In the Fast Lane: Fairfax

Fairfax County is something of welcome anomaly—the Old Dominion’s busy, brash and diverse economic powerhouse. 

It’s noon in Tysons Corner, and roughly 120 people have gathered on the top floor of the Tower Club—a meeting, dining and social gathering place for the corporate crowd in Fairfax County. It’s located on the 17th floor of what the locals call the “shopping bag building” because of the unique architectural “handle” above the roof, and offers a panoramic view of northern Virginia. Looking east, you can see the hazy, hulking outline of the Washington Cathedral. Today, the TelecomHub, a networking organization for professionals in the telecom industry, along with the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (EDA) and the George Mason University School of Management, is hosting a luncheon program titled “Global Telecom at Our Doorstep: Initiatives and Opportunities.”

The speaker list for the event affirms that, as center for commerce, Fairfax County has few peers. On hand are executives from three of the largest telecom companies in the world—Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom and China Telecom USA. Andres Jordan, a vice president for Deutsche Telekom’s T-Systems unit, notes at one point in his lunch talk that his firm moved to Fairfax County in 1996 partly because “so many startup communications companies were in this area and we wanted to be part of this dynamic group. It was a natural fit—and a great place to live.” Luis Fiallo, a managing director of China Telecom ($36 billion in annual sales), says that CT moved its U.S. headquarters from Los Angeles to Herndon recently. “One reason was the impressive talent pool here. We wanted to learn from other [companies] in the region. There are a lot of resources.”

After the luncheon, which was attended by consultants, headhunters and specialized service providers, there was a buzz that could not be ascribed solely to chocolate cake and coffee. Like every industry, the telecom business has been hobbled by the recession—but the mood at the Tower Club, as business cards and handshakes were exchanged, seemed cautiously upbeat. And why not: The U.S. government, the world’s biggest buyer of communications and IT services, is almost immune to hard times and located only a few miles away from Tysons Corner, in D.C. What’s more, the pace of innovation in this über-dynamic sector, in a region that thrives on communication and contact (digital or otherwise), hasn’t slowed. That is, opportunities await.

Virginia is a state with contrasting topography, geography and culture—north and south, east and west. Charlottesville has its Jeffersonian buildings and UVA, Hampton Roads has its muscular military bases, Richmond its historic homes, Roanoke its railroad heritage and mountain karma. And Fairfax? There are still a few people who grouse that northern Virginia is not “Southern,” perhaps forgetting the Civil War intrigue that swirled in Fairfax City. Certainly, history doesn’t seem to occupy as much mindspace in northern Virginia is it does in other parts of the state, even though Mount Vernon is a premier attraction. Perhaps it’s that Fairfax County’s more than 1 million residents are simply too busy for reflection, which is why the area can lay claim to being the state’s brash, diverse economic catalyst, with a critical mass of people, jobs and wealth that almost no other county in America can match.

And so what if you need the nerve of a NASCAR driver to get there from subdued southern environs. You roar up I-95 (head hunched over steering wheel, eyes bulging and vigilant), veer onto that hellish, eight-lane Mad Maxian wind tunnel known as the Beltway (tension sweat beginning to creep through your shirt), and then, just when your nerves are primed to explode … you quite suddenly relax. Perhaps it’s the embarrassing realization that you’ve only traveled 100 miles and didn’t really need the full-size Hummer and Xanax pack you borrowed for the trip.

Welcome to Fairfax. Yes, the traffic is an itsy bitsy issue, but as Stephen Fuller, a GMU professor and director of the school’s center for regional analysis, points out, “it’s largely a byproduct of our success.” Fuller says that he spoke to a former county executive recently who remarked that he’d much rather be stuck in traffic driving to a job than driving 60 miles in search of one. Point taken.

