When Is a Mall Not Just a Mall? When It's a Mini-City

Its owner wants to transform Tysons Corner Center into a mini-city, complete with a hotel, retail and residential space. An artist's rendering shows the proposal as seen from Route 123.
Its owner wants to transform Tysons Corner Center into a mini-city, complete with a hotel, retail and residential space. An artist's rendering shows the proposal as seen from Route 123. (Macerich Co.)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fairfax County's effort to turn Tysons Corner into a vibrant, walkable downtown might well center on the place where everything began more than three decades ago: the mall.

Next week, the owner of Tysons Corner Center, whose opening put Tysons on the map 35 years ago, will go before the county Planning Commission with plans to transform the shopping center into a mini-city. The plans entail surrounding the mall with apartments, offices and a hotel in towers as high as 350 feet, and interspersing the whole complex with broad plazas, an ice rink, sculptures, a rooftop bar and performance space -- even a biking and jogging trail.

Many other mall owners across the country are seeking continued success by turning their properties into "lifestyle experiences" with more than just stores and food courts. What sets Tysons Corner Center apart is not only the sheer scale -- few malls are adding so much housing -- but the plan's significance for the area.

Fairfax officials hope to turn Tysons from a car-clogged jumble of malls, offices and auto dealers into a true downtown where people can live and be entertained rather than just work and shop -- and where they can walk and use public transit. Keys to this overhaul are the arrival of Metrorail, scheduled to reach Tysons in 2012, the addition of an urban-style street grid and the construction of more housing. As it is, fewer than 20,000 people live in Tysons, although more than 100,000 work there.

County planners and advocates for smart growth who hope to transform Tysons generally view its two malls, Tysons Corner Center and Tysons II Galleria, as obstacles to fulfilling their vision. Sitting in the middle of Tysons, the malls greatly complicate any future street grid, draw thousands of cars to the area and embody the suburban model that Tysons was created in, rather than the urban form these planners want.

Tysons Corner Center's owner, Macerich Co., a California-based organization with 73 shopping centers across the country, argues that, with the mall's proposed overhaul, it is part of the solution. With its mix of uses and public spaces, the company says, its plan is a microcosm of what Fairfax is trying to accomplish across Tysons.

"It's hard to take a suburban area without a street grid and make it urban, but this will go a long way in that direction," said John W. Anderson, the president of Macerich East Development LLC, as he surveyed the mall from the 17th-floor balcony of the adjacent Tower Club.

So far, county officials appear to agree. After months of back-and-forth discussion, Macerich won a glowing recommendation from county planning staff. After the Planning Commission vote, the proposal goes to the Board of Supervisors.

The proposal, which spans 10 to 15 years, calls for adding as many as 1,350 rental or condominium apartments in two towers and lower-rise buildings; four office buildings totaling about 1.4 million square feet; a 300-room hotel; and 200,000 square feet of retail space, primarily ground-level stores -- such as a dry cleaner and grocery -- to serve new residents. The proposal would add about 3.5 million square feet, an increase of 150 percent, to the same 82-acre property that supports the 300-store mall, which has undergone several major expansions, most recently the addition of a 16-screen movie theater and five restaurants.

The expansion would be in four phases, all timed to mesh with various stages in the Metrorail extension, because under county zoning rules, rail access allows nearby property owners to build at higher densities. Construction of the first phase would begin when the rail extension wins federal funding, anticipated by officials sometime next year. Scheduled to open around 2010, that first phase would include a residential tower, office tower and hotel, all clustered along Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) near La Madeleine restaurant and close to one of the four proposed Tysons Metro stations. The towers would surround a long plaza and a grand new mall vehicle entrance.

The second phase would coincide with the start of the rail line's construction and would include another residential tower and office tower, and another plaza, along Route 123 closer to International Drive. The final phases would be built after the subway is complete and would include smaller multi-story buildings on the mall's edge farther from the Metro station, along International Drive and Leesburg Pike (Route 7).

Initially, Macerich proposed more office than residential space, but the county persuaded the company to significantly increase the housing portion. The county also elicited a pledge that 8 percent of the housing units, around 100, would be affordable, and that the rest of the units would include a mix of sizes and affordability.

Macerich officials are confident that they would be able to fill the housing units. They say one of the first questions they've gotten from groups they presented their plans to has been, "When can I buy one?"

Planners praised the company for its efforts to encourage public transit use, which include limiting the amount of additional parking, providing space for a bus depot along Route 123 and agreeing to keep the mall open before and after Metrorail hours so riders can walk through the mall to the station.

County officials lament, though, that the pedestrian link between the station and mall has been complicated by the recent decision to build the rail line aboveground. To save costs, the aboveground station no longer includes a pedestrian bridge over Route 123 to the mall; riders will have to descend to the street and then go back up to a separate bridge to the shopping center.

Despite the positive staff recommendation, there are some concerns, said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence). Some residents worry that the 34-foot retaining wall along Route 123 would create a fortress effect. Also, as planned, the complex will be difficult to integrate with the rest of Tysons because state plans call for making Route 123 even more of an expressway, rather than a pedestrian-friendly boulevard. Macerich officials said they would spruce up the wall with terraced steps and plantings.

Other residents say it would be better for the future of Tysons if Macerich waited to proceed until the county completed rewriting its master plan for Tysons, to assure that the mall's new incarnation reflects the broader vision for Tysons. Macerich officials say their proposal is already in sync with the county's vision.

"What we wanted to do is build a model for transit-oriented development, a pedestrian scale community that's not dominated by automobile traffic," Anderson said. "We're proud of this project."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company