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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.

Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), for example, worried that the need for new government services, including schools and parks, would increase property taxes across the county.

"I think the vision is a good one, and it is one that I support and have supported," Herrity said. "There are a lot of details -- many, many details -- yet to come, which we need to pay very close attention to. Some of them I'd like to see addressed before we go too far down the road."

Other supervisors hailed the plan for its potential to improve the economy of the county and the region. According to the task force's report, if Tysons is developed as proposed, real estate and sales tax receipts collected there could more than triple, to more than $1 billion under today's tax rates. Planners also expect the number of people who live in Tysons to jump from 17,000 today to as many as 100,000. That, in turn, would support nightlife and round-the-clock activities to further stimulate the economy, they say.

Among the more-detailed recommendations of the report:

· Landowners would be allowed to build structures with as much as six times the area of the parcel size. A building that covers every square inch of a property, for example, could be six stories high; one that covers half the parcel's footprint could be 12 stories. Clark Tyler, the task force chairman, said the proposed density is roughly equivalent to the look of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County.

· Each of the eight urban neighborhoods is intended to have a sense of place that is not interrupted by the major highways that go through Tysons. Those closer to the four planned Metro stations will feature higher-density development; those farther away will be served by a free "circulator" bus line.

· The task force has urged strict new rules for storm water runoff and has recommended that all new structures be built to high environmental standards. And by coaxing people from their cars and toward bike lanes, sidewalks and mass transit, they aim to keep level or reduce emissions at Tysons.

· Developers would be required to contribute to the good of the neighborhoods, including the creation of a new street grid, open space, public art and cultural amenities.

· A mix of uses in new development, including street-level retail, entertainment and residential and office space, would be promoted.

· A free bus line that would connect the four Metro stations with the more outlying neighborhoods would be established.

· Incentives, such as even higher density, to encourage the construction of affordable and workforce housing would be offered.

Tyler urged supervisors to act quickly. With federal regulators expected to approve the Metro extension soon, Tyler said he is worried that landowners will move ahead under current building guidelines if the process drags on much longer.

"We will be stuck with what we have and how we have developed, and I think that would be a tragedy," he said.

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