Tysons Transformation Will Be a Daunting Task

A sketch of changes to the mall area shows a Metro stop at lower right.
A sketch of changes to the mall area shows a Metro stop at lower right. (Rtkl)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

The proposal to transform Tysons Corner Center, the Washington region's largest suburban mall, into a downtown neighborhood is being called a "seminal project" by its architects for a good reason.

Nothing quite like it has been done before.

Doubling the amount of building at Tysons has been billed as a way to radically transform the quintessential suburban mall into the centerpiece of what planners hope will become Northern Virginia's downtown.

Office and residential towers would rise from the mall's vast perimeter parking lots, according to plans submitted to Fairfax County, while a planned Metrorail stop would draw in visitors without cars, who could join residents to stroll broad sidewalks lined with shops and lounge on a public plaza fringed with sculptures.

Proponents say the project could become the model for Fairfax's efforts to rebuild Tysons Corner, the bustling tangle of highways, office parks and malls, into Northern Virginia's urban hub. But even those connected with the project acknowledge that similar transformations of successful malls have been rare, if not unknown, in the United States.

"I do not know of any project of this scale and type in the country," said Paul Shaw, a partner at RTKL, the firm designing the project for the mall's owners. "We see it as a seminal project."

The difficulty of reshaping the Tysons Corner area, which was developed almost exclusively for the ease of automobile travel, into a place where pedestrians will feel welcome is thought by many planners to fall somewhere between daunting and impossible.

The challenges at the mall site are typical.

It is bordered on all sides by multilane roadways -- Route 7, Route 123, International Drive and the Capital Beltway -- that scare off most pedestrians, who are frustrated by, among other things, a lack of sidewalks and a shortage of crossings controlled by traffic lights. A few years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation rejected a request for more pedestrian crossings on Route 7 because they would further slow traffic.

Moreover, the vast size of the building -- it is 2.5 million square feet -- in some ways makes it a giant barrier to the neighborhoods near it. Other mall redevelopment projects have demolished parts of the centers so streets can run through. But Tysons Corner Center is considered too successful for such drastic changes.

The mall is "kind of like the cathedral," Shaw said, "and we're pushing the village up against it."

The project's proponents say pedestrians will cut through the mall to get from one side to the other and that extra doorways in the construction plans will make that easier.

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