary school on the main post that is staffed by county-paid teachers and other employees. With more elementary school-age children expected, plans are underway to add another school building, a $30 million project funded mostly with federal dollars.
“The base is going to continue to grow, and how it grows makes a profound difference on Fairfax County,” said McKay, whose district runs adjacent to the fort’s main post.
“Whether it’s jamming more residential in there, whether it’s bringing in more jobs, those kinds of things we’re just not at the table for,” McKay said. “We have to get them to think outside the gates.”
Army officials say the partnership they hope to build at Fort Belvoir could serve as a prototype for community relations in other places.
But there are many rifts to bridge.
For example, Fairfax officials said the 46 restaurants, shops and other businesses inside Fort Belvoir are hurting their plans to lure new retail to the dilapidated Route 1 corridor. Because the businesses are on federal land, they are exempt from the county sales tax, which lets them offer bargain prices that lure military families.
Said Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), whose district also runs parallel to the main post: “From an economic-development standpoint, it has gone in the opposite direction from where I would like to see them going.”
Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, described base realignments as “like getting a drink of water with a fire hose.” In other words, it is difficult to control what has become the county’s largest employer.
The planned road improvements — which also include expanding the Interstate 395 ramp near another of the realigned military sites — should dramatically ease traffic in the corridor, said Bulova (D). The Route 1 expansion will include a center median that could later be used for commuter bus service or train service — and, possibly, safer places for pedestrians to cross.
But the widening project also means the end of horse stables in the Mount Vernon area that have operated for more than 40 years.
Mary Ann Hesch, who lives across from the main post, said she and her neighbors are lamenting that loss and are worried that a wider road will simply mean more traffic. They are fighting plans for a sound wall that she said would cut into their gated community, Inlet Cove.
“It’s been kind of like a little oasis in here,” Hesch said. “When they decided to widen Route 1, none of us were happy.”
Inside the post, it is easy to forget the arguments about what is happening beyond the gates. The small-town environment helps wounded soldiers who have experienced battlefield trauma rediscover a sense of stability, Army officials say.
Shopping inside the massive commissary one recent day, Amber Panelli, 32, said she and her husband, a supply sergeant, felt immediately at home after moving to the post last year. “I really like the safety and convenience,” Panelli said as she pushed a shopping cart loaded with food and her two young children.
At a nearby Starbucks, friends chatted over lattes. Soldiers crowded the food court inside the mall. Teens meandered home from school, overstuffed backpacks on their shoulders.
Donald Carr, Fort Belvoir’s spokesman, smiled as he discussed plans for a new sit-down restaurant on the post.
“You can come on this post,” he said, “and you would never have to leave.”