By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008
Landowners, developers and members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors say there is new urgency to move forward with ambitious plans to transform Tysons Corner now that federal transit officials have approved a Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport, including four stations in the heart of Tysons.
If property owners aren't quickly given power to build city-style condos and offices around those stations, redevelopment boosters say, there is a real possibility that stations will open onto empty parcels and parking lots with none of the connections to plazas, high-rises, sidewalks and street grids that planners envision.
"They are sandbagging," William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, said of county planners who have laid out a year-long timetable to turn the recommendations of the Tysons Land Use Task Force into real-world regulations. "The task force has been working for three years. We built strong consensus and a good plan. The planning department has no capacity and no interest in adapting its role to expedite this thing."
With 120,000 jobs and two hugely successful malls, Tysons Corner is Virginia's largest business district and immensely important to state and regional economic growth. But its paralyzing traffic, particularly during the evening rush and at holiday shopping time, prompted Fairfax leaders to launch a redevelopment effort as a way to keep businesses from moving and to attract more shoppers, workers and residents.
Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said Friday that staff members face an enormous task. They need to write rules governing how tall buildings can be and where they should go. They need to formalize the rules that tell builders what amenities they will be responsible for providing -- such as streets, sidewalks and parks -- in exchange for the right to build.
"We want this to move along," Griffin said. "This is not an effort to undermine what the task force has done."
Griffin noted that county planners spent more than a year writing the rules governing a much smaller transformation in Merrifield, where Lee Highway and Gallows Road intersect just west of the Capital Beltway. He also said the task force recommendations must, by law, be reviewed by the county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors before becoming reality.
Not everyone is convinced that the staff couldn't move faster. Several supervisors are expected to press Griffin on this at their board meeting today.
"Some of the property owners may be ready to build, and we should work with them," said the board's vice chairman, Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock).
Several members of the Tysons task force expressed concerns at their meeting last week that county planners, with experience primarily in suburban land use, might not be versed in the issues involved in an urban transformation of this scale.
The risk of delay, critics say, is that property owners who have sat on their holdings for years will proceed under current regulations to develop their land. That could scuttle the effort to redevelop Tysons in an orchestrated fashion, following a design aimed at combating congestion, increasing transit use and shrinking the carbon footprint of what is now a traffic-choked expanse of car dealerships, low-rise office buildings and eight-lane roads.
"The longer we wait, the more likely it is that people are going to say, 'Enough already,' '' said Clark Tyler, chairman of the Tysons task force. "Tysons becomes more of the same. But more practically speaking, the universe of people who would contribute to all the amenities -- the grid of streets, the circulator bus system -- shrinks."
Another risk is that developers won't have the time to integrate their building plans with Metro's plans for stations.
"Our development incorporates the Metro platform. We don't want the doors of our Metro stations opening up to car dealerships," said Aaron Georgelas of the development firm Georgelas Group, which together with a consortium of property owners hopes to build high-rises, some of which would connect to Metro, on about 25 acres surrounding the planned Tysons West station on Leesburg Pike.
Georgelas said it could take as long as three years to gain approval for construction once the county completes the new rules and another two to build. That pushes completion at least a year, and possibly two, behind the opening of the rail line, he said.
The Silver Line is awaiting final approval from federal regulators. If approved, it will branch off the Orange Line just past the East Falls Church Metro station in Arlington County and travel through Tysons on its way to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County beyond.
The total cost of the project is $5.2 billion, $900 million of which is expected to be paid with a federal grant. The rest is expected to be funded primarily with higher tolls and special taxing districts in Tysons and Reston. The first phase, to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is scheduled to open in 2013; the remainder is to be completed two years after that.