A Chance to Make a Real City Out of Tysons
Tysons Corner presents an extraordinary challenge and opportunity. No longer suburban, Tysons begs to be properly urbanized through visionary planning. Such planning could radically yet constructively transform one of the nation's most unattractive and dysfunctional environments.
But can Northern Virginia residents and political leaders meet the challenge and create a sufficiently visionary plan? And can that plan win the support and investment needed to exploit this opportunity?
Let's start with what makes Tysons extraordinary: its established identity as a locus of retail, business and residency within the national capital region. Recall its enormous size -- about 1,700 acres. That's larger than downtowns of many major American cities. Consider its strategic location and favorable transportation access -- three arterial highways, plus the four Metro stations that are planned for the Metro extension to Dulles International Airport.
But Tysons Corner is also unusual because its existing pattern of land use and development is so irregular and chaotic.
A woefully inadequate road network, huge blocks and extreme diversity in density and building mass define its unsightly character. High-rise towers cast shadows across one-story commercial strips, while car dealerships and free-standing stores face gigantic shopping malls.
Providing for automobiles shaped Tysons Corner's planning almost half a century ago. Today's traffic jams reveal how flawed that planning proved to be. And you don't have to be a transportation expert to understand why the traffic nightmare persists: too few streets. Even if existing streets were widened, the overall network is incapable of effectively accommodating and dispersing traffic.
Nevertheless, the formless mosaic of properties and dysfunctional street network of Tysons make radical transformation possible. There's enough undeveloped or underdeveloped land -- parking lots, building setbacks, low-density parcels -- to allow a new pattern of streets and blocks to be superimposed. Indeed, a rational grid of streets, with smaller and more densely developed blocks, is exactly what's required to make dysfunctional Tysons functional.
In addition to successfully accommodating pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as cars, a new street-block pattern would make Tysons much more attractive.
Imagine Tysons with tree-lined streets, squares and parks framed by multi-story buildings designed for retail, offices, residences, culture and recreation. Imagine being able to walk on sidewalks animated round-the-clock by storefronts and cafes.
This is not just a romantic vision advocated by architects and urban designers. Implementing this vision would be economically feasible and prudent.
Parts of a new Tysons street grid, superimposed on privately owned parcels, would require property owners to dedicate public rights of way. As compensation and incentive for owners, density on land not dedicated would be increased.