Numbers rarely define a locality, but in the case of Fairfax County they are telling—astonishing. Here is a place with the second-highest median household income in the county (more than $120,000), whose residents are young (a median age of 39), ethnically diverse (roughly 35 percent of the households have someone who speaks a foreign language) and extremely well educated (more graduate degrees per capita than any other locality in the world). The county’s budget—with a general fund of $3.2 billion—is bigger than those of a few states. The county’s public school system is stellar, and the county’s state university, George Mason (GMU) is quickly shedding its reputation as a commuter school. It’s got 32,000 students and about $750 million in new construction going up. Seven Fortune 500 companies are located in Fairfax—and owing in great part to the largess of the U.S. government, the county’s unemployment rate, which has spiked to about 5 percent, is still half the national average. In fiscal year 2008, a whopping $17 billion in federal procurement money went to companies based in Fairfax County.

A lot of it went to IT companies for which a federal agency is the client. About one-quarter of all technology jobs in America are in Fairfax County, which has been dubbed Silicon Valley East. The Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), located in one of the county’s most recognizable buildings, has long been an economic incubator for telecommunications, internet and, most recently, for startup bio-science companies. Drive from Tysons Corner out to Loudoun, along the Dulles toll road, and see a long string of recently built 15-story office buildings with names like Envision and Oracle, Accenture and Net App splashed across glitzy facades. “Our technology sector is not single dimensional but multi-dimensional,” says Bobbie Kilberg, CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

So, then, it’s not idle boasting when Gerald L. Gordon, the longtime president and CEO of the influential Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, describes Fairfax as “one of the premier places in America to work and live.” Gordon and the EDA, in fact, have played a crucial role in the county’s pell-mell growth over the last 30 years. Starting in the mid-1970s, when it got sufficient funding, the EDA created marketing and advertising campaigns designed specifically to persuade outside businesses to move to Fairfax. It was a strategy born of necessity: At that time, the county’s property tax rate was onerous and, as Gordon recalls, local officials were asking, “‘Who’s going to pay for new schools and new libraries?’ The answer was the business community.”

Indeed, thanks to the county’s proximity to federal power and to the efforts of the EDA (which has a $7 million budget and a full-time staff of 34, including a handful of foreign reps in such places as Frankfurt, London, Seoul and Bangalore), major businesses have flocked to Fairfax. In the early days came Exxon Mobil, TRW and AT&T. Many others followed—from other parts of America and abroad—and all now shoulder a significant share of the tax load. There are more than 350 foreign-owned businesses in the county alone, one of the latest being Volks­wagen, which recently moved its U.S. headquarters to Fairfax. Science Applications International Corp., a Fortune 500 scientific, engineering and technology applications company, recently announced that it is moving its headquarters from San Diego to Fairfax—and intends to invest $25 million in the state and create 1,200 new jobs. As a result of this steady migration of corporations to northern Virginia, the county’s property rate has plunged—from $1.74 per $100,000 of assessed value in the mid-1970s to $1.04 today, despite the fact that the Fairfax County population over that time period has doubled.

Gordon doesn’t dispute the fact that government money has powered Fairfax County’s prolonged boom. But he notes that neighboring Maryland counties enjoy the same benefit and yet have not matched Fairfax’s growth. He credits local, county and state politicians who, he says, have been “consistently supportive and pro-business” since the mid-1970s. “We also have a very efficient and effective local government—that’s very important. People pay a tax and expect to get value for it, and they do in Fairfax County.”

As might be expected in a place that moves fast, Fairfax is changing. Big wheels are in motion. Since the 1940s, or earlier, the county has gone through at least two sweeping transformations—shifting first from its dairy farm roots to that of a D.C. bedroom community, and then after that becoming a symbol for the nation’s breakneck suburban growth. And another upheaval is coming. Over the next 30 years, pockets of Fairfax will morph from being suburban to genuinely urban—starting with Tysons Corner, which is considered the county’s downtown.

Tysons has been panned for years as being too large and sterile—Time magazine recently described it as “a fortress of unfriendly buildings surrounded by oceans of parking lots … pedestrians are personae non grata here.” There is truth to that, though Tysons also boasts two spots where any successful or aspiring individuals would be lucky to spend time—the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel and, adjacent to it, the high-gloss Tysons Galleria—with boutiques such as Chanel, Cartier, Neiman Marcus. Both are a slice of Nirvana for the well-heeled consumer. The problem is that while some 120,000 people work in Tysons, very few people actually live there—an issue that, writ large, explains why Fairfax has some of the worst rush-hour congestion in America.

