By Lew Sichelman. For years, practically everyone in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area associated the town of Lorton, in Fairfax County, Va., with the prison facility that was located there.
It wasn't exactly Oswald, the mythical HBO penitentiary known as "Oz." Or even the fabled and all-too-real Rikers Island in New York made famous in all those Manhattan television dramas. Nevertheless, Lorton Reformatory was the prison where D.C. had been sending its worst offenders since the early 1900s. As a result, Lorton the town wasn't a place where anyone was particularly keen on settling to raise a family.
Builders who had tried their hands at developing communities nearby had met with some success, but it was usually slow going, despite the area's location along one of Washington's heavier commuting corridors. "The prison was always looming," says Stan Settle, vice president of land development for Pulte's Washington-area division. "Because there was a chance of a breakout or riot, the area never really blossomed."
No More Stigma
All that's changed. In 1998, Congress voted to close the prison, and the town hasn't been the same since. No longer is it a blur to commuters whizzing by on Interstate 95. Now, families actually live there, too.
"Once you knew the prison was going away," says Settle, "there was no more reluctance."
Since the last of the 8,000 prisoners were transferred in late 2001 and the gates were left open for the first time, more than 5,000 houses have been built, according to county officials. "All of a sudden, you see houses popping up everywhere," Gerry Hyland, vice chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, told the Washington Business Journal recently.
Well, not exactly all of a sudden. KSI Inc., a Vienna, Va.-based developer and builder, purchased its 300-acre property known as Lorton Station "well before" the prison was closed, according to Cassie Kateline, vice president of sales and marketing. "We are very progressive in terms of building around smart growth and transportation hubs."
KSI would have bought the ground even if the prison wasn't going out of business, Kateline says. After all, the all-important infrastructure was already in place and a Virginia Railway Express station was open.
Still, it didn't hurt that by the time lot sales started in July 1999, a timetable for closing the prison was in place and prisoners already were being sent packing. Indeed, the 1,500 sites at Lorton Station went quickly, mostly to big builders like NVHomes, the Drees Co., M/I Homes, U.S. Home, Ryan Building Group, and Hovnanian Enterprises.
Another indication of success of the KSI property is the rapid acceleration of housing prices. When the community opened to the public in 1999, the average price was about $300,000. Now, it's in the high $400,000s, Kateline reports.
Pulte started looking at Lorton four years ago. It was a long, tedious process, says Settle. But finally, the Bloomington Hills, Mich.-based company ended up swapping land it had under contract at Virginia's Mason Neck region for 225 of the prison's 2,000-plus acres. And this winter, sales began at its 732-home Laurel Hill subdivision, where five product lines range in price from $343,900 to $676,900.
With these and other housing developments under way, county officials are now confident the rest of the mix will follow, much of it on the grounds of the old prison itself. A golf course is planned, as are a senior campus and new schools, all adjacent to a 1,600-acre park alongside the Occoquan River. The prison's water treatment plant also is being redone, and a third of the 300 buildings on the prison site are being adapted for re-use.
No wonder KSI's Kateline now calls Lorton the southern gateway to Fairfax County. "It's a phenomenal location," she says.
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