Plan to Remake Tysons Corner Envisions Dense Urban Center

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

The transformation of Tysons Corner from a car-dominated tangle of offices, malls and auto dealers into a livable city will start moving ahead in the coming weeks.

Fairfax County leaders and landowners are unveiling sweeping proposals to build densely packed high-rises, miles of new streets, and enough parks, schools, police stations and firehouses to serve an entirely new place.

The results could determine the future not only of Virginia's mightiest jobs hub, but also what happens across the country. Urban-renewal leaders are looking to Tysons as a model.

The plans come at a make-or-break time. Landowners and developers are ready to invest, but they say that if they are not given latitude to build more densely, they will redevelop under existing rules -- promising more of the same auto-dependent, suburban sprawl.

Rebuilding Tysons is a huge undertaking of unknown cost and other uncertainties, including whether Metrorail will ever be built through Tysons to Dulles International Airport. It is also a potentially explosive proposition that will bring out powerful civic groups opposed to too much development. It is at the mercy of the area's physical impediments, which include four major highways and paralyzing traffic. And it is dependent upon the willingness of landowners and taxpayers to bear the cost of building a city from the ground up.

"I'm calling this the audacity of change," Clark Tyler, chairman of a county-appointed study panel, told a group of business leaders recently. "This is our last chance to get it right."

Getting it right has been a 3 1/2 -year undertaking for the Tysons Land Use Task Force, an unwieldy collection of neighborhood representatives, business leaders and developers that is preparing to release a 200-page recommendation on how to remake Tysons. Appointed in 2004 by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the task force has studied every aspect of redeveloping Tysons Corner: parking management, traffic patterns, a "circulator" bus line, affordable housing, sewers, storm water.

The task is daunting. It's not easy to imagine a future city while idling at one of the interminable left-turn signals, or spilling off the eight-lane Capital Beltway, or sliding behind the wheel for a lunch date two blocks away because walking is out of the question. Tysons is Fairfax's de facto downtown, but it is a place with more parking (40 million square feet) than offices (28 million square feet); more workers who drive in (120,000) than residents who sleep in (17,000); highways that divide (Route 7, Route 123, the Dulles Toll Road, the Capital Beltway); and too few ways in and out.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Tysons is cost. To pay for new infrastructure, the task force is looking at special taxing districts or a development authority with borrowing power. But the real arrow in the quiver, as Tyler likes to say, is density. Allowing developers to build 10-, 20- or even 30-story buildings, one next to the other and without such conventional suburban requirements as parking and distance from the next property, is the key to exacting money from them to rebuild Tysons.

The task force is rushing to finish its work for several reasons. Plans for a Metrorail extension are moving forward again after months of delays, promising four stations through the heart of Tysons. Demand for Earth-friendly urban development is growing with concerns about global warming. Landowners and developers are ready to invest.

Powerful constituencies are lined up against them. Tysons covers fewer than 2,000 acres and is surrounded by well-established residential neighborhoods. These communities, primarily with McLean, Vienna and Falls Church addresses, are anxious about the impact of a major development boom in Tysons. Organized groups such as Fairfax Citizens for Responsible Growth, the Greater Tysons Citizens Coalition and the McLean Citizens Association have criticized the task force for not demonstrating what the impact of development would be on traffic, schools and parks.

"We have supported an urbanization of Tysons, but there have to be sufficient public facilities there, one, to make it an attractive urban community, and two, to protect the surrounding neighborhoods," said Rob Jackson, president of the McLean Citizens Association.

Dozens of the 150 Tysons landowners say there will be. They say they are willing to spend millions demolishing what they have and laying new infrastructure if they are allowed to build big. They have teamed up to form at least six consortiums to make the most of their holdings, producing -- and finally revealing to the public -- dramatic renderings that divide Tysons into quadrants, or "rooms," of intimate, urban spaces.

Property owners stand to make huge profits. But they also argue for the environmental benefit of high-density development, particularly around Metro. People drive less when they live and work in urban areas and when parking is less abundant, they say. Their homes, with shared walls, cost less to heat and cool. They require fewer feet of water and sewer lines. Their carbon footprints shrink.

Boosters also argue about the economic necessity of changing the way Tysons has grown. With 6,000 businesses, 14 hotels and two malls, Tysons is Virginia's largest commercial district and the 15th largest in the nation. But because it is so auto-dependent, it is also choked by some of the worst traffic in the region.

"Our metro area is facing an enormous crisis," said Doug Carter, an architect with Davis Carter Scott Design who is leading the efforts of one group of property owners to remake the western end of Tysons Corner. "Growth is good. Growth is inevitable. Growth is coming. We're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg for the entire Washington area unless we do something constructive here."

Some public officials are caught between the allure of an economically vibrant Tysons and the trepidation of nearby neighborhoods. Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, has said that Tysons is not suited for the type of urban density characteristic of the Rosslyn-Clarendon-Ballston corridor in Arlington County. But his perspective has shifted more recently; at a recent luncheon, he told business leaders: "Gird yourselves for battle."

Connolly is responding, in part, to the fact that developers aren't the only advocates for unleashing a building boom in Tysons. Environmentalists and smart-growth advocates agree that urban density, "green" building requirements and deep limits on parking are proven ways to reduce traffic, storm water pollution and energy consumption, improve air quality and protect streambeds.

"I don't understand the hysteria," said Stella M. Koch of the Audubon Naturalist Society, who sits on the Tysons task force. "Every place that has these kinds of densities that people get frightened of are all places people like to go. Clarendon is a wonderful example where they've actually reduced car ownership, and where people go because it is so pleasant. If Tysons looked like that, with streams restored and improvements in air quality, we will have succeeded."

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