Sometime in the past few years, an interesting thing happened in the Northern Virginia real estate world: Reston overtook Tysons Corner as the choice address.
Suddenly, the suburban experience epitomized by Tysons had fallen out of favor -- not just with urban snobs who never liked office parks and enclosed malls but even with high-priced consultants and government contracting executives who, only years before, had boasted of the star chef at the Ritz-Carlton, the number of dot-com millionaires who could be found lunching at the Palm and the new Hermes store in Fairfax Square. At conferences and community meetings, Tysons was Exhibit A for everything that was wrong with the suburbs -- a traffic nightmare, aesthetically and environmentally offensive, a mistake to be rectified, a problem to be solved.
Instead, everyone started climbing on the "new urbanism" bandwagon. The emphasis was on walkability; inviting streetscapes; and residences, offices and shops all in close proximity. Bethesda and Ballston had proven that this approach was not only more enjoyable but also more profitable. After 40 years of stop-and-start planning and development, the pieces had finally fallen into place at Reston Town Center.
Big-name companies such as Accenture and Sallie Mae moved in with architecturally significant headquarters. You couldn't get a table at Morton's steakhouse. Although less than a tenth its size, Reston Town Center was commanding rents and condo prices equal to, or even exceeding, those at Tysons.
In terms of planning, it looked like a victory for place-making over sprawl, of tight zoning and master-planning over property rights and crass commercialism. In competitive terms, it was a sweet victory for Boston Properties and Robert Kettler over the West Group and Lerner Enterprises.
Walking around Reston, you can't help but marvel at how well it's been done: The quality and variety of the architecture, the careful attention to creating public spaces and inviting streetscapes, the clever ways in which cars and roadways are integrated into the project, the density that's been achieved without sacrificing human scale.
And yet you can't shake the feeling that this is really a Potemkin village.
It's just too neat, too homogenized. The stores are all outlets of national chains. There are no churches, no schools, no liquor stores, no bums or graffiti. Reston Town Center lacks what architect and urban planner Alan Ward, who was involved in the center's planning, calls the "messy vitality of older towns and cities that grew over time like natural phenomena."
This is not a criticism so much as a statement of the obvious. After all, what else would you expect from a "downtown" created out of nothing in less than 20 years?
You can't help but feel, as you drive from Reston down the Dulles Toll Road and turn onto lovely Route 7 in Tysons Corner, that you've arrived at a place that is bigger, more dynamic, more real. Sure, Tysons is one traffic jam after another -- but when was the last time you tried to get across Midtown Manhattan? It's ugly, but so are some of the hippest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Like people in Chicago, people in Tysons don't amble or poke along -- they've got things to do.
And everywhere there is variety, ordered chaos and an urban-like intensity that puts you on edge.
My point is that when talking about creating an "urban" experience in the suburbs or the exurbs, there is more to it than road grids, streetscapes and walkability. By those criteria, Tysons will never become a city in the way we think of Baltimore or Boston, even with a subway line running through it. To think otherwise is fantasy.
But that doesn't mean Tysons can't have the density and variety and energy normally associated with cities, or that its next incarnation can't include attractive and inviting neighborhoods that do a better job of mixing housing, retail space, offices and public amenities.
The challenge will be to find a way for people to get from one of these neighborhoods to another without a car. Some sort of circulator bus or trolley seems inevitable.
And, just as importantly, Fairfax County will have to become more aggressive in securing choice parcels of land in Tysons for public uses -- schools, parks, theaters, museums, churches. Landowners, developers and private-property vigilantes will howl, and the cost will be high. But these will represent better uses of public money (or money extracted from developers) than spending hundreds of millions of dollars to put the Metro underground.
Tysons vs. Reston? In the long run, there's no reason both can't succeed. But for the real urban experience, I'll put my money on Tysons.
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This year, as in the past, I'll write a holiday column about extraordinary efforts by local businesses on behalf of charities and nonprofit groups during 2006. If you know of such a collaboration, drop me a brief e-mail by Dec. 13 with the details.
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