It’s hard to believe that Circuit City once stood here.
Five years ago, the electronics chain was selling flat screen televisions and video game systems at 1905 Chain Bridge Road, one of a long line of strip-mall style retailers mixed with the car dealerships and suburban office buildings that have made up Tysons Corner since the 1970s.
But since construction of the Silver Line began, the landscape is changing in Tysons and nowhere quicker than on this elongated parcel of land between Tysons Corner Center, Route 123 and the Capital Beltway.
This is ground zero in the construction of Tysons 2.0. Tysons Corner Center, once a neighbor to Circuit City, remains one of the crown jewels for the Macerich Co., a Santa Monica-based owner and builder of regional shopping malls. But even in Tysons, the mall business isn’t the future, at least not without access to public transit and people working and living within walking distance.
So Macerich — with the economy largely flat and the Silver Line years from opening — made the bold move in 2012 to begin building a more than $500 million project here on the bet that as the first Silver Line-accessible, high-rise center in Tysons it would attract companies, apartment renters and hotel guests that were eager for something new in the neighborhood, and strengthen the mall for the next generation as well.
With walkable, urban places like the District and Reston Town Center becoming increasingly popular in recent years — particularly with Millenials and workers who don’t drive — the strategy for the Macerich project was to make an attractive urban place first.
Most developers focusing on walkability think primarily about the sidewalk — what will the experience be for someone walking here? Will it feel like an exciting place to live or work or shop?
One of the biggest challenges facing Macerich, according to one of the project’s architects, was that the Metro platform was being built at between 32 and 34 feet above the ground. If workers, residents and shoppers had to descend three stories, walk along a busy road and then go up three stories before entering their building, they weren’t likely to enjoy the experience, said Jordan Goldstein, managing director and principal in the Washington office of Gensler, an architecture and design firm.
“The biggest question was, how do you do this in a really urban way, rather than with a suburban solution?” Goldstein said.
With the Metro platform at 32 feet, Gensler decided to create an elevated platform connecting the Macerich property above ground level. It designed a landscaped public plaza to sit on the platform that will serve as the project’s own town square — a place for outdoor markets, fireworks on the Fourth of July and a skating rink in the winter.
“Coming from Metro, I never have to cross traffic. I never have to go down. And it took me less than 300 feet to get here,” Goldstein said, standing on the platform.
Building an entire new street level is no easy task. The 55,000-square-foot structure, currently being constructed, will rest upon a steel plate girder that arrived in two 72-foot pieces, each weighing 115,000 pounds. It was lifted into place using a 300-ton crane.
It also isn’t typical of construction in a ‘urban’ setting: Unlike many buildings erected in downtown D.C. in recent years, the Macerich building will have very little retail on the ground floor. Instead, pedestrians can stroll over to the mall.
Macerich’s bet to begin building the complex in 2012 appears to be paying early dividends. The office building, developed in partnership with Hines Interests, lured the headquarters of satellite firm Intelsat from D.C. Other companies, including Deloitte and GTT, followed suit. Eddie V’s Prime Seafood, a restaurant from the company behind Capital Grille, will open a plaza-level restaurant there.
The apartment building, developed with Kettler, will be complete near the end of the year. Designed by Shalom Baranes, it will have 429 units, reach 350 feet into the air and feature architecture that will make it stand out in Tysons. It will have the first local outpost of Canadian casual eatery Earls Restaurant and units will likely rent for about what it costs to live in Clarendon. “There some shape to it — that’s not Northern Virginia architecture,” said John E. Harrison, Macerich vice president.
Already the project is allowing Macerich to charge even more of a premium to be in the mall, said Timothy J. Steffan, Macerich senior vice president, because the platform has addressed an age-old irritation for mall owners — that store owners are not willing to pay as much rent for the second floor as they do for the first. With the plaza nearly in place, when second floor leases expire, Steffan said Macerich can charge 30-40 percent more for new deals or extensions. He said Zara has already agreed to open a two-story, 21,000-square-foot store there and that Shake Shack would open its first Northern Virginia location right on the plaza this summer.
“You’ve got a first floor on the first floor and a first floor on the second floor, so you’ve solved the verticality problem,” Steffan said.
Goldstein said the project had the chance to help Tysons redefine itself as it enters a new phase.
“There’s no architectural style to Tysons,” he said. “It’s kind of a mess of drab buildings. It’s chaos. So we wanted a building that be something of a gateway to Tysons.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz