By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Virginia leaders who are nearing a decision on whether to build a Metrorail line below ground through Tysons Corner face a question that goes well beyond disputes over cost estimates and construction timelines.
Is Fairfax County's hope of turning Tysons from a car-clogged, outsize office park into a vibrant, walkable downtown for Northern Virginia achievable?
The debate over whether to build a tunnel or an elevated track is partly tied to this vision and whether trying to achieve it is worth risking the extension of rail service to Washington Dulles International Airport.
The main argument for building the $4 billion rail line underground for its four-mile Tysons stretch is that it would enhance Fairfax's efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly downtown, similar to what Arlington has achieved along a Metro line in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Tunnel proponents say that this, combined with less disruption during construction, justifies the extra cost, which they estimate at $200 million, in addition to a year's delay.
The tunnel's critics do not dispute that an underground line would be preferable, but they argue that the extra costs and time would be more than the tunnel's backers say. The extension's top congressional sponsors warn that delays and cost escalations associated with a tunnel could imperil the 23-mile line to Dulles.
More broadly, the tunnel's critics express doubts that Tysons is capable of the metamorphosis Fairfax leaders seek. Skeptics say Tysons might be too far from the District and too well-established as a suburban commercial center to duplicate Arlington's success.
In the skeptics' view, it seems foolhardy to risk the rail extension -- scheduled to reach Tysons by 2011 and Dulles by 2015 -- in reaching for an elusive urban vision. It would be nice, skeptics say, if Leesburg Pike (Route 7) one day became a lovely boulevard rather than a strip of auto dealers, but given how unlikely that seems, wouldn't it be better to have an elevated track in the pike's median rather than no rail at all?
David A. Ross, president of Atlantic Realty Cos. Inc., which owns a million square feet of commercial space at Tysons, is among those who say the priority should be getting rail of any sort to Tysons as quickly as possible.
"I hope the focus is [to] find the most efficient way to make this work," he said. "The goal is that [the rail line] needs to get in place, and it needs to get in place soon."
There are reasons for skepticism. To become a true downtown, both supporters and detractors of a tunnel say, Tysons would need a grid of streets to replace the winding office park loops that congest traffic -- no easy task with two large malls, Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria, sitting in the middle of the area and the Capital Beltway slicing across it. To be more urban, the area would need thousands more residents to support more after-hours activity (about 17,000 people live there, compared with about 100,000 who work there).
And it would need to become much more developed, particularly around the four proposed Metro stations, to put more destinations within walking distance of a larger population. With 17,000 acres, Tysons is as large as downtown Boston, but much of it is parking lots and swaths of scrub and trees.
The county's plans call for allowing about 65 percent higher building density, mostly around stations, after the rail's arrival, but that still would leave Tysons less dense than much of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and far less dense than many downtown areas. A county task force working on a master plan is considering higher densities, but there might not be enough demand or community support for that.
Among those doubtful of an urban transformation is John T. "Til" Hazel, the veteran developer and land-use lawyer credited with helping transform Tysons from a rural crossroads into one of the largest business districts in the country. Hazel said he favors a tunnel in principle but questions predictions of growth.
"What needs to be done is to have a serious review of the argument that you can densify Tysons because you have a train," he said. "I don't share this theory that Tysons is suddenly going to become a new Manhattan Island because you put rail on Route 7."
But those who want the tunnel say the argument is simple: Fairfax has no choice but to try to turn Tysons into a walkable, urban hub, to reduce gridlock there and contain sprawl elsewhere. And the chance of success will be greater without an elevated track cutting through the area.
Some go further, arguing that if officials can't transform Tysons into an urban hub, then they shouldn't bother bringing rail at all because only an urban Tysons would produce enough ridership to sustain the line. They argue that officials should turn Chain Bridge Road (Route 123) -- as well as Route 7 -- into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard rather than turning it into more of an expressway, as plans call for.
With the aboveground plan, the track would hug the northern edge of Chain Bridge Road, dip below ground for 2,100 feet in the turn onto Leesburg Pike and then run aboveground as an elevated track in the pike's median. The average height of the track would be 35 feet.
Tunnel proponents argue that such a track would interfere with any new street grid where the track would run on its way out of the tunnel. They also say it would make residents less likely to move near the line.
Most important, tunnel backers say, an aboveground track would reduce the likelihood that landowners would build densely along the line and would undermine goals of concentrating growth near the rail and having buildings at the edge of sidewalks -- a hallmark of downtowns. Along Route 123, the track and stations would take up that space, and on Routes 123 and 7, owners would avoid building to the sidewalk to maintain distance from the track.
Bill Gallagher, a D.C. architect working with contractors proposing to build the tunnel, said a street needs the right proportions to feel comfortable. A track forces planners and property owners to make a street and its setbacks wider than necessary and throws proportions out of whack.
"If you have a transit system, you have pedestrians and you need a pedestrian environment: streets with trees, buildings along the street, storefronts that will attract pedestrians -- all the elements that are missing from Tysons. Elevated rail prevents a lot of those things from happening," he said.
Ed Risse, a veteran Northern Virginia land-use consultant, said that if the rail is below ground, the county could sell air rights for buildings over the roadways near the stations and use the revenue to help pay for the project. Given that a tunnel is expected to last at least 100 years, such long-term thinking is justified, he said.
Among the strongest believers in the virtues of a tunnel and the potential for a transformed Tysons is the West Group, Tysons' largest landowner. The company's executive conference room is covered with renderings of plans for its 142 acres in Tysons' northeastern end, such as a grid of shop-lined streets, a road link across the Beltway and thousands of condominiums and apartments to be built among existing office buildings. This plan is more likely to succeed, West Group officials said, if there is no elevated track on Route 123, which bisects the company's holdings.
West Group officials declined to estimate how long it might take to realize their plans and said they needed to wait for leases to expire and to see how market conditions develop. But to dispel doubts that an overhaul of Tysons is possible, they pointed to a large photo of what the area looked like less than 40 years ago, when most of the company's holdings were covered in alfalfa and the Tysons Galleria area was a gravel pit.
In a few decades, said West Group vice president Mark C. Lowham, the area has become an office and retail powerhouse. Now, as buildings constructed in the 1970s and '80s near the end of their life cycle, the area is poised for a similar transformation.
"There is a very good likelihood that we're going to see this in our lifetime," Lowham said.