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To know where we’re going, learn how we got here

Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on July 17, 2009

For a relative newcomer to Northern Virginia, Paul E. Ceruzzi’s Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner (MIT Press, 2008) is a treasure trove of information about the partnerships between the federal government, research and development institutions and technology firms that produced the explosive growth of Fairfax County. If you want to learn about how Tysons developed the way it did, and the major players and their sensibilities shaping this development, this is a great read, seasoned with a lot of colorful anecdotes.

Ceruzzi details the convergence of supportive land use policies, serendipitous transportation decisions, the Pentagon’s growing need for scientific analytical expertise and the evolution of a quasi-private sector catering to this need. In the 1950s special entities known as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) emerged that developed top scientific and analytical talent and could pay this talent private sector salaries — establishing a new research and development sector apart from the universities. Many of the FFRDCs, such as the Mitre Corporation, evolved into the companies that dominate the Tysons business community. Meanwhile, federal planners under Eisenhower chose to site the region’s airport in Chantilly, and also acquired land for an access road that would link the airport with the capital. Tysons’ convenient location relative to the airport, and its proximity to the Pentagon, helped make it the hub for the research and development community.

Ceruzzi provides a highly informative account of the decisions around the Dulles project that paved the way for Northern Virginia’s growth — in particular, the extension of a huge sewer pipe under the Potomac to the Blue Plains treatment plant that provided massive capacity for new growth. He also covers the development of the Beltway in detail, in particular the tortured right-of-ways that planners had to carve to wind the road around politically powerful constituencies in Maryland. Ceruzzi talked to a lot of developers and business leaders in the area, and he has some great insights about the self-consciously bland architecture of Tysons’ office buildings and the odd but productive alliance of the Tysons defense-related research establishment and the more entrepreneurial IT industry that emerged in the Dulles corridor in the ’80s and ’90s — an alliance that took off after 9/11.

Not surprisingly, the book betrays a bias toward technological solutions to the problems that have resulted from Tysons’ dysfunctional land use. Ceruzzi, the Curator of the National Air and Space Museum, is by no means uncritical toward the Tysons business community, but he does largely buy into the mythology peddled by business groups such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance that Northern Virginia’s traffic mess is a result of the region’s failure to build more roads — particularly an Outer Beltway linking Tysons with Maryland’s biotechnology centers. His argument attempting to link the concentration of Northern Virginia’s creative and technical talent to the Washington and Old Dominion Trail is intriguing but not very coherent. (A bicycle advocate is left to draw his or her own conclusions from Ceruzzi’s suggestive thesis — is the trail the “water cooler” for all these techno-geniuses who would otherwise be husbanding their expertise in patents?) And the solutions he offers for taming Tysons traffic are highly oriented toward futuristic technological fixes such as Personal Rapid Transit, while he discounts the possibility of improving the area’s land use.

Ceruzzi doesn’t really offer a master thesis of why growth and talent concentrated in Tysons. But the study does assemble and synthesize a lot of local history that an outsider to the Northern Virginia business community could not easily find anywhere else.

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