Tysons Corner, on the verge of a do-over

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when four Metro Silver Line stations under contruction will open. They will open late this year. This version has been corrected.


Lunch-time traffic is seen in Tysons Corner on International Drive. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST FILE PHOTO)
January 2, 2013

The first thing to go was the parking lot behind the Container Store. And if all goes according to plan, more lots will be bulldozed — as will dozens of mid-rise office buildings, hotels and car dealerships.

Two years after Fairfax County adopted a radical, four-decade plan to redevelop Tysons Corner, it is finally beginning to happen, block by block, building by building.

Inspired by the decision to run Metro’s new Silver Line through Tysons, the county essentially is undertaking a do-over, one that seeks to replace much of what stands today with an urban, vibrant, walkable, downtown built around residents and rail. It is a monumental task that has never been done on such a grand scale. And there is no turning back.

Even the name has been remade. It is now just Tysons — no “Corner” — a sleeker brand that the marketing people hope will sell “the new downtown.”

“No one in the history of mankind has ever tried to do this” in a place that is already so developed — and developed entirely around cars and commuters, said Christopher Leinberger, with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “There is nowhere to look for a model for this kind of transformation.”

Fairfax County hopes to transform Tysons Corner into a walkable urban core anchored by the new Metro Silver line.

What is wrong with Tysons Corner, at least in the eyes of county officials, is what’s missing. There are very few sidewalks, parks, neighborhood hangouts and places to live — none of the things that make a city a city. Instead, the 1,700-acre swath of Fairfax is home to nine times as many parking spaces as people.

But now that the county has embarked on the redevelopment effort, some remain skeptical that such an ambitious, expensive urban retrofitting will ever come to fruition. Will anyone want to live in place long known for shopping malls and some of the region’s most horrific traffic? Will a shaky market emerging from recession support such development?

“We’re trying to create utopia through regulation,” said Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), one of two county supervisors who voted against adopting the Tysons plan in 2010.

“But is anyone going to buy the product? Will it be too expensive? All of these costs we’re attaching to it — they will be passed down.”

No soul, just traffic

Seventy years ago, Tysons Corner was little more than a quaint intersection surrounded by farmland. What exists today is the product of six decades of growth that gave little thought to the bigger picture: a soulless, sidewalkless sea of superblocks, office buildings, highways and car dealerships.

Fewer than 20,000 people live in Tysons, while nearly five times as many commute there for work, bringing with them dreadful road congestion.

But the traffic is not all that defines Tysons. Home to two well-known malls, countless federal-contracting giants and at least six Fortune 500 companies, it is among the largest employment and retail centers in the nation, ideally located near the Capital Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road. It is a huge reason why Northern Virginia’s economy is so strong, and if Fairfax has a downtown, Tysons is it, soul or not.

Two and a half years after Fairfax adopted the plan for the redesign, and after years of meetings and discussion, there is a mix of relief and amazement that construction has actually begun.

Four aboveground Metro stations, set to open late this year, stand nearly finished. Seventeen redevelopment proposals are in the pipeline, submitted by developers and landowners eager to cash in on density levels never before permitted.

Together, the proposals cover roughly 240 acres, or 15 percent of land in Tysons. They include a total of 36 million square feet of new development. Three have won the county’s approval, and about a dozen others are on track for rezoning within the next year or so. Most are massive mixed-use projects that include high-rise office and residential buildings, ground-level shops and restaurants, athletic fields, bike paths, parks and plazas.

The county recently finalized a plan for a pedestrian-friendly street grid cut into walkable city blocks, to be built piecemeal as individual landowners redevelop their parcels. The Board of Supervisors is expected to decide next week whether to set up a special Tysons tax district that would raise $250 million over 40 years for transportation infrastructure. The biggest sticking point has been whether to exempt or include residential landowners.

“Sure, this will be great for the future of Fairfax County, but not for the people living [in Tysons] now,” said Michael Bogasky, a Tysons resident and president of the Rotonda Condominium Association.

