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Where the Car Is King, Tysons Faces a Dilemma
Urban Planners Take Aim at Free Parking

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.

"This place built up from a gas station," said Reid Thompson, 37, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Real Estate in Tysons who grew up in nearby Great Falls. "You drove your tractor here, at least my grandparents did. The parking and the driving is a mindset. People in Northern Virginia are drivers."

Tysons is so paved over, in fact, that 50 percent of two watersheds within its boundaries, Pimmit Run and Scotts Run, are covered with asphalt. According to a Fairfax storm water management report, when 10 percent of a watershed is covered by paving, the health of a stream is affected. Paving that covers more than 25 percent of a watershed can "severely degrade" waterways, the report said.

Tysons Corner's love affair with parking is driven partly by its status as one of the most successful shopping destinations in the country. Aerial photographs of the district, or a glance from the balcony of the Tower Club, show vast oceans of cars, with the widest surrounding Tysons Corner Center and its competitor to the north, Tysons Galleria.

Yet private developers, including the big retailers, are ready to do with less parking. They welcome the chance to spend less money building parking structures, which can cost as much as $40,000 per parking space.

Macerich Corp., the owner of Tysons Corner Center, has received preliminary approval for a major redevelopment of its property that will include offices, condominiums, at least one hotel -- and a lower ratio of parking than the mall has. Among the details of the development is "shared parking" for offices, hotels and retail. Rather than provide one set of parking that empties out by day and another that empties out by night, the company will build less parking that will be in use round-the-clock.

Other approaches that Fairfax will consider include metered street parking, facilities for bicycles and distributing information about how to join car-sharing services such as Zipcar.

The market is also ready for a new approach, many said. Young professionals are eager to work in urban centers where they can shop and dine as well. The success of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County, where 80,000 people work and where traffic has only marginally increased through the development boom of the last decade, provides the evidence, officials said. Developers built offices and residences with less parking -- and the people came.

"The market quickly figured out that you didn't need as much parking," said Arlington board member Chris Zimmerman (D).

Still, there will be challenges. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, lamented the decision by state and local officials to build the Metrorail extension aboveground through Tysons, which will limit the area's potential to be pretty and accessible on foot.

County planners may also be an impediment, Schwartz said, noting that the county increased its parking requirements recently for some developments.

Another challenge, Tyler said, is what to do with existing structures. One idea is to build housing on top of them, but that will require a market that can bear the cost of such expensive construction, a reality that could be years, even decades, away.

Ultimately, Schwartz and other advocates said, parking should not be free -- because it is not free. The cost in highway construction, pollution and lost productivity while stuck in traffic should be considered, he said. And drivers should pay a price for choosing to drive or be denied the privilege, he said.

"The idea that every car needs a parking place for every separate place that car goes is what has caused this spread-out landscape," Schwartz said. "Tysons is in transition. It can't realize the opportunity to create a great place when there's a giant parking lot wherever you look."

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