After much study by the Tysons Land Use Task Force, the county has adopted a grand plan to urbanize Tysons Corner by building eight mixed-use neighborhoods anchored by four planned Metro stations linked to D.C. and other new stations on the drawing board for Dulles Airport, Reston and Springfield. The idea, according to a February 2009 planning report, is to make Tysons a “livable and walkable place” through the construction of high-rise housing and the increased use of public transportation. The plan envisions “a sustainable urban center” with 200,000 jobs and 100,000 residents who will enjoy “restored streams, new parks and green buildings.” And there is more: Within five years, the eight-lane Beltway will get four new tolled “hot lanes” between Springfield and Tysons Corner—with variable rates based on the congestion in other lanes. If you are single-occupancy and want to go fast, you can—but you will pay for the privilege. Putting drivers in a hurry into the hot lanes should mitigate the mayhem in the other eight lanes.

Will hot lanes and the Tysons makeover relieve the area’s traffic problems? Nobody knows, but as Stephen Fuller, the GMU professor, explains, the genie is out of the bottle. The politicians can’t stop or even slow the county’s growth; all that can be done is to try and manage it to enhance the standard of living. By 2030, Fuller says, the county is projecting 350,000 more jobs—100,000 for Tysons Corner alone. Imagine, he adds, Tysons residents walking out of their homes and hopping onto a bus, train or jitney to get to their offices. “That’s what’s happening in Arlington,” says Fuller. “It’s a model that works, and Fairfax is beginning to move toward that. Where there are Metro stations there will be high-density housing, which generates more revenue. It’s a fiscal benefit, and the county understands that.”

Adds Gordon, who says he “most definitely supports” the Tysons plan, “It makes sense to increase densities, put residences and retail and businesses in one place, so people can live and work in one place. I think it’s a great idea, though of course some people are not going to like it. Urban living is not for everybody.”

Both men emphasize that Fairfax nowadays is as much of a “downtown” as D.C. In fact, Fairfax has far more jobs than the district—720,000 compared to 580,000. According to Fuller, the county is losing income because so many people are now driving into the area to work from other places—including Maryland. “Northern Virginia generates about two-and-a-half jobs for every one in Maryland,” he says. “Maryland increasingly looks at Virginia as a place to work.” This has made Fairfax an exporter of income, because there are more outsiders commuting to work in the county than Fairfax residents working outside the county. “That results in a net transfer of wealth to other counties,” says Fuller, “and it will get worse and worse.”

While Fairfax is chiefly about business and bustle, the county has what Robin Smyers, president of the Reston Association, calls its “unexpected” side. For one thing, there is more than 22,000 acres of park land in Fairfax County—not quite 10 percent of county’s total acreage—and, says Fairfax Country Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Peterson, “we are continuing to acquire land.” She says that Gerry Connolly, the former chairman of the FC Board of Supervisors who is now a U.S. congressman, was “a big proponent of land acquisition and really drove the 10 percent target.” Earlier this decade, the park authority and the county got the multi-use, 41-mile-long Cross County Trail up and running. “That was a major accomplishment,” says Peterson. It runs through stream valleys—areas that are wet and low and behind housing developments—from the Potomac River all the way to Occoquan. “People love their parks here,” she adds. “Our bond initiatives usually get approval votes in the upper 70s or 80s range, which is a strong indicator that people value green space and leisure activities in Fairfax County.”

Reston, the now-45-year-old planned community, remains a leafy residential oasis hardly more than a stone’s throw from Dulles Airport—but portions of it are destined for redevelopment. Reston Association CEO Milton Matthews graciously took me on a morning tour of the 7,000-acre community—which has 55,000 homeowners and 15 swimming pools—and showed me the original Lake Anne neighborhood that will get a facelift when a developer can be found. Reston founder Robert Simon Jr., at age 95, still lives there—and drives. “Redevelopment is coming,” says Matthews. “The Metro is coming, so we have to ask the question: How can we keep Reston special for the next 45 years?”

