The rise of a vibrant new kind of city – and how Massachusetts missed a chance to have one

By Peter Canellos
Globe Staff / October 31, 2010

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CHANTILLY, VA. — Forty years ago, the road to the still-new Dulles Airport cut through miles of loamy forest, darkening the view of the few cars that made their way along it. Then, in a sudden glade, appeared the swooping roof of the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal, gleaming as if poised for takeoff. But there were only a few flights per hour, each announced on a loudspeaker in the accented voice of a “Masterpiece Theater” host. Known more for its architecture than its functionality, Dulles was called the white elephant, the rarest and loneliest of species.

Today, the access road from the Beltway to Dulles is a city unto itself, packed with tens of thousands of homes, plus malls, arts centers, and area attractions. Mostly, there are hundreds of office buildings emblazoned with the most dazzling names in global high tech: UNISYS, IBM, Oracle, ITT. If Dulles were a city, it would be among the hundred most populated in the country. And among the richest: The Northern Virginia boom has sparked changes in the Washington-area economy. Once purely a government town, it now glistens with commerce.

Dulles is no longer an airport but an aerotropolis, a term coined by a University of North Carolina business professor. An aerotropolis is a city of the 21st century, built around a runway in roughly the same way that historic cities grew up around water or rail lines, with a close-in network of businesses, an outer loop of service industries, and suburbs full of homes.

Aerotropolises have emerged in places like the former no man’s zone between Dallas and Fort Worth, in suburban Atlanta, and around Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, near Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. They provide what John D. Kasarda, the UNC professor, calls “connectivity” to the global marketplace. International companies want to locate where their executives can step out their doors and be on another continent eight hours later. Firms producing the highest-value goods want to ship them to markets around the world. (“The Web won’t move a box,” Kasarda declares. “High-end products move by air.”) And businesses with tentacles around the globe want a place where all their people can fly in easily for meetings.

Such firms are, of course, precisely the type that draw on the innovations created in Boston, but then often move elsewhere. Their major operations — executive offices, high-end manufacturing — get established outside New England. Northern Virginia is one such place, whose growth in high-tech industries has paralleled the Boston area’s decline.

Massachusetts does not have an aerotropolis. When confronted with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a second major airport, 20 years ago, the state passed it up. It was, in the eyes of some economists, a big mistake, the kind that separates the truly global metropolises from the boutique cities.

The reasons were, to a large extent, the usual ones in Massachusetts. Hubris — the sense among many policy makers that economic growth was inevitable, a force to be channeled and, if necessary, limited, rather than given any special encouragement. Local resistance — the belief that any change would harm the quality of life rather than enhance it. And short-sightedness — a sense that transportation was meant to serve those already living here, rather than to be a magnet to attract more.

But there was also a change that few, if anyone, could see.

Corporations that once thought of themselves as rooted in one place began to think of themselves as being everywhere, and wanting a base of operations that was as monolithic, generic, and peripatetic as they were.

They wanted to be at an airport. And while Massachusetts has a fine one, its extremely limited environs are too dense, too crowded, to serve the needs of the most expansive corporations.

Boston was in the midst of the greatest boom in recent history when members of the Massachusetts Aeronautical Commission began planning for a second major airport — a Bay State version of Dulles, suitable for handling international traffic. Passengers commuting to the city center would keep using Logan Airport, much the way Reagan National Airport serves the capital.

In the five years between 1983 and 1988, the “Massachusetts miracle” had produced 400,000 new jobs, many of them of the high-wage, high-tech variety that elevates a region to wealth and importance. When computer visionaries considered the most technology-friendly areas of the country, first was Silicon Valley, near San Francisco, and second was the Route 128 belt around Boston. Everywhere else was far behind.

Logan was under increasing strain. It wasn’t just the aging facilities and rows of angry protesters who appeared like clockwork whenever expansion was mentioned: Even with a third harbor tunnel and significant upgrading of facilities, Logan was deemed to be too crowded to meet the future needs of a major economic center.

