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Arrival of Metro Could Transform Tysons

By Li sa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2004; Page B01

More than two dozen Tysons Corner landowners are asking Fairfax County to double the development permitted on much of their land -- allowing skyscrapers and mid-rises and laying the groundwork to attract riders to Metrorail stations proposed for the sprawling suburban crossroads.

The property owners are pushing to optimize their profits from the intense, transit-oriented development that Virginia officials are encouraging as they lobby for federal money to help extend Metro to Tysons and eventually to Dulles International Airport.

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Fairfax leaders have long hoped to transform Tysons, a place of impersonal, 1960s-era office campuses surrounded by moats of parking, into an old-fashioned downtown, friendly to pedestrians who might hop a train to work or home.

Now, with the go-ahead from the federal government this summer to begin engineering on the first 11 miles of rail from West Falls Church to Tysons and Wiehle Avenue in Reston, the blueprint to reshape the capital region's second-largest job hub is unfolding.

Property owners are seeking changes to the county's development guidelines that would allow hotels, offices and condominium towers -- some up to 25 stories tall -- on about 790 of the 1,700 acres in Tysons. Buildings would front on streets rather than parking lots and include shops and restaurants on the ground floor -- much of it within walking distance of four planned Metro stations.

With only slivers of vacant land left in Tysons, much of the current hodgepodge of auto showrooms, warehouses, offices and garden apartments would be torn down to make way for a new urban center, where pedestrians could dine at sidewalk cafes, window shop or even take in outdoor lunchtime concerts at public greens.

If the Board of Supervisors approves the proposals sometime next year, the 46.4 million square feet of commercial and residential space in Tysons could be expanded by tens of millions. Construction would have to wait until federal funding for the rail line is guaranteed.

"The advent of rail is changing things," said board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), a rail booster who represented the area until this year. "The idea of an office park is clearly obsolete. . . . We're looking for a lot of urban attributes now."

He cautioned that landowners will "have to prove that with the extra density, they're going to push people to transit. . . . If 90 percent of people are going to get in their cars, it's not going to work."

The proposed changes are years away.

"In many cases, the applicants are saying, 'Let me hold my place' for when rail comes," said Hillary Zahm, an attorney for five property owners.

But as much as county leaders want a downtown, they don't want a Tysons that's too urban. Even the highest densities under consideration -- 3.5 square feet of building area for each square foot of land -- don't come close to the compressed development around Metro stops in Bethesda, Rockville or the Ballston corridor in Arlington. Those areas are by and large twice as dense. And while Fairfax planners hope to wipe out thousands of surface parking spaces and put them underground, it's a given that cars would not disappear from Tysons.

The area is too big, and much of it lies too far away from the planned Metro stations, for a comfortable walk. A certain amount of driving is a necessity. In fact, planners estimate that when the stations open, only 12 percent of weekday trips into Tysons would be by transit.

"Tysons is really big. Arlington is not," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes Tysons. "The farther toward the city you are, the more transit accessibility you have, and the density can be higher."


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