Where the Car Is King, Tysons Faces a Dilemma

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Think there's no such thing as too much parking? Take a look at Tysons Corner, where there's more parking than jobs, more parking than office space, more parking than in downtown Washington.

That must change, said advocates and politicians seeking to transform Virginia's largest business hub from suburb to city. Reducing parking, charging for parking and finding new uses for the acres of parking that separate Tysons' buildings and the people inside is at the heart of plans to remake the area into a dense, urban, walkable, livable and attractive downtown.

"Who wants parking spaces to be the hallmark of a development?" said Clark Tyler, chairman of a Fairfax County-appointed task force preparing a Tysons redevelopment plan for later this year. "Tysons today is a shambles because its office buildings are surrounded by parking and clogged arteries."

Taking a new approach to parking, by building less and charging more, is a central tenet of the new urbanism that has gripped planners and developers in suburbs and cities across the country.

The planners said that parking, especially free parking, encourages people to drive. Cars allow for development sprawl, highway congestion and air pollution. The parking lots coat the ground with impervious asphalt that sends dirty runoff into rivers and streams. And, the planners said, parking is often ugly and creates spaces that discourage walking or the use of a transit system.

"If there's a free parking space, you're irrational if you don't drive," said Cheryl Cort, policy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, based in Washington.

Reducing the supply of parking is one way to change people's habits and patterns of development, Cort and others said. Other crucial pieces include a grid of streets, a mix of uses, and transit, which is why Tysons boosters have been pushing so hard for a Metrorail extension through the area. A decision about a rail extension, which would stretch to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, is expected from federal regulators this year.

If more people ride Metro, fewer people will drive, which means less traffic, pollution and runoff. It also means less demand for parking. That, in turn, opens up a world of development possibilities: narrow streets with sidewalk cafes; intimate storefronts; tall office and condominium towers where workers and residents can walk to lunch, to a dry cleaners or to a Metro station.

It would be vastly different from the Tysons of today, where virtually every destination has its own parking area, and where nearly every trip is taken in a car, even to the lunch spot a block away.

"It's almost impossible to walk here," said Bill Richbourg, 62, a mortgage banker from Potomac who works at the eastern edge of Tysons, near McLean, and who drove into the central district on a recent weekday to have lunch at the Silver Diner. "Nobody could get here any other way."

The Silver Diner is within a block of Leesburg Pike's concentration of office buildings and directly across International Drive from Tysons Corner Center, one of the country's most successful shopping malls. Yet each of these places is surrounded by an apron of parking, suburban-style hedgerows and wide, car-friendly traffic lanes. Not a pedestrian was in sight as Richbourg crossed the parking lot toward the restaurant's front door.

Tysons' dependence on the automobile, and a place to park it, is dramatic when compared with other areas. With about 120,000 jobs, Tysons features nearly half again as many parking spots in structures, underground and in surface lots. That's more parking, 40 million square feet, than office space, 28 million square feet. Tysons boasts more spaces, 167,000, than downtown Washington, 50,000, which has more than twice as many jobs.

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