With HQ2 to the north and Fort Belvoir to the south, opportunities steering toward Richmond Highway

With megaprojects transforming the Silver Line corridor between Tysons and Dulles Airport, one could be forgiven for overlooking the economic strengths of the rest of Fairfax County. The Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce and the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation presented “Opportunity Richmond Highway” on November 14 to showcase what’s happening in their backyard and what’s coming down the road — literally.

County and state transportation officials continue to plan the bus rapid transit (BRT) system that will run primarily in the median of Richmond Highway 7.5 miles from the Huntington Metro Station to Fort Belvoir. Nine stops are planned along the way. Also, much of the highway will be widened to six lanes and include improvements for bicyclists and walkers. Together the BRT and the highway widening represent about $1 billion in transportation investments in the corridor.

There are nine potential stops of the bus rapid transit line approved for Richmond Highway. (Courtesy of www.fairfaxcounty.gov)

The BRT and the improved highway are part of the Embark Richmond Highway plan approved in 2018 that would concentrate more mixed-use development, especially residential, within a half-mile around the nine BRT stations. The plan concentrates most of the future growth at four community business centers: Penn Daw, Beacon/Groveton, Hybla Valley/Gum Springs and Woodlawn. It also imagines new ways to get around, providing continuous walking and bike paths along the corridor in addition to the bus system. Fairfax County has much more about the plan here.

At the Opportunity Richmond Highway event, Carlos Heard of Saul Centers, which owns Beacon Center, praised county officiasls for stepping up with significant transportation improvements that he said will stimulate growth in the corridor. Other speakers said they hope three other major factors could spark growth because of their proximity to the corridor: Amazon HQ2 in Arlington to the north, Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in Alexandria near Amazon, and Fort Belvoir on the southern end of the corridor. HQ2 and the Innovation Campus are a short ride up the Yellow Line that begins at the Huntington Metro Station, while Fort Belvoir will be the southern terminus of the BRT line.

HQ2 will employ between 25,000 and 37,000 workers in the area of south Arlington and north Alexandria now dubbed National Landing (Crystal City, Pentagon City, Potomac Yard). The $1 billion Virginia Tech innovation campus will focus on graduate-level education and research, particularly in computer science, and scale up to 750 master’s degree graduates a year. The campus is a key element in the state vision to increase the tech talent pipeline to help Amazon and other tech-focused employers.

FCEDA President and CEO Victor Hoskins addresses the audience at Opportunity Richmond Highway. (Courtesy of the Fort Hunt Herald)

Fairfax County EDA President and CEO Victor Hoskins noted that the Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University predicted a third of Amazon workers would live in Fairfax County. Based on business location patterns in Seattle, Amazon’s first headquarters, Hoskins also predicted that HQ2 will attract many companies that want to be nearby — and that many of those companies would land in Fairfax County.

Hoskins, who took on the FCEDA job on August 5, told the audience that he heard from many county officials about the need for continued improvements in the Richmond Highway corridor. “Every one of [the Board of Supervisors] said we need to do something big in South County and we need to make that happen,” he said. “Working with County Executive [Bryan Hill] and his team, we will make it happen.” (Read more about Hoskins’ comments at the event here.)

At the southern end of the Richmond Highway corridor, about 50,000 people work at the U.S. Army’s 8,500-acre Fort Belvoir. Chris Langraf, the acting director of public works at Fort Belvoir, said that translates to a $15 billion economic impact on the region. He said plans are in the works to expand the number of employees by another 3,000 with military agency expansions in the next few years, including the addition of a Virginia Army National Guard cyber-related operation. He reminded the audience that the economic impact would grow when the National Museum of the United States Army opens on the post next year and attracts an expected 750,000 visitors.

Mark Viani, chairman of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation, asked the audience to think of the Richmond Highway corridor as a barbell with HQ2 and Fort Belvoir at the end acting as growth magnets at either end of the corridor. At the same time, Fairfax County is working to attract investors along Richmond Highway through “opportunity zones” created through the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. These zones use tax incentives to encourage long-term investment in low-income and undercapitalized communities.

Nine Fairfax County census tracts, including four along Richmond Highway, have been designed as opportunity zones. Investments in funds for these zones can be used for real estate projects including transit-oriented developments, mixed-use projects, and workforce or affordable housing, as well as business retention and expansion efforts and public-private partnerships.

The four “opportunity zones” (in blue) approved along Richmond Highway are centered in the Hybla Valley and Woodlawn areas of the corridor. (Courtesy of www.fairfaxcounty.gov)

Scott Sizer of the county’s new Department of Economic Initiatives said the county is working to create a market for investors in the corridor with Opportunity Virginia, an initiative led by Virginia Community Capital and LOCUS Impact Investing in partnership with state agencies.

Jay Beekman, director of investments at Opportunity Virginia, said his office has seen most investment activity in connection with large projects in urban areas but that he hopes to spur more interest in areas such as Richmond Highway as well.

Fairfax County Supervisor Dan Storck (Mount Vernon District), who with Supervisor Jeff McKay (Lee District) has been leading a committee to advance economic improvements in the corridor, said he was impressed with the ideas he heard.

“Opportunity Richmond Highway was a great event which brought new faces and energy to the corridor,” Storck said. “The Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber and Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation attracted new and existing property owners and investors to learn more about the opportunities Embark Richmond Highway will bring to the area. It was also inspiring to hear Victor Hoskins talk about the ‘endless’ opportunities for growth and development in the District. I look forward to working with everyone who attended this event as we implement Embark and create a modern mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented community.”