Go Big

Driving out to the Ashburn Home Depot along Loudoun County Parkway, I was struck recently by the sheer size of all the data centers going in. I did some online searching and was surprised to learn that our area now is home to 70 data centers with more planned for the future. When I lived here during the 1990s the area was still very rural. AOL was expanding their footprint but for the most part, turf farms seemed to be the major development. All that has changed now and there are homes and retail establishments from Ashburn to Brambleton, from Route 28 on up to Belmont Ridge Road. 

With more than 70% of the world’s internet traffic passing through our area, it isn’t a surprise to expect even more development in the coming years. Trying to find a careful balance between residential growth and commercial development has been a difficult challenge. The data centers have brought much needed employment opportunities to our local economy, and added to county revenues.

Data Center Frontier’s Rich Miller reports that the ongoing rush to build more data centers has resulted in the county receiving “fast-track applications” for seven new data center projects that will result in 3 million square feet of new data center space in the region. In addition, last month Data Center Dynamics reported that Amazon is planning construction of a new 1.75 million square foot data center facility in the area as well.

My concern isn’t so much in the number of data centers that we host as it is in the visual effect they have on our community. Our wide roads are beautifully landscaped and well maintained. Yet, the enormous size of the newer developments seems to be softened only with the addition of low berms, landscaping and small trees. Perhaps in 20 years all that landscaping will have grown into effective visual barriers. Right now, not so much.

In an article from the December 26, 2019 Loudountimes.com newspaper, Nathaniel Cline wrote that “In the coming year, Loudoun County’s Department of Economic Development will conduct a branding review of the data center cluster in Loudoun and explore potential branding and signage campaigns as directed by the county’s Board of Supervisors on Dec. 17.”

He also added that “Included in the Board of Supervisors’ direction is for county staff to consider a roadside sign or monument to support the branding efforts. Areas for signage could include major thoroughfares such as Route 28, Route 7, Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway.” 

So my question is more in the range of a suggestion and an example.

My home town of Reno, Nevada has continued a years-long effort to “rebrand” the city from that of a gambling and tourism-only focus to one that has greater appeal  to residents and visitors alike. One of the steps they have taken is to make the city more “art friendly,” specifically public art friendly, by encouraging (and in some cases helping finance) public sculptures and large scale murals. Reno is a city that had one mural when I was growing up there (“Harolds Club or Bust!”) and now boasts more than 100 murals, with tours available! https://travelnevada.com/arts-culture/through-the-lens-midtown-mural-tour/

When I reached out to Reno City Government recently, Megan Berner the Acting Manager of Arts, Culture, and Events, City of Reno emailed me back. She said that much of the growth and interest in public art came after the establishment of a Public Arts Commission in 1990.

Quoting Megan “The mural movement itself in Reno was very organic and mostly driven by individual artists (like Erik Burke) and private business owners–most of our murals are on private property. The murals on private property are privately funded for the most part. The City helped fund the large mural behind the red flower in the image you attached–it is on a public building owned by the County. 

We also have fairly relaxed rules about painting murals on private property. The only real guidelines/rules we have is that murals cannot be signs/advertisements for the business. They need to be art or comply with our signs laws.”

I contacted Loudoun County Supervisor Mike Turner with the question: what can we do to encourage the owners of these big box, concrete buildings to consider enriching their buildings and our community with outdoor art? His gracious response was welcoming.

The concept Reno developed of turning that vast wall space into art is fantastic. It sounds like Buddy Rizer, the Director of Economic Development, is already looking at that as a possible improvement. Clearly that whole section of Ashburn has been aesthetically impacted by these massive buildings, and I should warn you that, as horizontal real estate has begun to reach its practical limit, the data centers are starting to talk about vertical development. They own the land, so there’s not much we can do about that.

Supervisor Turner concluded, “The challenge we face is that Ashburn, VA is now exactly like the oil boom towns of the late 19thcentury, except Ashburn is a global boom town. “Data Center Alley” in Ashburn is literally the iconic center of the data world. They are extraordinarily good community partners supporting many local nonprofits and educational programs, and they represent an enormous slice of county tax revenue. That plays a major role in enabling us to keep property taxes in line. I’m also working with them to move them onto sustainable energy sources for the great amounts of power they use. I promise you we are aware of the issue and are looking at any way to mitigate the visual impact they are having.

We have a challenge in front of us; I don’t expect that suddenly we will see sculptures and murals and other forms of public art appearing around every corner. I do hope, however, that as we continue to build out our environment with massive concrete boxes, we might give more than a nod to how the region is going to look in five or ten years. Will we continue to be Data Center Alley, or can we hope for something along the lines of a High Tech Gateway enriched by artwork of a scale to capture our imaginations and the explosive power of the internet? Let’s hope so.


Photos from two of Reno artist Erik Burke’s murals in Reno, NV. View more of his largescale work on his website https://eriktburke.com/

From Farmwell to Ashburn Farm

A year ago we sold our home and moved out to Loudoun County. As we have begun to learn more about our new community, I was surprised to learn that I had a connection to the area that stretched back more than a century.

