At Fort Belvoir’s Community Update Breakfast on Tuesday, Oct. 17, the installation commander told a roomful of community members about the base’s tenants, its amenities, the vast private housing developments that are springing up within its perimeter, its trail-blazing “town center” retail/residential development and its efforts to keep open its gates despite a 40 percent cut in security personnel.
By the time Col. Brian Lauritzen had described the pilot study the Army is conducting at Fort Belvoir to improve the response to a devastating event that would force bases to quarantine themselves, he seemed to think he’d proved a point. “Those of you who thought only BRAC was going on at Belvoir — not true,” he said.
But once the presentation ended, the questions raised by the audience all suggested that the community’s concerns about the massive influx of workers into Fort Belvoir (part of the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment And Closure, BRAC, plan) easily trumped any other news from “inside the wire.”
Nearly every question from local politicians and community leaders concerned how the Army’s plans for Belvoir would affect its neighbors, specifically, how the cars of 22,000 new workers would be accommodated by 2010 on a road network already beset by gridlock.
But before taking questions, Lauritzen, who said the breakfast was his 45th presentation to the community since he’d taken command of the installation 15 months before, made a valiant effort to talk about other initiatives at the base. He began by asking members of “Fort Belvoir’s community inside the wire” to stand and be acknowledged. “They really embody the strength of what we have going on here in the installation,” he said, before adding that the rest of the audience was also part of the Belvoir community.
Lauritzen said that 23,000 personnel, 1,350 buildings and 160 miles of road are located on the base’s 13.5 square miles. Its commissary and AAFES retail stores have the highest sales in the Army. The base has also partnered with a private developer to build 2,070 private homes on its grounds. The majority of these will be completed by 2011, aligned to the schedule for BRAC personnel shifts. “That is a recurring theme,” said Lauritzen, of the date. “There is a synchronization of effort.”
Three “villages” totaling 607 homes have already been completed, and several other villages are in various stages. A town center with retail stores below 25 two-story apartments was also completed this summer. Lauritzen said the town center, which includes a Starbucks, a spa, a sports memorabilia store and a barber shop, is the first of its kind on a Department of Defense installation. Comparing it to Old Town Alexandria, he said, “This is not a new idea. It’s new to DOD though.” He added that the development’s success makes him hopeful that a “mirror-image” will be built across the street.
Addressing the recent announcement that Belvoir will have to reduce its contracted gate-security staff by 40 percent because of an Army mandate, Lauritzen said only one gate, Woodlawn, and two rarely used exits would have to be shut completely. He said Woodlawn Gate was going to be closed anyway. Anticipating the audience’s concerns about traffic patterns for commuters to the base, Lauritzen stressed that all gate decisions would be reevaluated in light of the BRAC changes.
ADDRESSING BRAC, Lauritzen described a situation in which various facilities and personnel had to be sewn into the base’s patchwork of buildable land. “At the end of the day, we are left looking at puzzle pieces and we’ve got to fit them together,” he said, as a PowerPoint slide of puzzle pieces with labels like “net addition to workforce 22,000” and “on and off post transportation and infrastructure improvements” was shown on two screens. He described transportation as “the challenge of the day.”
But he posited that BRAC only “jump-started the need to address [preexisting] transportation issues” in the area, and he said the Army would provide plenty of juice. “The good news is, you have the ‘Army Strong’ team participating in that. Those roads will get built, I’m absolutely sure of that,” Lauritzen said, referencing a video played at the beginning of the breakfast, a sneak-peak at the Army’s new promotional advertising campaign in which various strengths of Army personnel scrolled across the screen accompanied by images of Army service.
Lauritzen described two roads that need to be built. Planning has begun, and money partially secured in the federal budget, for a new connector road between Telegraph and Route 1 near Old Mill Road and Woodlawn Plantation. But the funding for the missing stretch of the Fairfax County Parkway between Rolling Road and Interstate 95 is still a matter of debate. But Lauritzen was reassuring. “You’ve got the Army behind getting this puppy done,” he said. “We’re going to make sure this road gets built.”
