BRAC has potential to turn Springfield into NOVA’s newest office hubMarch 01, 2012 6:00 AM
by M.J. McAteer
Photo by Mark Rhodes
There’s more to Springfield these days than a giant traffic interchange. For years, people have associated this Northern Virginia locality with the Mixing Bowl, the nickname given to the massive, curving concrete interchange where Interstate 95 merges with Interstates 395 and 495 just south of Washington, D.C. But now the area is undergoing a transformation, which promises to change a suburban landscape of strip malls and auto dealerships into a gleaming commercial hub.
In the next few years, builders plan to add 8 million to 10 million square feet of prime development to the Springfield area, according to Gerald L. Gordon, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. The reason for such confidence can be summarized in one word: BRAC, the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
In 2005, BRAC mandated that several Department of Defense agencies be consolidated in and around Fort Belvoir in southeastern Fairfax County, about eight miles from downtown Springfield. Seven years later, the move of 6,400 federal workers to the new, 17-story Mark Center in nearby Alexandria and almost 9,000 to the new 2.7-million-square-foot Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield is largely complete.
The spinoff of what eventually will be more than 20,000 military and federal workers is that private contractors are making a parallel migration to be close to their DOD clients. Those contractors need office space. Marianne Swearingen, vice president and research manager for the Washington/Baltimore region for CBRE, says that because of BRAC, the Fort Belvoir area now has the biggest office growth potential in Northern Virginia, a huge plus for the future development of Springfield.
Plus all those workers will need places to eat and shop. Several major projects, including speculative office space, expanded medical facilities and the reinvention of a shopping mall, are planned or under way.
Less than two miles from Fort Belvoir is the 37-acre, 1.2 million-square-foot MetroPark office complex owned by ING Clarion. In December, ING delivered a new 330,000-square-foot office building, which was 60 percent leased by early January and at a highly competitive rate. Marc DeLuca, a spokesman for Clarion, terms the $43.50-a-square-foot rate as “amazingly high,” when considering that the average rate for Class A space in the Springfield/Burke submarket in the fourth quarter of 2011 was $39.37.
Nearly all of MetroPark’s tenants are BRAC-related, including mega-defense contractors such as Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), DCS Corp. and CGI Group. Last spring, engineering and construction contractor VSE Corp. moved into a 95,000-square-foot building at MetroPark, which ING Clarion designed as its headquarters.
Pre-BRAC, DeLuca says, his company had been building out the site at the rate of about 100,000 square feet every couple of years. Post-BRAC, it has added 570,000 square feet in the past three years, and it isn’t alone in fast-tracking development.
Adjacent to MetroPark, Monument Realty proposes an 878,562-square-foot project called Liberty View. Amy Phillips, vice president and development manager for Monument, says her company hopes to move forward this year with a design that eventually could encompass four office buildings and a 175-room hotel.
At another site on nearby Backlick Road, COPT Properties is nearing completion of a 240,000-square-foot spec building at Patriot Ridge; it hopes to create a three-building complex there. Boston Properties also has approval for half a million square feet of development close to the Springfield/Franconia Metro station.
Inova Health System, in anticipation of greater demand for its services, is expanding, too. It has approval to add a 125,000-square-foot medical office building to its existing 145,000-square-foot “healthplex” in Springfield/Franconia. In addition, it expects to open a new $20 million, 52,000-square-foot healthplex in Lorton by the end of the year.
“We’ve already seen growth in the area,” says H. Patrick Walters, Inova’s senior vice president for strategic planning, “and we are expecting further growth because of the relocations at Fort Belvoir.”
Other development in the vicinity includes a 191-room hotel that Marriott opened in Springfield in 2010. The hotel opening is part of what Gordon calls the growth in the secondary and tertiary economy that BRAC will generate. He expects that every federal worker relocated to the vicinity will generate two or three additional private-sector jobs.
Retail jobs should be among those new private-sector positions. A prominent symbol of what Gordon describes as “the high-end restart” of the region will be when work finally starts on the half-vacant Springfield Mall. Redevelopment there has been on hold because of the economic downturn. “This,” however, says Jeffrey C. McKay, “is finally going to be the year that they [mall owner Vornado Realty] get started.”
Although Vornado did not respond to an interview request, McKay — a Democrat who represents Springfield on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors — says he meets regularly with the mall owner to discuss redevelopment. Improvements to the 2 million-square-foot mall should start this year with the addition of a movie theater and renovations to the food court. Vornado’s 10-year plan for the 78-acre site, however, is much more ambitious. It calls for a town center-style development with as many as 2,700 apartments, 450 hotel rooms and a million square feet of office space.
All of this growth does not come without pain, however. As Springfield “reinvents itself,” as CBRE’s Swearingen puts it, the fear has been that traffic would go from merely notorious to downright noxious. In an effort to avoid that, DOD is contributing more than $180 million to road improvements in the area in addition to $400 million that the Virginia Department of Transportation has earmarked for the corridor. Traffic signals have been retimed, and a major interchange was restriped. Transit agencies have bumped up bus service, and parking at the Mark Center has been capped at 2,000 spaces.
No one thinks these changes will eliminate congestion, but McKay and Gordon look on the bright side, postulating that some commuters who clogged I-95 north of Springfield as they passed through to jobs in Washington now will stop around Fort Belvoir, which might actually alleviate some gridlock.
“That’s my story, and I am sticking to it,” Gordon says with a laugh. Yet, he is telling no tales when he says that BRAC was a happy development for Fairfax County coffers. Pre-BRAC, the largely residential southeastern quadrant “had always been regarded as a drain on the county budget,” Gordon says, because it required more in services than it contributed in taxes. Not anymore.
With the millions of square feet of office space expected to be added around Fort Belvoir in the next decade, the Springfield area should be joining Tysons Corner and Reston as a hub of the Northern Virginia economy.
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