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Gathering Aims to Forge Tysons Vision

Redevelopment Ideas Pitched at Chamber Event

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page B02

The campaign to transform Tysons Corner from a sprawling suburban crossroads into a more traditional urban center began in earnest yesterday, as more than 200 Northern Virginia business and civic leaders convened to discuss how best to reshape the commercial hub.

After viewing slides of postcard-pretty urban places as far away as Barcelona and Edinburgh, Scotland, the group focused on the potential for creating what participants called a "world-class" city in a place now dominated by a suburban jumble of malls and office campuses.

Spurred by Metrorail plans, 21 plans have been submitted for dense development of Tysons Corner. (Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

The effort to replan Tysons Corner, which was prompted by a proposed Metrorail line to the area, already has drawn criticism from some community groups who fear more traffic in an area that is by some measures already the second city of the Washington metropolis.

But participants at the event at George Mason University, sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, did not delve into the nitty-gritty issues but focused instead on trying to come to a consensus about what Tysons Corner should become.

For an area best-known for its malls, offices, parking lots and traffic, some of the ideas seemed distant from reality, but that, some said, was the point.

"Where is the theater? Where are the museums?" said Dennis Carmichael, a landscape architect from the Alexandria office of Edaw, addressing the meeting. "You ought to think about these things if you want a real city."

The event, though it focused on planning, had political purposes.

Organizers described it as an invitation to the public to take a role in the replanning of Tysons Corner and to "envision" what Tysons Corner could become. But it also was an attempt to focus the redevelopment debate on the potential of change rather than problems.

"I see a road show engaging people around the county about what Tysons Corner should be -- to engage toward a compromise," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

But some critics of the effort remained skeptical, even after the bullish talk about what is possible at Tysons Corner.

"It looks wonderful, but they're totally whitewashing the problems," said Susan Turner, president of the McLean Citizens Association. "What about the traffic? And who's going to pay for this? What those pictures don't show is what happened to the surrounding neighborhoods."

Since at least 1994, Fairfax County plans have called for creating a "downtown" at Tysons Corner. Despite such rhetoric, the details have permitted only suburban building densities, and the area consists of two mega-malls and offices that strike many as signs of a classic case of suburban sprawl.

A plan to build a Metrorail line to the area has inspired a slate of 21 development proposals that entail far more building than is permitted. County staff, consultants and a county committee are reviewing those ideas.

For the developers and some civic leaders, those proposals represent an opportunity to reshape Tysons Corner into a better place -- not just with bigger buildings, but with more open space, less traffic congestion and an improved environment for walking. Today the hassles for pedestrians are tough enough that while the two malls are essentially across the street from one another, most people drive between them.

Proponents argue that by allowing developers to build more, the developers can afford to give back space for wider sidewalks or land for open space -- a square at each of the four planned Metro stops was one suggestion that came up yesterday.

Even so, people on both sides of the Tysons Corner debate expect that the discussion in the coming months will be raucous.

"It's going to take massive amounts of political will to get this done," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "Right now, we don't have a consensus."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company