These conclusions were spelled out in the aeronautics commission’s initial report, released in 1990. In light of what’s happened over the succeeding two decades, it’s clearly a document from another era. The expansionist impulse reflected in its projections is as much a part of Boston’s past as the Revolutionary War. It cited studies envisioning an annual increase in air traffic of up to 4 percent. “They all point to the fact that by the year 2010, the existing New England airport system will not be able to handle all the passengers who wish to travel,” the report declared.

The commission examined sites that could be held in a land bank while plans were drawn for an airport that would serve between 5 million and 7 million passengers in 2010 and grow to a whopping 30 million in 2020. This would be in addition to Logan’s growth, and that of other New England airports. The New England Council, a business policy group, insisted that without a second major airport the Massachusetts economy would be squeezed. In the go-go ‘80s, Massachusetts was marching to a different beat.

But not entirely. Even as the commission was completing its work, inspecting 182 sites before recommending the surplus Army base at Fort Devens as the likeliest spot, local opposition began to arise, as communities throughout the Boston area rallied in fear of noise, traffic, and disruption. It soon became apparent that political will was lacking as well. Interviews with many who were involved in the project suggest that while some senior officials of both the Dukakis and Weld administrations were intrigued by a second airport, the governors themselves were not.

Dukakis felt that adding high-speed rail to New York would relieve enough air traffic to obviate the need for another airport. He also believed that the blossoming of high-tech industries would be the key to reviving old mill cities outside Boston; new manufacturing plants would spring up on the old bones of Worcester, Lawrence, and Haverhill, just as Wang computers had helped revitalize Lowell. A new airport, he reasoned, might pull jobs from the cities, creating sprawl and congestion.

Weld, for his part, spent part of the 1990 campaign addressing audiences in the high-income towns west of Boston who were convinced a new airport would have planes bearing down on their roofs. Their fears were overblown but understandable. For years, East Boston neighbors had claimed that class bias had deafened policy makers to the airport noise that plagued their communities. The new airport, many believed, would be a form of justice, afflicting suburbanites in the same way that people in Eastie had suffered.

Weld promised to reexamine the projections, ordering a new study by the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little. By 1991, the Massachusetts economy had been battered by recession, and those fast-growth assumptions were off the mark, the Little report concluded. Betty Desrosiers, the chief aviation planner for Massport who had been project manager for the second-airport siting study, recalls that a fresh examination of the winds swirling around Logan turned up the surprising fact that the existing airport could increase its capacity substantially with a new runway to handle takeoffs of commuter aircraft.

It seemed a perfect solution. Communities around Fort Devens and other proposed sites were relieved. Desrosiers remembers having sat at angry community meetings where protesters carried signs with pictures of Dulles Airport and a caricature of a white elephant. There would be no big, new airport on the open fields beyond Route 128. Close-in Logan, with more traffic on a footprint of its size than any airport on the planet, would have to bear the load.

The two succeeding decades have proven either the prescience of the second-airport opponents, or their utter folly. Growth has been sluggish.

Massachusetts’ position at the vanguard of the high-tech revolution has diminished. From 2001 to 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high-tech employment shrunk by 14.7 percent. Virginia now has more high-tech workers per capita than Massachusetts.

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of flights at the refurbished Logan actually dropped, though passenger traffic held steady. In the late ‘80s, the air-travel passenger demand for booming Boston had been 12th highest in the world; now, it’s no longer in the top 50. Logan is the world’s 43d busiest airport, but many other cities split their traffic between multiple airports, pushing Boston further down the list of busiest cities.

Massachusetts business leaders can only wonder whether this decline was inevitable, or if having a second major airport would have changed the face of the state economy. One who believes a second airport would have created a whole new economic engine is the private equity investor Steve Pagliuca of Boston’s Bain Capital. “Airports are the highways of the 21st century,” he says, noting that two decades ago, few firms thought primarily in terms of the global market; now, almost all do.

