It was once the main roadway from Richmond to Washington, D.C. It was, in many ways, Virginia's "Main Street." Then, like many of its counterparts throughout the nation, it began to decay and die.
Colloquially known as "The Highway," it is that stretch of Route 1 from the Beltway to its intersection with Interstate 95 South. Last Thursday, more than 60 area residents gathered at Hollin Hall Senior Center to hear a presentation titled, "The Changing Face of Richmond Highway."
Making the presentations were Kenneth P. Disselkoen, regional manager, Region One, Department of Systems Management for Human Services, Fairfax County, and Stephanie Landrum, projects coordinator, Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation. They covered, the past, present, and projected future for this seven miles of asphalt and concrete.
Disselkoen has worked in the southeastern portion of the county for the past 20 years, and Landrum is a native, growing up in the Stafford Landing area. "Region One is often defined only by The Highway," Disselkoen said. "But, once you get back off the highway, you see strong neighborhoods and communities."
Region One encompasses both the Mount Vernon and Lee districts. "It has some of the most historic sites and areas in the entire county," Disselkoen emphasized. In addition to Mount Vernon Estate, Gunston Hall, and Woodlawn Plantation, there is the community of Gum Springs.
"It was named by George Washington for the many gum trees and springs in the area. It was a free black community even during the Civil War," Disselkoen explained.
Prior to 1971, when Interstate 95 opened, Richmond Highway was a commercially rich and vibrant area. It was home to a wide array of businesses and motels because it was part of one of America's longest continuous roadways. Route 1 carried traffic from the Canadian border in Maine to Key West, Fla.
"Everyone wanted their business on the right side of the highway going south," Disselkoen noted. "That's because they figured everyone going to Florida for vacation had money and coming home they were broke."
AT ONE TIME there were two regional airports along the seven mile stretch. One was at Hybla Valley and the other at Beacon Hill. In a publication marking the 60th Anniversary of the Penn Daw Fire Station, it tells of the firefighters being called out to catch escaped pigs from the Beacon Hill area and having to rescue a pilot who hit a horse while landing at the airport, Disselkoen told the audience.
After the opening of Interstate 95, that vibrancy began to fade. The hotels and motels fell into disuse and eventual disrepair. Businesses folded or moved elsewhere. "By the mid-to late 70's, Richmond Highway was known only for its go-go joints and adult book stores," Disselkoen related.
Changes were not only in bricks and mortar but also in demographics. The greatest change in this area was in the Hispanic population. "It went from seven percent to a high of 15 percent since the early 1980's," he said.
The other significant change was in the density of the population in the Richmond Highway area compared to the rest of Fairfax County. It averages 4,000 people per square mile, more than twice as high as the countywide average, according to statistics.
Other population percentages comparing Mount Vernon District with Fairfax County as a whole, are: White: MV, 61; FFC, 63; African American — MV, 19; FFC, 8; Asian — MV, 7.2; FFC, 13; and Hispanic — MV, 13 to 15, FFC 13.
"Although the numbers show a wide disparity in the African American percentages between this area and the rest of the county, there has really been very little change from colonial days," Disselkoen said. "The percentage spread has remained almost constant over the years."
A REAL BRIGHT SPOT in the human development, according to Disselkoen, is the growth in the younger population. "This is a sign of real health for the area. Those under 15 has increased dramatically with a median age of 35, equal to the rest of the county."
The Richmond Highway sector's annual income average is approximately $80,000, only slightly behind the overall county average. " But, that's still twice the national average of $40,000," he said.
The economic turnaround from the low point of the late 70's and early 80's, is well underway, according to both Disselkoen and Landrum.
"Investments have topped $700 million since the 80's. Ninety four million has been invested in the last year," according to their statistics.
"Although many of the changes have been underway for the past 20 years, people have really taken notice to them in the last two years," Landrum said.
"Any real change always starts with new residential development. Then comes retail, then restaurants, and lastly, new office development," she explained. "The South County Government Center is the first new office space in the last 10 years."
LANDRUM TICKED OFF a number of new additions and changes along the corridor over the last couple of years. Going from north to south, her list included Huntington Gateway, Eckard's and Rite Aid drugstores, the new Krispy Kreme, the transformation of Beacon Hill Mall, and the Village at Gum Springs, the first townhouse development on The Highway.
In the near future, Hampton Inn, located next to the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. will add 50 suites in a new seven story tower, Landrum revealed. To do that. the Alexandria Diner will be replaced.
Other future plans call for a new 13 story high rise living complex on Huntington Avenue near the Huntington Metro Station, a mixed use project on North Kings Highway and more structured parking at the Huntington Metro Station, according to Landrum.
As for expanding Metro down the corridor with a station at Fort Belvoir, Landrum admitted, "There is a real debate if Metro can be expanded along Richmond Highway, due to the severe grade changes. "Alternate mass transit means are being looked at for Richmond Highway. The Metro station at Fort Belvoir will come from Franconia, not Huntington," she said.
OTHER PROJECTS along the corridor, present and planned, cited by SFDC, included the 400 apartment complex Westmoreland House, Carr Homes' Huntington Station, Gold's Gym, the new Target Store, and the future National Army Museum at Fort Belvoir.
During the question and answer period attendees wanted to know:
"Any plans for a major department store?
"Why have the upscale restaurants gone under?"
"It's due to the low demand for such restaurants. But, this should change as more upscale housing comes into the area."
"What about open space in the planning process?"
"Each site is required to have a certain amount of green space."