Vision for Transit-Friendly Tysons May Slam the Door on Dealer Row

Sprawling car lots are at the site of proposed Metro stops and dense development.
Sprawling car lots are at the site of proposed Metro stops and dense development. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

Down the street they stretch, their banners cracking in the wind, the roll call of signs evoking distant Saturdays of kicking tires and clasping new keys: Koons Chevrolet, Cherner Lincoln Mercury, Moore Cadillac.

For generations of area residents, buying a car has often meant a trip to a mile-long strip of Leesburg Pike in Tysons Corner, home to more than a dozen dealerships sprawling over 80 acres of blacktop. The dealers, as much a part of Tysons Corner's landscape as its malls, have been hugely successful; Koons Toyota, to name just one, is among Toyota's top-selling dealers nationwide.

But in five years, an elevated Metro line is scheduled to slice through the middle of Leesburg Pike, a prospect that brings with it the question already rumbling on showroom floors: Is there room for acres of car lots in a Tysons transformed by transit?

Probably not, say many Fairfax County officials and developers and even some dealers. At a time when Fairfax wants to focus growth around Metro -- especially the new stations at Tysons -- many see huge swaths of asphalt covered with empty cars so close to the train as a wasted opportunity.

Already, the planned arrival of rail is making the land so valuable that it's becoming tempting for owners to cash out -- or redevelop the properties into multistory, urban-style dealerships topped with offices and apartments, a far cry from the low-slung lots that characterize the strip.

"We'd like to protect the flag here as long as we can . . . but it's reached the point where the real estate has become so expensive that we have to take a second look," said Jacques J. Moore Sr., in the office of the Cadillac dealership he opened 28 years ago. "Metro changes all the dynamics."

Dealers aren't the only ones in Tysons Corner bracing for one of the Washington area's most sweeping transformations in recent history. Fairfax officials envision turning Tysons' entire charmless mix of office buildings and shopping-strip retail into a thriving downtown for Northern Virginia, with high-rise housing, big city blocks and a vibrant night life.

But few will probably be as affected as the auto dealers. There is the symbolism; one of the goals of bringing rail through Tysons to Dulles International Airport is to reduce reliance on vehicles. A row of auto dealerships doesn't exactly fit with the new ethos of a transit- and pedestrian-friendly Tysons liberated from the car culture.

By virtue of their size, the dealers occupy much of the land closest to two of the four stations planned for Tysons. It's a juxtaposition no one would have imagined when dealers started moving onto the strip from the District three decades ago, helping stake out the area as a commercial hub on the suburban fringes.

Now, as the suburbs have spread out much farther, with Metro following in their wake, the dealerships are at risk of being labeled out of place in the very place they helped create.

"It's funny: Tysons was the middle of nowhere when these dealerships were established, and now it's ground zero," said Art Walsh, a land use lawyer representing the family that owns the land beneath Koons Chevrolet at Route 123 and Leesburg Pike. "The change in location has been dramatic."

The transformation is told in the land values. Last year, a four-acre site with a storage building squeezed between several dealerships at the west end of Leesburg Pike sold for $10.4 million. The assessed value of the 14 acres beneath Koons Chevrolet has jumped by more than half in five years, to $27.8 million.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company