The Greening of Fairfax County

Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, wants to make Fairfax County more green. In the “Cool Counties” initiative he launched two weeks ago, Connolly aims to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that result from automobile emissions and coal-fired power plants that generate electricity. He has taken on a formidable task.

Fairfax County has an embedded infrastructure of buildings, roads and utilities — an investment worth hundreds of billions of dollars — built to serve automobility. Much of the development in th ecounty is scattered, disconnected, low density and energy inefficient. In describing Connolly’s challenge, Amy Gardner with the Washington Post hones in on the Fairfax County government complex as a monument to dysfunctional land use.

The 670,000-square-foot government center, built in the early 1990s when energy prices were low and environmental consciousness even lower, could have anchored a pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented community of homes, shops and jobs. “But,” Gardner writes, “the five-story mass of granite and glass, which rises squatly from an isolated, 86-acre sea of asphalt and lawn near Fair Oaks Mall, is suited to nothing of the sort. For years, critics have said the government center is an emblem of sprawl: far from Metrorail, sequestered by divided highways, intimidating to walkers and bicycle riders.”

Of about 11,000 county employees, only 135 are known to use bus, rail or vanpools to get to work. The ratio is even smaller at the 2,900-parking-spot government center, where about 1,700 county workers are based. Gardner paints a word picture of an empty transit bus “creeping from shelter to shelter in a vain search for a rider. Not a single pedestrian was in view on the sidewalks and trails leading away from the building.”

The “Cool Counties” initiative is designed to decrease government emissions of greenhouse gases by increasing the use of wind power, clean-burning vehicles and environmentally friendly building techniques. But Connolly concedes that it will take more than carbon fluorescent lightbulbs and hybrid cars to transform a government whose physical form, as Gardner puts it, “mirrors the expansive suburb it serves.”

Connolly envisions a future in which the government center is surrounded by a more urban feel: affordable housing for county workers, more commerce and jobs — and even an extension of Metrorail along Interstate 66.

Reading between the lines: The Greening of Fairfax County will require a built environment more hospitable to pedestrians and mass transit. And that will require the demolition and rebuilding of half the roads, buildings and utility infrastructure in the county. Even in the absence of political resistance and bureaucratic lethargy, that will take decades to complete. Connolly will not live long enough to see his vision fulfilled. But it’s accomplishment enough if he can get the process started.

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2 responses to “The Greening of Fairfax County”

  1. nova_middle_man Avatar

    nice to see Connolly doing this

    However there is a big cynical part of this too

    1. It’s an election year

    2. Connolly has been a champion of development (and not always good/smart/well thought out) development for many years

    There is a choice this fall

  2. Groveton Avatar


    Well said.

    Connolly says he wants to make Fairfax County “more green”. He has an advantage – it would be hard to make Fairfax County “less green”.

    The bar is pretty low on that promise.

    Jim Bacon:

    Someday when you’re in Northern Virginia I’ll buy you lunch in the Reston Town Center. I know it’s a small part of a big county (i.e. Fairfax) but it seems to embody what you think mixed-use development should be (minus a Metro stop).

    Maybe I don’t really understand what you and the experts on this site really like but Reston seems like the closest thing to what you describe in Fairfax County.

    If so, I’d love to hear local politicians say they are going to create more Restons in the county. They might even grow sufficient spine to say where. At least I could understand that promise.

    Promising to make a county “more green” or a “cool county” sounds good but it definitely requires a re-engineering of how the county government and residents think.

    The Fairfax County Government Center is a disaster in every way. Huge, inefficient and overpriced it also manages to be a bastion of government inefficiency as people have to drive from all over the county to do things there. Fairfax County’s answer? Build mini-government centers all over the county. Sometimes these centers do what the big center does, sometimes they don’t.

    I’d laugh if I wasn’t one of the people footing the tax bill for this idiocy.

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