Tysons Corner “was a challenge to everything that I had been taught: that what this world needed was More Planning; that cars were inherently Evil and our attachment to them Inexplicable,” Joel Garreau, who was a longtime reporter and editor for The Washington Post, wrote in his 1991 book, “Edge City: Life on the New Frontier.”
Two key events steered Tysons in that direction.
Fifty years ago, Tysons was a rural crossroads marked by a general store and an Esso station. Then, in 1961, the federal government completed construction of a headquarters facility for a new security outfit, the Central Intelligence Agency, in Langley, which is now part of McLean. Over the next generation, as the U.S. defense budget ballooned from $381.5 billion in 1955 to $713.2 billion in 2010 (in today’s dollars), contractors doing business with the CIA and the Pentagon began looking for office space nearby.
A year later, Fairfax County approved the plans of an up-and-coming developer named Theodore Lerner (who would go on to buy the Washington Nationals) to build a shopping mall. When it opened six years later, Lerner hailed Tysons Corner Center, featuring air conditioning, mechanized coat racks and decorative fountains, as one of the largest enclosed malls in the country. In its coverage of the opening, The Post listed every one of its 35 stores, which included the Hecht Co., Woodward & Lothrop and F.W. Woolworth.
Tysons quickly zipped along a path to becoming a regional shopping destination and a bastion of the “Beltway bandit” firms of the defense industry.
Real estate developers with land in Tysons entered a golden era. Gerald T. Halpin bought more than 100 acres in Tysons in 1962 and — with legendary land-use lawyer John T. “Til” Hazel at his side — his WestGroup firm got the green light to build two office parks, WestGate and WestPark. Defense contractors opened offices there; other developers followed suit; and the state and county expanded roads to meet the growing capacity.
Developer Stephen Cumbie founded his real estate firm, NVCommercial, in 1983, when Tysons provided easy access to the malls, two airports and the District.
“It was a regional destination,” he said. “I mean, people were coming from Maryland and all points west, not only for their jobs but for the shopping.”
Tysons grew more specialized, catering to businessmen and luxury shoppers. Little housing was built; few people moved there, and many institutions that typically shape communities — parks, churches, schools, libraries and the like — simply never arrived.
When you step off the Silver Line in 2014, Tysons in all likelihood will still be a spectacle of imbalance, a place with the same number of Macy’s department stores (two) as grocery stores, where a glut of restaurants offer steak to the suit-and-tie crowd — the Palm, Fleming’s, Ruth’s Chris, Shula’s, Morton’s — but an apple can be hard to find.