By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors could approve plans as early as next month that would allow developers to transform traffic-clogged Tysons Corner from suburb to city, but critics are growing louder in their opposition to a vision that they say will ruin Tysons and surrounding communities.
The Tysons Land Use Task Force has worked for more than three years on that vision, studying traffic and storm water and parking and transit with the goal of encouraging private redevelopment of Tysons Corner's sprawling business parks without overwhelming roads, sewage systems, schools and parks.
Its chairman, Clark Tyler, will present recommendations to the county board Sept. 22, and board members could set a direction the same day by instructing county staff to begin writing the zoning regulations that would make the vision possible.
The goal, Tyler said, is to give property owners and developers the right to build large complexes in exchange for contributions to the greater success of Tysons: a grid of streets, environmentally responsible building design, parkland, sewage systems and more.
"We're going to say, 'Okay, this is what Tysons should look like,' " Tyler said. "Here are the things that go into a functioning, urban Tysons. And here's how we're going to get there."
Efforts to transform Tysons are intended to take advantage of a planned Metrorail extension through the business district and out to Dulles International Airport and to ensure that the area with Virginia's largest concentration of jobs stays vibrant. Traffic is choking Tysons Corner, and the hope is that a new, urban Tysons where people can live, work, shop and play will reduce congestion and keep the high-paying jobs coming.
But critics say Tyler and the task force are ignoring staff members and private consultants by contemplating much higher density limits than the infrastructure can handle. They also say the task force is moving too fast, before a final traffic analysis is complete and before George Mason University completes a study of how much the Tysons market is predicted to grow during the next 40 years.
"The task force has made it clear it wants to charge ahead without any real clarity as to what it's doing," said Charlie Hall, a member of the Greater Tysons Citizens Coalition, who ran unsuccessfully for county supervisor last year. "It's a classic case of ready, fire, aim."
One of Hall's arguments is that the task force is moving toward an overall density ratio allowing twice as much building as the staff and consultants suggested could be absorbed by current infrastructure. Hall's organization and one other, the McLean Citizens Association, have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks, hoping to slow or stall the process. "What is the rush?" Hall asked.
But Tyler countered that the task force has been working for three years, and it is time to move forward. He added that he is eager to make progress before Fairfax's board chairman, Gerald E. Connolly (D), becomes focused on the fall election. Connolly is running for Congress but wants to accomplish something with Tysons now, he said.
Connolly said the critics are ignoring worsening traffic at Tysons. "I don't think this is about scary numbers," he said of the higher proposed density. "I think there are people who would like to frame it that way. The irony of some voices is that they hate Tysons; they think it's dysfunctional, they think it's congested and crowded, and they don't want to change a thing. And that's just not tenable."
Tyler said the maximum allowable density would never occur without contributions from developers that would reduce the burden on roads, parks and schools. Developers might be awarded a density bonus, for example, for building more residential units and less office space, permitting more people to live and work in Tysons and avoid clogging commuter routes.
"Most people don't understand that there's a big difference between a density cap and a projected usage," he said, noting that the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County is about 80 percent full, even though the zoning regulations there were changed more than 25 years ago to seed an urban revival. Tyler also believes that engineers have underestimated the reduction in traffic that would occur with a Metrorail extension.
In addition to the tension with critics from neighboring communities such as McLean and Vienna, the task force has also clashed with the county staff members assigned to the process. At a public meeting earlier this month, Connolly echoed Tyler's frustration that the county staff had not begun drafting the zoning text and other details required to achieve the transformation of Tysons.
County planners have said they are waiting for final reports on traffic and growth projections, but both Tyler and Connolly said that after three years, they should have enough information to at least get started. Both also said that staff planners are experienced in suburban planning, not urban planning, and as a result are perhaps struggling to accept the changes sought for Tysons.
"If you do what you've always done, you're going to get what you always got," Tyler said.