The Reston Town Center is special, and the community’s focal point. It’s an appealing mixed-use development that’s got charming shops (ranging from the quaint Appalachian Spring to sophisticated Sephora), attractive condos and apartments—and a languid vibe. Business people staying at the Hyatt at the Town Center can pick from a large variety of appealing restaurants offering everything from seafood and Thai to custom-made burgers and wine bars. There is a French bistro—and an outpost of Clyde’s. Smyers calls the Town Center “very boulevard-y,” adding, “A lot of communities across the country are trying to emulate it.”

Herndon, next door to Reston, is a much older community, but with a younger population. It was recently named by Money magazine as the 8th best place “to be rich and single.” “We are all a bit surprised,” laughs Connie Hutchison, Herndon’s vice mayor and head of the Herndon-Dulles Visitor Center, which occupies an old train depot building. “The majority of our residents are young professionals with families,” she says. The town was named for U.S. Navy Commander William Lewis Herndon, who was born in Fredericksburg but apparently spent no time in northern Virginia. However, he was a hero: In 1857, he helped to save the women and children on the ship Central America as it sank in a hurricane. After World War II, the navy named a destroyer after him. There is plenty more about him in the visitor center.

Those looking for some local flavor can stroll to Jimmy’s Old Time Tavern, which had more than a few guys enjoying beverages during my noontime visit. I ordered an iced tea, prompting one of the bar regulars (I presume) to suggest, with a red-faced grin, “Try a Guinness!” That’s what he was doing. Herndon has opened a new art gallery in a nearby former tractor supply shop. The building is nondescript white cinder block, but the paintings are worth a look.

To get a fix on the history of Fairfax County, visit Fairfax City. It’s hectic but has a handful of historic buildings, including the original County Courthouse (where the first Civil War soldier was killed), the Old Town Hall (built by Joseph Willard) and the Ratcliffe-Allison House (oldest house in the city, built in 1812). The city’s small museum, located in a historic, two-story brick elementary school building, runs through the history and development of the county. There, I learned that Fairfax County led the state in dairy production in the 1920s, but even then farmland was being lost to residential and commercial development. A 1925 survey concluded, “The outlook for agriculture … is dismal.” Between 1940 and 1957, Fairfax County was the fastest-growing region in America. “Thousands of new residents migrated to the area, seeking jobs with the expanding federal government,” reads one display in the museum. And in the ’50s, many of them were buying “three-bedroom ramblers” for under $20,000—the hip new homes replacing Holstein and Guernsey cows on the landscape.

Nowadays, lots of GMU students run through Fairfax City, which explains why there is a surf shop and a bike shop next to buildings on the National Historic Register. The university is only a hop away. GMU’s Center for the Arts, which has a 1,600-seat auditorium, attracts a steady stream of top-rate acts—the upcoming schedule includes pianist Lang Lang, the George Winston “Winter” show and the Moscow Festival Ballet, among many others. It is the northern Virginia home of the Virginia Opera and was a central venue for the area’s weeklong Fall for the Book festival in September. Novelist E.L. Doctorow was the event’s highlight speaker.

Wolf Trap, up the road from Tysons Corner, remains the most appealing performing arts venue in the state with its impressive amphitheater, outdoor picnic seating and restaurant—and it’s not just a summer place. The cozy Barns at Wolf Trap host a variety of talented artists, in an intimate setting, during the winter. “The striking thing about Fairfax,” says Jo Orme­sher, who does marketing work for both Fairfax City and County, “is that we have a richness of the arts—and the whole region has a diversity that is impressive. There are a lot of nationalities here, and when they collide, don’t we all benefit?”

