Green City-Style Tysons Plan Wins Fairfax's Approval

By Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors yesterday approved an ambitious vision for transforming Tysons Corner from a sprawling office and retail suburb to a modern, environmentally green city with neighborhoods, sidewalk culture, new jobs and the arts -- and less driving.

Supervisors unanimously approved a blueprint that was more than three years in the making. It hinges on giving landowners broad new permission to build city-style high-rises with urban-scale streets, sidewalks, restaurants and shops. It depends on the expected construction of four Metrorail stations in Tysons and is expected to take several decades before it is fully implemented.

"It is absolutely essential that we embrace this kind of mission," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We may not all agree on the details, but I hope we can find common ground in wanting to move Tysons to a different place, from an auto-dependent suburban model to something that is much more livable, pedestrian friendly, multi-modal, transit-oriented and green."

The Tysons Land Use Task Force recommended creating eight distinct neighborhoods within Virginia's largest jobs center, which is now a sprawling ocean of parking lots, office parks and shopping malls. The model acknowledges that the four huge highways that traverse Tysons -- routes 7 and 123, the Capital Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road -- are not going to change. But it opens up the possibility of creating smaller-scale urban districts in Tysons with the look and feel of true cities, supporters of the plan said.

The task force also recommended allowing developers to build the highest, densest offices and condos within one-eighth of a mile of the four planned Metro stations. That density is likely to be one of the most controversial aspects of the recommendations because many residents fear even more traffic at Tysons and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The vision for Tysons seeks to harness a growing public urgency over the environment, and its supporters also believe they can make history by transforming a suburb into a city and providing a model for the rest of the nation to follow.

The transformation effort began decades ago, when the region's political and business leaders began planning for a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport. More recently, as approval of Metro has neared, a powerful consortium of Tysons landowners has lobbied county officials to move forward with the regulatory changes necessary to enable urban-scale development.

Boosters say the change is essential if Tysons is to continue to thrive as a jobs center and not succumb to the congestion that grips its thoroughfares. Getting people out of their cars, in fact, is a key goal of the task force's recommendations.

But that goal is a leading target for critics who are skeptical that Metro and sidewalks would create less traffic and who believe that property owners would make money with little benefit to those who work and live there. Among other concerns, they fear that congestion will come to the area's surrounding Vienna and McLean neighborhoods.

"We all know that traffic is not going to fall off the face of the Earth when it leaves Tysons," said Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville). "It's going to pass through McLean and Vienna and Falls Church, so we have to keep that in mind."

Still, the 10-member Board of Supervisors voted without dissent to send the task force's vision onto the next step. It will now be reviewed by county staff, which will come up with specific language for the county zoning ordinance. Those changes would go to the county Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

The issue is a tricky one for such supervisors as Foust who represent the neighborhoods with the greatest skepticism but who also support the larger goal of improving Tysons and growing its economy.

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