Fairfax County supervisors authorize transformation of Tysons Corner

By Kafia A. Hosh and Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A01

Fairfax County officials on Tuesday approved a landmark proposal to allow the transformation of Tysons Corner from a sprawling, auto-dependent office park into vibrant, walkable city.

The Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 2 after a six-hour public hearing on new building rules and a 20-year blueprint for Tysons, its most significant land-use decision in recent years. The proposal permits Tysons to become a city of office and residential towers with sidewalk cafes, boutiques and manicured courtyards. It also calls for energy-efficient buildings, affordable housing, park space and a new street grid to filter local traffic. A planned circulator bus system would ferry riders among future Metrorail stations, offices and shopping malls.

"Tysons is a downtown. While it may not be a municipality, it will be a community," Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), whose district includes the employment hub, said before the vote. "Tysons is not going to be an auto-oriented environment. It's going to be walkable for the people who live there and for the economy."

Decades of growth turned Tysons from a rural crossroads into the nation's 12th-largest business district, home to the corporate headquarters of companies including Capital One, Freddie Mac, Booz Allen Hamilton and Hilton Worldwide. But it also created a sprawling expanse of high-rise buildings and wide, congested roads, prompting county officials to revaluate the area's future.

The proposal, which was recommended by the Planning Commission last month, permits the densest development within a quarter-mile of four Silver Line Metro stations being built as part of the rail extension to Dulles International Airport. At least 75 percent of all development would be located within half a mile. The plan places no limit on residential projects in housing-starved Tysons but caps office development at 45 million square feet through 2030. About 27 million square feet of office space exists in Tysons, with plans for 6 million more approved, including a future expansion of Tysons Corner Center.

The biggest hurdles have yet to come. Excluding the rail system, officials have yet to identify a way to fund about $1.5 billion in road and transit improvements needed through 2030.

The public hearing was the culmination of five years of planning. The county was under pressure to adopt a final land-use plan because the four Metro stations are slated to open in 2013.

Supervisors Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) and Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) voted against the plan.

The three Republican members of the Board of Supervisors attempted to delay a final vote until mid-July in what Frey called an attempt to "digest" the four hours of testimony heard Tuesday night "for transparency's sake."

But the seven Democrats on the board said too much time -- more than five years -- had been spent debating the plan's merits from the level of density allowed near Metro stations to building heights.

"This has been an extraordinary process that has involved so many people through it. It's been the whole spectrum, from business to landowners to neighbors," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes portions of Tysons. "And everyone has had so much opportunity for input."

Public speakers included nearly 70 people, a mix of residents, developers and members of advocacy groups.

Residents asked the county to consider traffic safety and to preserve the trees that buffer their neighborhoods from busy roads.

Vienna Mayor M. Jane Seeman supported focusing growth in the area of the four Metro stations.

"I'm looking out for the little guys, the residents who live in the Tysons area and will be impacted if growth outpaces the amenities and the transportation improvements," she said.

Landowners, who already pay a tax to fund the county's share of the rail extension, said the plan was loaded with too many development conditions that would discourage construction. In addition to the green building and affordable housing requirements, the plan expects developers to fund a street grid and provide space for parks, fire stations, schools and other public facilities.

"We can't set the highest possible bar on every single front," said Anthony J. Calabrese, an attorney for several Tysons landowners.

But James P. Zook, Fairfax's planning and zoning director, said at least five development proposals have been submitted to the county. "We expect more applications to be filed in the near term," he said. "That's an indication to me that there are those who believe that the perimeters of the plan will work for them."

Before the vote, Stuart Mendelsohn, the outgoing chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, who is a land-use lawyer and a partner at Holland & Knight, said limiting density would discourage development in areas beyond the rail stations. "There will be development at some stations, but most of Tysons will take much longer to redevelop than it might have before the county staff severely modified the plan," Mendelsohn said. "I believe this plan will be seen as a missed opportunity."

But Charles Hall, a founding member of the Greater Tysons Citizens Coalition, said that increasing density beyond the rail stations could push growth to outlying areas. "If you create a big swath of cheaper land a half a mile away, where do you think people will want to put their buildings?" he asked.

Residential developers pushed for reduced affordable- and workforce-housing requirements, saying that the measures would make redevelopment too costly.

The Tysons plan calls for 20 percent of housing to be devoted to those who make $51,350 to $123,240, or 50 to 120 percent of Fairfax's median household income of $102,700. In exchange, developers would be allowed to build 20 percent more units.

Lynne J. Strobel, a land-use lawyer with Walsh Colucci Lubeley Emrich & Walsh representing several Tysons Corner developers, urged supervisors to cut the lowest tier of workforce housing, for those earning 50 to 60 percent of the median household income in Fairfax. That would include annual incomes of $51,350 to $61,620. Starting salaries for teachers and police officers in Fairfax County range from $44,000 to $49,450.

Tysons developers have sought to influence the planning process for Fairfax's de facto downtown for years. The top campaign contributors to the 10-member Board of Supervisors over the past five years include McLean-based WestGroup, which is trying to sell its 24 Tysons buildings piecemeal; partners in the Georgelas Group, a McLean developer planning the area's first transit-oriented development at Leesburg Pike and Spring Hill Road; and Pence-Friedel Developers, which nearly bought much of WestGroup's holdings before the deal fell through in January.

Tom Fleury, a longtime Tysons developer now with the Penrose Group, supported the plan's adoption. "Tysons is the epicenter of the universe in terms of viable real estate development, and it's been kind of in flux for five years," he said. "The market isn't going to wait for ever for something to happen. The time is now."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company