With redevelopment plan, officials hope to give Tysons Corner a new identity

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

For those who live in Tysons Corner, describing where they call home can be as difficult as getting to and from the jumble of office buildings, auto dealers and malls that make up Northern's Virginia's traffic-clogged office park.

Tysons has no Zip code of its own, few grocery stores, no churches and just a smattering of aging high-rise apartments, condos and townhouses with residents who range from young white-collar professionals to foreign-born immigrants to retirees.

"When I first moved here, I was shocked we didn't have a drugstore or a dry cleaner. Nothing to support any type of residential life," said Valerie Neal, 59, who has lived for seven years in the 2,800-person Rotonda condo community on Greensboro Drive. "There's six lanes of traffic between us and the nearest apartment building. A lot of people don't know there's places to live here."

The 1,700 acres spread out over five square miles that make up Tysons Corner is Fairfax's de facto downtown. But this downtown has 14 hotels with nearly 3,900 rooms; more parking spaces (167,000) than the combined number of people who live and work there (just under 125,000); many more workers who drive in (105,000) than residents who sleep there (17,000 or 18,500, depending on who you ask); highways that divide it (Route 7, Route 123, the Dulles Toll Road, the Capital Beltway); and too few ways to get in and out.

On Tuesday the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a blueprint for changing all of that when it considers a 20-year plan to remake Tysons Corner into an urban center with four Metrorail stations surrounded by clusters of office, retail and apartment towers and connected by tree-lined, walkable streets.

"Tysons is still in its first life, but Metro is going to change that," said Walter L. Alcorn, a former environmental consultant who for the past two years has led a Tysons Corner planning task force. "Eventually you're going to see new smaller communities with new centers of activity."

The hope, land-use planners, developers and Fairfax County officials say, is to give Tysons the identity it is sorely lacking.

But those involved in planning the future of Tysons face a daunting task. The new urban center could be home to 200,000 jobs and 100,000 residents by 2050, and three-fourths of all development will be located within a half mile of the Metro stations. It is a significant departure after more than six decades of sprawl that turned a collection of dairy farms into Northern Virginia's economic engine.

"It's a very difficult task to change from an area dependent on autos and free parking to a place where you can get off a Metro stop and walk across the street to lunch," said Paul E. Ceruzzi, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum who authored the book, "Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005." "Tysons doesn't have a sense of itself yet."

Decades of change

Since World War II, Tysons has grown from a rural rest stop with a general store and gas station to one of the largest business districts in the country, a sweeping tangle of sleek-looking offices, high-end shops and parking lots. The arrival of the "Beltway Bandits" -- specialized defense contractors -- brought with them the high-tech firms that spurred the economic boom of the 1980s and '90s.

By the 2000s, Tysons had become a classic "edge city" -- an affluent suburb with none of the traditional qualities that define a community. The county's comprehensive plan, a constantly changing document that lays out a community's vision for itself, has for years acknowledged that Tysons's sprawling size and lack of pedestrian and transit options led to a dearth of "cohesiveness and identity." Planners have spent five years debating the merits of growth, at first calling for an ambitious vertical city before eventually reducing the level of density and reining in the project's timeline from 40 years to 20.

"We've worn this thing out. We had this very idealistic plan: 'Build it and they shall come,' " said Thomas Fleury, a Tysons developer for nearly four decades. "The idea was to max out these rail stops with enormous density. But there was a regression and now the shiny Mercedes with the 12-cylinder is a four-cylinder. But it will work."

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