Nevada, my home state, was admitted to the Union in 1864. Our first Senator from Nevada, William Morris Stewart, served for nearly thirty years and, nearing the end of his time in Congress and heeding the advice of his physician to take some time in the country, bought a dairy farm in Farmwell, Virginia. So where is this Farmwell today? For the answer to that, we need to go back nearly 124 years.

By the 1980s, dairy farms in Ashburn were being replaced by subdivisions.

When we moved out to Ashburn Farm last year, I was overwhelmed at how much the area had been developed. Ashburn, Ashburn Village, Ashburn Farm, Broadlands, Belmont: the development had vastly overtaken the dairy and turf farms I remembered from the 1990s when, for a time, I had lived in Sterling.

Senator Stewart Buys a Virginia Farm

Nevada Senator William Morris Stewart (from his biography)

Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada has bought a fine farm in Virginia, not far from Washington. The senator is largely interested in breeding fine horses, and in order to more fully carry out his plans he has purchased a fine old property near Farmville, VA. The farm consists of 586 acres of splendld land in the vicinity of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is said to be fully equal to the Kentucky Blue Grass Region for stock raising.” November 25, 1895 The Evening Times

A Local Name Change

In the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, in an announcement from a page of the paper dated May 5, 1896 we read: “at the request of Senator Stewart, who has bought a farm near Farmwell, Loudoun County, Virginia, the name of the post office at that place has been changed to Ashburn. It is said that mail for Farmwell was frequently delivered to Farmville.”

Much was written about the dairy farm over the several years he owned it. Glowing reviews of the state-of-the-art machinery for milking, separating, sterilizing and cooling, along with the cleanliness of the barns, were featured in local newspapers. The descriptive language verged on paid endorsement, if that were possible.

Again from The Evening Star, December 28, 1901, the following article trumpets:

PURE MILK FOR WASHINGTON

A Thousand Families to be Supplied With Ashburn Milk
2,000 Acre Milk Farm in Virginia

“Clean milk from clean cows, fed on clean food, drinking clean water, milked by clean men in clean barns, sent to Washington in clean cans and delivered to families in sealed bottles.”

Whew! Pretty hyperbolic language for a dairy farm!

It seems the existing farmhouse was also quite modern, boasting “an abundance of room, surrounded by spacious verandas which look out on green lawns, beyond which on all sides are rolling fields and woodland.” The Evening Star, June 4, 1900.

In a related article, the home was described as having “more bathrooms in it than most city mansions.” As the senator had a mansion in Dupont Circle (Stewart’s Castle, no longer standing), this was again high praise for the area.

Start the New Year with clean milk
Clean milk for 8 cents a quart

Speaking of milk production, the author goes on about the cleanliness of the operation, how the fresh milk was transported to the dairy via a small railroad system, where it was then separated, pasteurized, and bottled. “Every detail is expensive,” writes the author, “and the wonder is that the company should offer its milk at 8 cents a quart, the same as any other milk.”

It would seem that even with all the qualities of superior milk, the Ashburn Dairy Company couldn’t make a profit. In July 1903 Stewart sold his dairy on 14th Street in Washington, DC. For sometime the farm was used to raise stock. The following year, the dairy farm in Ashburn was sold to Judge James Yeomans. At the age of 77, the senator sold the farm at a loss, having purchased and invested over $140,00, selling for $30,000. 

Senator Stewart sells his Ashburn property, The Evening Star, June 4, 1904.

In a twist that would have sent today’s style magazines into a headspin, in 1903 the then 76-year-old widowed senator married a second time. After having seen a photograph of Mrs. May Agnes Cone, 44, Stewart invited her to be a guest at his country place, Ashburn Farm. Three months later, wedding bells. (The first Mrs. Stewart had died in an automobile accident in September 1902).

In looking back over his long and varied career, Senator Stewart writes in his 1908 memoirs, The Reminiscences of Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada,” of the many legal cases he took part in, fights won, laws passed. Nowhere does he mention his Ashburn dairy farm or the time spent in the Virginia countryside recovering his health. 

But one item he notes in passing, devoting barely eight pages to the subject, was his authorship of the Fifteenth Amendment, passed by Congress February 26, 1869, and ratified February 3, 1870. The Fifteenth Amendment granted African American men the right to vote. Rewriting a resolution offered to the Senate Judiciary Committee by Senator Henderson of Missouri ( No state shall deny or abridge the right of its citizens to vote or hold office, on account of race, color, or previous condition), Stewart offered his own reading:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote or hold office, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The final adopted language left out “or hold office.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that continued to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Credit: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/voting-rights-act

It’s a strange thing to be remembered for trying to bring clean milk to the citizens of Washington, DC and yet be forgotten for his efforts to ensure all citizens were represented thru their vote.

Farmwell? The name is memorialized as a one mile strip of road here in Ashburn, from Smith Switch Road to Ashburn Road. The three names for 625 to 640 (Waxpool Road, Farmwell Road, and Ashburn Farm Road) are certainly confusing!

Map of N. Eastern Virginia and Vacinity of Washington, 1862 Library of Congress
Image from “Map of N. Eastern Virginia and Vicinity of Washington, 1862” showing Farmwell. Library of Congress

Note: the Library of Congress website, Chroniclingamerica.loc.gov has a wealth of newspapers from across the US, dated 1789 to 1963 and fully searchable. Quotes and images are taken from their website.