In the transformation of Tysons Corner into a city of 100,000, must all green space be eliminated? No, according to Fairfax County’s Comprehensive Plan, which specifically discusses the 20-acre Old Courthouse Spring Branch parkland running behind the car dealerships and Sheraton Hotel on the south side of Route 7.
“These stream valley parks should not only be protected from development and infrastructure impacts, but be restored and enhanced,” the plan says on page 78. Sounds good. Vienna residents and workers love hiking, jogging, walking dogs and just plain hanging out on its informally maintained paths, and all manner of wildlife can be seen there.
But wait. Then there’s page 49 — a full-color map showing a new, four-lane avenue running right through the heart of Old Courthouse Spring Branch park, also called Tysons Spring or Tysons Forest. And when 300 Vienna residents packed into the Westbriar Elementary School cafeteria Thursday night to hear about this from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, they also saw a diagram of “Preferred Option 3,” which would run an exit ramp from the Dulles Toll Road directly into the north end of the forest, and the newly created avenue.
To say there was an uproar in that cafeteria would be an understatement. This time, the Lorax was not alone. These people spoke for the trees, and the Difficult Run watershed, and the animals, and their neighborhood. In addition to county transportation planners, three county supervisors were there listening. We’ll find out soon enough if the last green space in Tysons Corner will survive.
As part of the plan to convert Tysons from a mainly commercial hub to a vibrant city with Metro stops and bike lanes and wide sidewalks, a street grid needs to be created. Developers who get spots in the new city will be required to build the streets in exchange for getting to erect profitable new buildings.
The well-established neighborhoods just outside the defined Tysons district, particularly the Greater Tysons Green Civic Association and the Westbriar Civic Association, figured they were insulated from all that, and the Old Courthouse Spring parkland served as an important buffer.
Then came the actual plan, and the extension of something called Boone Boulevard. The specter of Boone Boulevard will haunt ten homeowners’ associations and about 1,500 households on the edge of western Tysons for the rest of their days, or until it is built well away from the Old Courthouse Spring forest.
At present, Boone Boulevard is a quiet, two lane east-west road on the south side of Route 123 that ends near the Koons auto empire at the intersection with Route 7. Fairfax County is intent on extending Boone Boulevard across Route 123, parallel to Route 7, and running it most of, if not all the way, to Dulles Toll Road. It would provide a third east-west lane through Tysons City, along with Route 7 and Greensboro Drive.
“Boone Boulevard will be built,” county transportation planner Seyed Nabavi told the residents at the Thursday night meeting, “whether there is a ramp [to the toll road] or not. The reason for Boone Boulevard is to make sure there is mobility within Tysons.”
That declaration didn’t go over too big with the neighborhood, to put it mildly.
The location of Boone Boulevard is uncertain, because the developers aren’t locked in yet, and they haven’t made their own push for where it should go. But to look at an overhead map, the easiest and least developed place would be the Old Courthouse Spring forest. It’s open, it’s just a bunch of trees, it’s owned by the county — what’s the problem?
So I took a hike through the forest with Pam Konde, president of the Tysons Green association; John Shreffler, president of the Westbrier association; and neighbor Tom Salvetti, whose dog Kelsey is one of Tysons Green’s most popular residents.
One of the most fascinating things I learned is that there is a natural limestone spring underneath the Pike 7 shopping plaza, under the Radio Shack to be exact, and that the plaza is built on a platform above the spring, Shreffler said. An underground culvert releases the spring after it crosses under Gosnell Road, just south of Route 7. The culvert also captures much of the runoff from Pike 7, Tysons and beyond, and quickly becomes a gusher during any serious rain storm.
The spring becomes Courthouse Spring Branch, a flood plain, hooks up with Wolftrap Run near Wolf Trap park, and the two meander down to Colvin Mill Run, where they connect with Difficult Run and head through Great Falls to the Potomac River. And that’s your Difficult Run watershed, with part of its humble beginnings beneath the Pike 7 Radio Shack. (And High’s and Uncle Abe’s Pizza, back in the day. The way-back day.)
Dave Gibson, an environmental planner and nearby resident, pointed out that Difficult Run has been designated “an area of critical concern” by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Fairfax County’s own March 2012 plan for Vienna says Difficult Run “is a sensitive environmental area which should be protected . . . Intrusion of non-recreational development in these areas should therefore be restricted or prohibited.”
Konde noted that the plan calls for avenues in Tysons City to be 71 to 94 feet wide. That’s at least three times the width of your normal Fairfax suburban street, which is fairly wide to begin with. The county also wants to place an electrical substation near the forest, which does have a power line cutting across it.
In the Tysons Green neighborhood, you can’t hear or see the nearby toll road or Route 7 because of the forest. It’s quiet. It’s nice. “People who bought here were not necessarily buying into a city,” Konde said.
At the community meeting, Petra Momcilovic, 11, set up a “My Tysons” photo montage of all the animals she and her family have photographed in the parkland — a deer, a fox, a turtle, a woodpecker, an owl, some fish. “It’s basically our backyard,” Petra said. “Option 3 would destroy everything.”
Ah yes, Option 3. The county’s department of transportation had satellite photos with three options for a new ramp from the toll road down into Tysons City, besides the one already exiting to Route 7. Many residents questioned why another exit ramp was needed from the toll road, particularly before the “city” part is even built.
Option 1 would exit almost directly into the Sheraton parking lot. Option 2 would create a frontage road along Route 7 for exits. Option 3 would go directly into the north end of the park. Nabavi said that would then swing over to Westwood Center Drive, destroying only the top half of the park. But since no one knows exactly where Boone Boulevard will wind up once it crosses the already miserable Gosnell Road, the whole park seems vulnerable.
“It would wrap around the parkland,” Nabavi said. “This is what we are considering. We would have to work with the developers coming in. This may not be the exact location, but this is what is preferred.”
Residents pointed out that the Silver Line Metro was brought in to reduce car traffic, but an exit from the toll road would add traffic. The Westwood Village townhouse community behind the Sheraton, already limited to one road in and out, would be further squeezed. The townhouses along Gosnell Road look to be squarely in the path of Boone Boulevard.
As soon as the Westbriar cafeteria opened Thursday night, residents surged directly to Option 3 and besieged Nabavi with questions. He did the best he could, and said no decisions have been made. But they do hope to have a decision by September.
This is all occuring in the district of Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who sat and listened for a long time. She didn’t have any insights to offer later, saying she had only come to listen.
In the public condemnation, uh, comment portion of the program, Konde turned to Nabavi and said, “People don’t show up like this unless they are so concerned you are going to pave over their woods, their streets, their houses. Our neighborhood opposes any ramp going through the parkland. The fact that this is even on the table is disgusting.”
As with many of the speakers, she was met with long, loud applause.