They do, and even in restaurants. Fairfax County’s dining scene cannot be compared to those of major cities, but as Mary Alexander, president of the chic 2941 Restaurant, points out, “it’s been growing. … I think people here enjoy trying new places. For so long, you had to go to D.C. Now, there are new places popping up in Fairfax—fine dining, casual, interesting cuisine from around the world.”

Certainly, 2941 remains a standard bearer on the gourmet side of the market. It has an odd location—it’s on the ground floor of an office building in Falls Church—but has been one of the best restaurants in Virginia since it opened eight years ago. Few places can match its stunning décor—which includes a 1912 oil painting by the Englishman Herbert James Draper (Clyties of the MistThe Burghers of Calais)—not completely original but made from the original mold used by Rodin; a painted pottery figure from China’s Tang Dynasty and a modern light form called Jellyfish, which was handmade in Italy and hangs from the ceiling. The restaurant’s owner, Rick Adams, owns most of the office space around the restaurant. “He’s very private, just a collector,” says Alexander.

Alexander calls 2941 executive chef Bertrand Chemel a “rock star.” Food critics laud his dishes for blending fresh ingredients with French and Asian flair. Prior to joining 2941, Chemel was the Chef de Cuisine at Café Boulud in New York City. I had a tasting meal featuring fois gras with lobster broth and summer truffle as a starter; pan-roasted Madai snapper, handmade potato gnocchi, cilantro-crusted lamb loin, concord grape sorbet (with candied walnuts and fresh goat cheese cremeux) and caramel poached pear (over sourdough flapjacks). Chemel told me that regulars are always asking him not to change the menu—“but for us it’s important to change with the seasons. I find it exciting.”

Restaurant 2941’s original chef, Jonathan Krinn, has joined with fellow chef Jon Mathieson to open Inox, in Tysons Corner, right next to the Ritz-Carlton. Critics from the Washington Post and other D.C. publications have given it favorable reviews. Krinn’s father, ophthalmologist Mal Krinn, made a name for himself baking bread at 2941, and he is doing the same at his son’s new enterprise.

The term “old Fairfax” is virtually an oxymoron—but there is still a vestige or two around. The Italian restaurant Da Demenico sits in a low-slung white building that’s nearly dwarfed by office buildings in Tysons Corner, but it’s a favorite with older county residents who appreciate its old-school interior—heavy gold drapes, brocade-patterned wallpaper, clamshell booths—and classic food. Veal chops are the specialty, the portions are big, and an entertainer strolls through the restaurant singing Italian arias. As one customer wrote, approvingly, in an Web review, “If I had a wealthy, Italian grandmother with eclectic tastes, this would be her dining room.”

Not more than 15 minutes from bustling Fairfax City is the little throwback town of Clifton. It looks and feels 19th-century, with period houses and a country store. The one exception to the quaintness is Trummer’s on Main—a dapple of sophistication on an erstwhile horse-and-carriage street. Stefan and Victoria Trummer opened the restaurant—after renovating the 1869 building that was the Clifton hotel—this summer, with three floors decorated in warm reds, oranges and soft creams. The first-floor bar has a honey-colored onyx bar top; the second floor has two fireplaces and a cozy “winter garden” dining room. The Trummers—he is Austrian, she a Clifton native—spent several years in the restaurant business in New York City before hanging their shingle in Fairfax.

To an extent, Clifton and the Trummers exemplify the yin and yang of Fairfax County. It’s got a smart, cosmopolitan population and a rich culture, to be sure—but amid the hurly-burly, pockets of old Virginia remain and even thrive. As Connie Hutchinson, in Herndon, says, “We’re urban, yet you can still find classic Virginia hospitality.”

Gordon, head of the Economic Development Authority, adds, “We’re going to keep growing. The challenge will be to maintain all the best things about urbanization—great public schools and enormous diversity—and manage the rest.”

So far, so good.

Thanks to the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner and the Hyatt Reston for their hospitality.

The models in the opening photo are Andrea Heininge and Rebecca Sly, courtesy of the Reston Community Players. Clothing courtesy of Talbots. Hair/makeup/wardrobe styling by Meredith Ehler.

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