Tysons Redevelopment Plans Don't Square With Earlier Vision

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fairfax County planners on Wednesday will propose rules for builders in Tysons Corner that retreat from the vision local officials approved last fall, a shift some civic leaders worry will jeopardize the blueprint to remake the area into a walkable urban center.

The planning staff's concept of the best way to redevelop the area's sprawling office buildings, strip malls and traffic-choked roads is at odds with the ideas of a county-appointed panel that a year ago recommended allowing developers to construct high-density buildings, where the square footage could be as much as six times the area of the land. In exchange, landowners would be required to contribute land or cash toward a new, walkable street grid, parks, fire stations and other amenities, the panel said.

The four major roadways that slice through the area -- routes 7 and 123, the Capital Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road -- would not change. But the task force envisioned eight mini-cities springing up around them with a dense mix of housing, offices and stores within a half mile of four Metrorail stations under construction in Tysons, the tallest buildings located closest to the stops. A new bus or light-rail line would be added to ferry workers and residents within the 1,700-acre area so people would not have to drive. An expected 100,000 jobs would be added to Virginia's largest employment hub, double the number there now, and the number of residents, now 17,000, eventually would grow to more than 100,000, according to the task force's plan.

As a 23-mile Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport neared approval in September 2008, the supervisors quickly signed off on the concept. But planners charged with translating the vision into zoning rules reviewed it and came to a different conclusion:

The proposed city is too urban.

"We're looking for an urban feel and urban experience," said Jim Zook, the county's planning director. "But there are cities across this country that work very well at lesser densities" than the task force proposed.

Zook and his staff have concluded that the density of what the task force envisions could be built when Tysons is fully redeveloped in about 40 years would overwhelm traffic. Planners say that would be about five times the 44 million square feet of offices, malls, condos and townhouses there now. Before developers can build high-rises, even near the Metrorail stations, planners say, the area's already clogged road network will need to expand to accommodate the extra development because many of the new residents and office workers will drive. That would require three new interchanges on the Dulles Toll Road; another lane on the Beltway between Interstate 66 and Route 7, in addition to the high-occupancy toll lanes now under construction; and wider lanes on other local roads.

So planners have devised rules that reduce by as much as one-third the building recommended by the task force. Before development could proceed, specific road improvements and other amenities would need to be in place. While boosters of more dense development say a shuttle bus system is a crucial element of the redevelopment that must be running when the Metro stations open, the staff says the idea requires more study before it is included in the zoning plan.

"It comes down to a difference over timing," said Walter L. Alcorn, the planning commission chairman who is leading efforts to reconcile the conflicting visions. "The staff's perspective is that we have to look at the constraints of the transportation infrastructure and how much it can take. Based on that, the densities that were recommended by the task force were too high."

The building rules for the redevelopment of Tysons are far from written. The draft could change before the planning commission holds public hearings and recommends a final version to the supervisors, probably by late spring. But frustrated landowners, business leaders and others who worked over four years to create a pedestrian-oriented plan for Tysons criticize the planners' vision as shortsighted.

"It's business as usual: Suburban development standards we're trying to get away from," said Clark Tyler, a transportation and economic development consultant for Science Applications International who is chairman of the 37-member study panel. "You're going to have more development that's contingent on the automobile, which is insanity."

Tyler and others supporting denser development say it would take decades for property owners to build as high and as big as they would be allowed to; they say the market will help set the pace of construction.

"No area gets fully built out to its full potential," said J. Douglas Koelemay, a task force member and the vice president of community relations for SAIC, whose complex on Route 7 is next to one of the Metrorail stations. Property owners who stand to benefit from the development possibilities say they are happy to donate land for a new grid of streets and other amenities. But to generate the revenue to make it financially practical to tear down car dealerships and other low-rise buildings on their land, they say they need to be able to build more.

"Unless there's enough economic value in what we're redeveloping, they don't come down," said Aaron Georgelas, managing partner of the Georgelas Group, which plans to build a mixed-use development on about 30 acres it owns next to one of the Metrorail stations.

Tyler and others on the task force are lobbying the supervisors to push for more generous building rules. But the political perils are clear: Many residents of neighboring McLean and Vienna remain cautious about creating a large urban center at Tysons.

"We're not like downtown D.C., where you walk three blocks and there's another Metro station," said Rob Jackson, president of the McLean Citizens Association.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said there might be a middle ground: building rules that could be changed midway through the redevelopment if there is too much congestion.

"We need sufficient density in Tysons to make the vision happen," she said. "We also need to provide flexibility in the plan to accommodate future unknowns."

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