To illustrate, Lauritzen said that even a flower could not halt the road’s progress. The endangered Small Whorled Begonia was discovered in a tract of forest on Belvoir’s Engineering Proving Grounds (EPG), a section of mostly undeveloped land between Backlick Road and I-95. The flower was directly in the path of the proposed Parkway extension. Determined to see for himself what stood in the way of a much-needed road, Lauritzen hiked into the forest with a naturalist. They found the flower beside a log. He described it as four inches tall and green with two petals. The highway will be shifted 80 feet to accommodate it. “We moved the highway for that,” Lauritzen said. “We are environmental stewards.”
The parkway connector is vital because the Army’s preferred plan would locate almost all of the BRAC facilities on the EPG, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Washington Headquarters Service and the Army Museum. Lauritzen said the EPG is attractive because it has space for the organizations to be neighbors. The main body of Fort Belvoir to the south has similarly undeveloped land, but to protect the environment only 300 to 350 acres along Route 1 are available for building.
Lauritzen described the Army Museum, which is not part of BRAC plans and was originally intended to be located on Belvoir proper, as one of the “victims of circumstance” that was moved to accommodate the requirements handed down by BRAC. He said Dewitt Hospital had to be expanded on the space intended for the museum (currently a golf course), and planners were concerned that locating the two side-by-side would create traffic overloads. “There are a very finite set of locations for that hospital,” he said. “I wasn’t willing to risk the nightmare traffic scenario that would be brought on by siting those facilities in tandem.”
Col. Kenneth Canestrini, the hospital’s commander, said Dewitt is badly in need of an overhaul. The 50-year old hospital is the oldest in the Army’s inventory. “That’s an old chassis,” he said.
But it is not too late for community leaders to convince the Army to change its plans for BRAC. “Nothing is set in stone;” Lauritzen’s presentation read, “no final decision until Summer 2007 — until then all alternatives are on the table.”
SUPERVISOR GERRY HYLAND (D-Mount Vernon) was quick to question one alternative. He asked why the traffic forecasts for locating the museum and hospital together were more dire than those for locating the museum beside the 18,000 employees that would be moving to the EPG. Lauritzen replied that studies suggested 3,300 museum visitors a day (totaling about 1 million a year) could tip Route 1 traffic levels beyond sustainability when coupled with the 4,000 employees that would be added to the section of the installation located along Route 1. He added that roads within the EPG would separate the museum from the other facilities. “There won’t be a mixture of traffic flow.” But Hyland wasn’t satisfied, asking why traffic capacity off-site wasn’t addressed.
Del. Mark Sickles (D-43) asked about funding for the roads, saying that the state’s recent failure to secure transportation money meant it could not be counted on to contribute. Lauritzen replied that the Army would determine what percentage of road construction it would be responsible for in the area around the EPG. “One-hundred percent would be a good number from our standpoint,” Sickles told him.
John Jenkins, the Supervisor of Neabsco District in Prince William County said he was concerned that traffic would be diverted from I-95 to Route 123 and the new bridge over the Occoquan. “These arterial connections are going to cause bottlenecks in our local communities,” he said.
After warning Lauritzen not to take his remarks personally, Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) thanked the colonel for his outreach efforts, then criticized them. Saying Lauritzen was not being responsive to the community’s concerns, Kauffman described the outreach as “forty-five presentations asking us to be good soldiers.” He said he suspected the Army chose the EPG as museum site because it would be able to locate lucrative hotels or convention centers on its own property instead of businesses that would have sprung up on private property along Route 1 and helped the revitalization of the area. He also questioned how the Army could be concerned about traffic along Route 1’s five lanes, but not on the two lanes of Rolling Road and the non-existent Parkway extension. “You’re saying it won’t cause gridlock on a road that isn’t there,” Kauffman said.