Overhaul Of Tysons Center Approved

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fairfax County's evolution into a more urban suburb advanced last night as the Board of Supervisors approved plans to overhaul Tysons Corner Center by surrounding the mall with a ring of eight towers containing offices, more than 1,000 apartments and at least one hotel.

The expansion, to begin next year and last a decade, will reshape the huge shopping center, which helped put the former rural crossroads of Tysons on the map 38 years ago -- and which still helps define what is now the 12th-largest business district in the country.

"This is a transformation that we're doing here. What this is about is making a place where people want to be. It's going to be a magnet," said Melanie Balfour Heywood, a senior vice president with the mall's owner, the Macerich Co. of California.

Under Macerich's plans, several thousand people will live in nearly 1,400 apartments in towers rising as high as 30 stories and arrayed around the sprawling, 300-store mall like watchtowers around a fort. Many existing parking garages and lots will be buried underground, and smaller stores now clustered around the mall will be demolished. Visitors to the new complex -- in effect, a small city unto itself -- will be greeted by a large plaza with an ice rink and sculptures. Overall, the plans will add more than 3.5 million square feet, more than doubling what stands on the 78-acre site.

Voting 8 to 2 -- over some local opposition -- the supervisors praised the project as a fundamental element of their effort to turn Tysons from an unlovely office and retail hub that mostly empties out after hours into a more vibrant downtown. "What we have here is a suburban mall," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose jurisdiction includes Tysons. But now, she said, "we have something that is going to be part of our urban plan for Tysons."

The approval underscores Tysons Corner's profound state of growth and flux. In 2012, a new Metrorail line is scheduled to slice through the 1,700 acre-area on an elevated track, with one of four stops in Tysons opposite the mall on Route 123. On the other side of Route 123, Lerner Enterprises, which opened the rival Tysons II Galleria mall in 1988, is planning to build eight towers, mostly offices, and on Tysons Corner Center's other side, near Route 7, a developer is planning hundreds more high-rise apartments. Also planned is the construction of new ramps to and from the Beltway for new toll lanes.

The expansion also comes closely on the heels of several other major high-rise projects in Fairfax that were approved last year as part of county officials' push to "grow up, not out": 2,250 apartments and townhouses at the Vienna Metro station, dubbed MetroWest, and 720 apartments at the Dunn Loring/Merrifield Station.

The mall project never faced the concerted opposition that MetroWest did, probably because it is farther from single-family neighborhoods. But at hearings, skeptical residents argued that the mall expansion would worsen the traffic around Tysons. Macerich officials said they would reduce the expected effect by encouraging residents and workers to use the new Metro line and pledging to pay up to $4 million in penalties if its traffic promises aren't met.

Some residents remain unconvinced, saying that the county has failed to enforce such traffic pledges in the past and that even under Macerich's proposed limits, 1,700 more cars would come and go from the mall during morning rush hour.

Residents and some supervisors also questioned the project's timing, saying it would undermine Fairfax's effort to come up with a new master plan for Tysons, which has been led by a citizens task force aided by consultants making more than $1.6 million. It made no sense, critics said, to approve a project in the heart of Tysons before that planning process was done.

"I don't remember ever, in the middle of a [planning] process, taking a key property, if not the key property, and moving ahead with the zoning," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), who opposed the project with Supervisor Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville). "The average citizen would look at us and say, 'Why in the world would they do that?' "

Macerich officials and other supervisors rejected this, saying the expansion was consistent with county plans for building densely near transit and increasing the number of people living at Tysons, as well as night life options, so more workers can live near their offices instead of joining the rush-hour crush in and out of the area. Only 17,000 people live at Tysons but more than 100,000 work there.

"It's not like we're doing this in a vacuum," said the mall's longtime general manager, Charles R. Cope. "It's pretty difficult when people are saying, 'Wait, wait wait.' We've been hearing that for a while. It's time to move forward."

To assuage the timing criticism, Macerich officials tweaked the project's timeline, which is phased in to coincide with stages in the extension of Metro. The company will have full approval for the first two of the project's four phases, which include the biggest towers, along Route 123. It will also receive permission for the overall density that it is seeking for the latter two phases, buildings along International Drive and the back of the mall, facing the Beltway. But before building the latter two phases, the company will need to resubmit its plans for county approval.

This will give the county the chance to ensure that the details of those buildings conform with the new master plan, Smyth said. She dismissed the argument voiced by Frey and others that the change doesn't gain much since Macerich is getting all the density it wants.

Macerich also tweaked its plans in recent weeks to add a handful more affordable-housing units, to 124 out of a total of 1,385 units. And it accepted recommendations by some of the county task force's consultants to improve the pedestrian links for those entering the mall from the planned Metro stop and the rest of Tysons via a pedestrian bridge over Route 123.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company