Reality Thins Out An Urban Vision

Fairfax County officials want to turn Tysons Corner into a mini-city where residents can work, shop, dine out and find entertainment without having to drive.
Fairfax County officials want to turn Tysons Corner into a mini-city where residents can work, shop, dine out and find entertainment without having to drive. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

In Fairfax County's official vision for Tysons Corner, thousands of people live clustered around the Metro stops planned there -- riding the train or walking to work, leaving their cars at home and injecting new life into the austere glass and concrete hub.

But in the reality of developers' blueprints, a different Tysons is emerging -- one with a population smaller than what county leaders have in mind.

A developer has decided to reduce the number of homes planned for the sliver of open land between the two Tysons malls, adjacent to the most central station on a Metro extension scheduled to be completed in 2011. The plan approved three years ago called for Lerner Enterprises to build 540 condominiums, but the company now says it will build as few as 300 pricier ones.

"The county obviously does not welcome this [change], but our ability to force them to do something they don't want to do is very limited," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D).

At stake at Tysons is Fairfax's fundamental philosophy about growth in a county that has more than 1 million people, thousands of available jobs and little housing left. Connolly and other supervisors argue that the only logical place to grow is at existing or proposed Metro stops, where new residents wouldn't have to use crowded highways. In its plans for Tysons and near the Vienna Metro station, the county hopes for mini-cities, complete with high-rises, where people can live, work, shop, eat and find entertainment without getting into a car.

But the shift to fewer, costlier units at such a prime location near the Tysons Metro highlights how precarious the county's plan is. In this case, it relies on a developer's sharing the county's urban planning vision and putting aside its own marketing strategy.

To critics of the county's plans for Tysons, the change to more limited and luxurious housing undermines the county's claim that new housing at Tysons will benefit many rank-and-file employees there. They question why the county is unable to locate more housing at the Tysons stop while considering dense high-rise projects at other sites, such as at the Vienna Metro stop, which are in some ways less suited to high-density housing.

"The canard of 'Oh, we've got all these workers coming, and we need to provide housing' is disproven when the county allows this to get through," said Laurie Genevro Cole, a Vienna Town Council member. "Nobody's saying no to growth. We're saying growth should serve a purpose. We don't need hundreds more multimillion-dollar units."

Nearly 100,000 people work at Tysons, but only about 17,000 live there, mostly in townhouses at its outer edge and in a few large, older apartment and condominium buildings. By bringing workers and residents into closer balance, county leaders hope to transform Tysons into a true urban center rather than an outsize office park that is crippled by rush hour gridlock and falls quiet in the evenings.

The problem is that developers are not necessarily as keen as county planners on the notion of building large amounts of housing at Tysons, particularly for employees unable to afford $1.5 million condominiums. Several of the largest Tysons landowners, including Lerner and West Group, are most experienced in retail and office development, not housing, and building offices on the site rather than condominiums would allow them to lease rather than sell the buildings and retain control of the property.

This has put the county in the unusual position of urging developers to increase residential density in projects, a reverse of its typical negotiations with builders. To get Lerner to agree to include homes along with office towers and a hotel, the county allowed the company to put more buildings on the site than zoning rules otherwise allowed.

But the county wasn't exact enough in its demands: It extracted an agreement only for a minimum number of residential square feet, not of housing units. There was nothing it could do about Lerner's decision to break the space into fewer condos.

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