Path of Diminished Potential

This is what a Metro station at Route 7 and Spring Hill Road in Tysons Corner could look like.
This is what a Metro station at Route 7 and Spring Hill Road in Tysons Corner could look like. (Di Domenico + Partners, New York)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Six years from now, when Metro service is promised to jump-start the remaking of Tysons Corner into a livable city, the central crossroads of Virginia's largest business district is likely to feature no walkers, no bikers, no restaurants, no parks.

There, where routes 7 and 123 meet, will lie the same thing as today: a 35-acre cloverleaf interchange. It will sit within walking distance of two new aboveground Metro stations in the medians of both highways, but there will be little to walk to. Instead, the roads will continue to physically and psychologically divide this promised new downtown.

Critics of Metrorail's proposed 23-mile extension to Dulles International Airport say there is no better illustration of the lost opportunity to transform Tysons from a traffic-clogged edge city to a functioning real place than the plans to preserve that interchange. Routes 7 and 123 will be maintained as arterial highways; Route 7 will even be widened. And the rail line's aerial route down the middle of the highways, critics say, will make it all the more difficult, if not impossible, to remake 7 and 123 into something less -- and Tysons into something more.

Supporters of the aerial design and its accompanying road plans say there is no other way, now that a Metro tunnel has been rejected as too expensive. And there is no turning back the clock on what Tysons is, they say: a suburban retail and jobs center where the road network must continue to move tens of thousands of cars each day.

All agree that Tysons' potential is limited by the two major highways and that an elevated track that will split its core. But will it really be that bad? Yes, say those wedded to truly transforming Tysons into a city. No, say others who see good in the creation of scattered new spaces along a Metro line. Finding Tysons' future, now that state and county officials approved the aerial design this month, will be a balance between the perfect and the possible.

"In a perfect world, yes, I'd love to narrow Route 123 and some of those other things so you don't have to cross eight lanes," said Clark Tyler, chairman of Fairfax County's Tysons Land Use Task Force, an advisory group that has been working for three years to draft recommendations on how to transform Tysons. The task force supported the tunnel.

"We can't unfry the egg," Tyler said. "But I think we can determine the look, the feel and the convenience of what is coming because of Metro."

Unfrying the egg is exactly what the most ardent advocates for a wholesale metamorphosis in Tysons Corner have in mind. They would rip up that cloverleaf interchange, narrow Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) and Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) and create an entirely new grid of city streets in all parts of the district. The goal would be to alleviate traffic on the main roads and put an end to the dead-end street circuits that force most traffic in Tysons to use one of the two main thoroughfares. They also envision wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes and pedestrian crossings at every block.

Gone from the medians of those two roads would be the elevated concrete pillars for the tracks. Gone would be the one street-level station planned for Route 7 prohibiting a crossing for pedestrians for about 800 feet. The escalators of an underground rail line, meanwhile, would deliver passengers directly into that intimate, urban environment -- and not onto glass-enclosed aerial walkways traversing six or eight lanes of high-volume traffic.

"If you had dropped the train -- and it would have been such an important step as infrastructure -- instead of having this thing that slices through like a barrier, you would have this Metro that everyone has access to. What's that worth?" asked Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

Much is at stake for "smart-growth" advocates. An urban rebirth in Tysons -- one of the original edge cities of the United States and the nation's 12th-largest business district -- could fuel efforts to try urban redevelopment in even the most established suburban places.

"It's such an important project for so much of the country where we're trying to convert these auto-dependent places into more livable, real places," said Norman W. Garrick, a University of Connecticut professor and director of the school's Center for Transportation and Urban Planning. "To be able to change, and to become something different -- that would make it become such a compelling example."

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