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Tysons Planners Thinking 'Circulator'

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007

Developers, landowners and county officials for years have championed a proposal to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport as an opportunity to refashion Tysons Corner from suburban office park to thriving downtown.

But reinventing Tysons will take many other ingredients, such as new zoning rules to allow high-rise buildings and public infrastructure that will require massive investments in such things as streets, sidewalks and sewer systems.

It will also require, those planning the new Tysons say, another type of transit system beyond the rail line to allow people to reach the farthest corners of the region without getting in their cars. Known for planning purposes as a circulator, the system would run in an imperfect circle through the outer reaches of Tysons' 1,700 acres, connecting passengers with Metro stations not within a short walk.

The concept of a circulator has become a major point of discussion for the Tysons Land Use Task Force, in part because boosters say it is a critical component of the success of the redevelopment effort.

The task force, in place for three years, is entering the final phase of its work and preparing to deliver recommendations to the county no later than April. A circulator is expected to figure heavily in those plans.

"The connector is the key to making Tysons work," said Clark Tyler, chairman of the Tysons Land Use Task Force. "Metro by itself won't do it, in my view."

But the concept is complicated, as well as politically perilous. To work best and remain unencumbered by local traffic, planners say, the circulator, probably a bus or a trolley, must run on a dedicated lane or monorail. It must come frequently, meaning every three to five minutes during peak hours. And it must be free if those who live, work and shop in Tysons are going to be inclined to use it.

How to pay for such a costly system is the greatest challenge. Persuading developers to donate the land for the route in exchange for the right to build bigger and higher is one option. But the task force has been talking about getting a lot from the developers poised to remake Tysons, including extremely expensive street grids and sidewalks.

"Whatever it is, the price tag for all the infrastructure and all the community elements is more than all the projects will bear," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the task force. "It is also more than what the government can fund currently. So you've got to find a new funding strategy."

Another significant debate will be what to allow landowners to build on property next to the route eventually chosen. Locating the four Metro stops planned for Tysons, two along Route 123 and two on Route 7, was of huge importance to property owners, who knew that the closer to the stations, the more valuable their land, and the taller and more lucrative the buildings they would be allowed to build.

Similarly, the circulator is expected to generate interest from landowners in the outlying corners of Tysons, where property will probably increase in value if the transit line runs close by. Also, as with the Metro stations, the task force is likely to allow property owners to build taller structures along the circulator route than elsewhere.

"It certainly creates more options for those properties," said Mark Lowham, a spokesman for WestGroup, one of the largest property owners in Tysons. "And of course those properties represent a majority of Tysons."

WestGroup, for example, owns property directly in front of the most eastward Metro stop planned for Route 123, near Colshire Drive and a corporate development known as WestGate.

But it also owns most of WestPark, along Jones Branch Drive and behind the Tysons Galleria. That property, not as close to the stations, would be well served by a circulator.

There's no guarantee that the circulator will run along Jones Branch Drive, and Tyler is careful to say that no route has been chosen, nor will it be before a detailed study is completed in about two months.

"A lot depends on the analysis," Tyler said. "If the analysis says, 'Look, circulators don't make any sense here or there or wherever,' then we may have to rethink that. My guess is that when the analysis is done, a circulator is going to make a lot of sense."

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