“We’ve already lived through years of construction hell, and it’s just the beginning. In our lifetime, I don’t see how we’re going to benefit, but yet we’re going to have to help pay for it,” he said.

Although residents and businesses fought over the retrofit’s details, almost no one disagreed with its goals when the plan was adopted.

If all goes as predicted, the residential population of Tysons will grow fivefold by 2050, to roughly 100,000. The number of people who work there will double, to 200,000. At least three-quarters of the growth will take root within a half-mile of a Metro station. Think Ballston or Clarendon, but bigger, greener, more energy-efficient, and with more affordable housing to support residents of all ages and income levels.

What is happening in Tysons is garnering interest far beyond the Washington region. If the transformation is a success, some believe it will serve as a model for rebuilding edge cities across the nation and beyond.

Strong builder interest

Although it will take years to know whether the vision for Tysons is truly achievable, by nearly all accounts what has happened so far has exceeded expectations.

County staff figured that they’d be lucky to see five redevelopment applications right off the bat, said Barbara Byron, who as director of the county’s Office of Community Revitalization is overseeing the transformation. Instead, they got more than twice that.

Mixed-use projects

The first to be approved, in September 2011, was the 30-acre Spring Hill Station by the Georgelas Group, which worked closely with the county to design a demonstration project. The plans include high-rise corporate and residential towers, restaurants, courtyards, parks and retail space.

This past September, Capital One, based in Tysons, won approval to expand its corporate headquarters. The plan includes millions of square feet of new office space, four high-rise residential buildings, a hotel and a 30,000-square-foot public community center. In November, Cityline Partners LLC, the biggest landowner in Tysons, won rezoning for a similar mixed-use development called Arbor Row.

Although some expected developers put their proposals on hold because of the sluggish economic recovery, planners say most are moving steadily through the county’s expensive review process.

The team behind Spring Hill Station already has started on a 400-unit residential high-rise where the Container Store parking lot was, and Capital One and Cityline have said they plan to begin building portions of their projects almost immediately.

“We’re not slowing down,” said Aaron Georgelas of the Georgelas Group, “and we’re not really seeing anyone else slow down, either.”

More important than the quantity and progress of the proposals has been their quality, Byron said. “It’s clear that the developers understand the vision for Tysons and they’re embracing it,” she added.

One of the biggest questions early on was whether developers would agree to pay for the new Tysons infrastructure — a per-square-foot cost they say is among the highest a local jurisdiction has ever sought.

Although there is no way to know how many have been turned off by the proffers, many are agreeing to them, county officials said. On top of sizable fees for transportation improvements, developers have committed to building or paying for athletic fields, a community center, a fire station and part of a school, rather than simply providing the land, which is traditional.

They also are agreeing to build housing for a range of income levels, a vital ingredient if Tysons is going to become a diverse community where even workers with low incomes can live within walking distance of their jobs.

“We’re getting the things we need for this to work,” said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors and one of the plan’s biggest champions.

But that doesn’t mean success is inevitable for Tysons.

The what-ifs ...

Some see the worst-case scenario as this: Few people choose to ride the new Metro trains. The first apartment and office buildings don’t draw tenants and rents as hoped. Projects that are underway change hands. Those that haven’t broken ground are shelved. And for the foreseeable future, Tysons stays what it is today.

Skeptics wonder whether a place that has 47 million square feet of development today can absorb an additional 66 million by 2050, as projections hold. They wonder whether residents and businesses will be able to afford the vision.

But developers and real estate agents point to signs that demand for the new Tysons will be strong: Businesses are trending toward newer, higher-end commercial space.

In recent months, the county has begun hearing from major grocery chains interested in Tysons.

And just a few weeks ago, the world’s leading provider of satellite services, Intelsat, said it plans to move from the District to Tysons Tower, a 22-story building under construction.

Still, Leinberger, of the Brookings Institution, said that “mistakes are inevitable” because no one has ever tried what is being done in Tysons.

“And they will be costly.”

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