Indeed, the two factors that fueled the explosive growth around Dulles, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and Chicago-O’Hare were the new global focus of many industries combined with the availability of land on which big expansions are possible.

When DFW airport opened, in 1973, it was as isolated as Dulles, laid down on a slice of Texas prairie with nothing but fast-food joints for company; now, it’s the world’s eighth-busiest airport and its once-tiny host community of Las Colinas is home to the headquarters of four Fortune 500 companies. The factor that initially turned locals against it — they found it too far away from downtown, and many preferred the convenience of Dallas’s close-in Love Field — was what fueled the boom: There was ample land for economic development.

Companies that locate near airports don’t follow a single script. Some are there for the proximity to air freight, the value of which has grown exponentially. (Over the 30 years between 1976 and 2006, national GDP swelled by 154 percent while exports by air expanded by 1,395 percent.) Others are there for access to regional transportation; large airports outside major cities tend to have ribbons of highway heading in all directions, making them ideal distribution centers. Still other companies are there for the ease of bringing in executives from distant branches around the world.

In most of these factors, Logan doesn’t even compete — it simply doesn’t have the space to be an airport city. Even with the improved access of the Ted Williams Tunnel, it is too crowded to attract manufacturers looking to build major facilities. There’s relatively little room for trucks to fan out and distribute goods throughout New England. And the old, historic neighborhoods surrounding the airport have their own charms and appeals, but aren’t right for companies building global headquarters.

What’s noticeable around Dulles is the international character of the buildings — the Euro and Asian texture of the designs. (Only the strip malls and housing developments adhere to the faux-Williamsburg look of Northern Virginia.) These offices could be anywhere, from Frankfurt to Osaka. And it’s easy to believe that their global functionality appeals to people from outside the United States — or, for that matter, those within the United States who want to expand globally. Their aspirations are written in their architecture, and in their location, next to an airport.

To serve their needs, planners in Bangkok, Beijing, and Dubai have laid out entire pre-fab cities of hundreds of thousands of people to be built around giant new airports. The $35 billion airport city being built outside Incheon, South Korea — the largest private development in the world — will be precisely the size of downtown Boston.

The spaces around American airports have grown up organically, without the rampant planning of Asian and Middle Eastern governments. But their growth has been just as impressive. Given what’s happened over the past 20 years at Dulles, DFW, and Chicago-O’Hare, there’s no reason to believe a second major airport in New England wouldn’t have become a global hub, a bright new face for the region.

In retrospect, the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission did its job only too well. The former Fort Devens is directly on Route 495, amid huge swaths of open land between economically needy Worcester and Lawrence — a nearly perfect setting for an aerotropolis. It connects easily to Route 128 and is a direct shot up Route 2 from Cambridge.

The long, empty expanse of roadway ending at a beltway is almost eerily similar to the landscape encountered by those planning Dulles. Instead of building an airport, though, Massachusetts chose to make Devens a special economic development district — an aerotropolis without the airport. It hasn’t taken off, despite some sporadic successes. Some high-tech and pharma firms, led by Bristol-Myers Squibb, have built new facilities there.

But even after 20 years, Devens promises more than it delivers. Vast expanses still look like a surplus military base, with cracked pavement and abandoned low-rise buildings. Other sections have that empty “Truman Show” quality of a planned community that hasn’t quite gelled — flags planted where buildings should be, a sleepy quiet interrupted only by recorded announcements from the Rapid Refill gas station/mini-mart: “Arizona Tea water, two for two dollars.”

Almost everywhere are signs attesting to a disappointing reality: “Office/lab space to rent,” “Office space for lease,” “Build to Suit.” And there are political signs for candidates who decry the state of the economy. Some promise tax cuts. Others propose casinos. But like the voters in the struggling towns nearby, most of the candidates seem blissfully unaware of what could have been — and almost certainly should have been — built there.

Peter Canellos is the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe.