Next Stop, Tysons

Ballston is a national model for transit-oriented development. A surge in development there has produced relatively little additional traffic.
Ballston is a national model for transit-oriented development. A surge in development there has produced relatively little additional traffic. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fairfax County's leaders have a theory. The way to reduce traffic and improve the quality of life in Tysons Corner and the rest of the million-person county, they say, is to cluster thousands of high-rise apartments and offices into areas near public transit.

And in response to those who argue that cramming in more towers and people seems like an unlikely way to reduce congestion, the leaders have a single word: Ballston.

That section of Arlington, along with the rest of the corridor between Rosslyn and Ballston, is a national model for "transit-oriented development" -- and it is now defining the debate over how to redevelop the Washington suburbs.

Over three decades, Arlington has transformed what was once a timeworn commercial strip into a thriving corri dor of gleaming towers and busy sidewalks strung like an open necklace along Metro's Orange Line, which reached

Ballston in 1979. Most notably, the surge in development along the corridor has produced relatively little additional automobile traffic, which is why Fairfax, Montgomery County and other suburbs are invoking the high-density model as the cure to their traffic woes.

"If we don't change the old pattern of growth and development, we will continue to get what we have always gotten," said Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors.

But to many residents of Fairfax, Montgomery and other suburbs, the Rosslyn-Ballston model simply does not apply outside of Arlington. It verges on delusional, they argue, to expect that injecting tens of thousands of people, many of whom will use their cars, into places like Tysons will turn them into a pedestrians' paradise. To skeptics, "Ballstonization" has become a dirty word, a planners' fantasy sure to produce disaster.

In Montgomery, where plans call for focusing growth around the county's 11 Metro stations, residents have spoken out in recent years against proposals for intense development around the Shady Grove Station north of Rockville and the Takoma Station, just across the District line. Similar debates are expected in coming years in Prince George's County as its leaders move to encourage development around several stations that are surrounded by parking lots -- although plans to build offices, shops and hundreds of apartments around the West Hyattsville Station have so far been well received. The debate also has taken hold in the District, where residents are battling plans for high-rise development around the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights stations.

The struggle over the Arlington model was most on display in the recent debate over plans to surround Tysons Corner Center with eight towers holding offices, a hotel and 1,385 apartments -- 3.5 million square feet, more than doubling what's on the 78-acre site. At the meeting in which Fairfax supervisors voted for the plans, Connolly said Tysons desperately needs to increase the number of its residents -- currently 17,000, compared with 117,000 employees -- so that everyone isn't streaming into the area at rush hour.

"While it may be counterintuitive, we need a lot more people than are living there right now to break that pattern," he said.

Darren Ewing, a Falls Church resident testifying against the plans, wasn't buying it. "By adding additional congestion, do you solve that?"

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