Transformed Tysons Corner still years away in Fairfax

Metrorail's extension to Dulles International Airport and other transportation projects are underway in the Tysons Corner area. But until those projects are finished, living in Tysons remains a choice between a tough commute in a less-than-walkable city and the convenience and amenities that many residents enjoy.
By Lisa Rein and Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fairfax County's go-ahead Tuesday to remake Tysons Corner will not immediately bring bulldozers and wrecking crews to transform the traffic-clogged office and retail center into a model of urban living.

The new Tysons is years away. The only immediate effect that residents, shoppers and workers are likely to see is still more delays as road improvements and construction of a rail line through Tysons to Dulles International Airport intensify over the next three years.

Anyone who wants to profit from new rules that dramatically boost what can be built in Tysons must overcome big challenges: frozen credit markets, a glut of available office space and a system that requires landowners to consolidate their properties before they can win approval of their projects. The county must identify a way to pay for an estimated $1.5 billion in road and transit improvements to accommodate all the cars the growth will bring, even if many new residents and workers ride Metrorail. Fairfax cannot look to the state of Virginia, which is struggling to maintain its existing roads.

"Everyone is trying to grapple now with whether what's approved is financeable and economical," said Mark Looney, a land-use lawyer whose firm, Cooley LLP, represents several big Tysons landowners. "Getting a property rezoned is a lot different from pulling the trigger on construction."

But behind the scenes some of the region's biggest corporate giants, sitting on property within a quarter-mile of the new Metro stations, are preparing to cash in. The area's biggest players are firming up plans to develop office towers, hotels, condominiums and stores at the rail stops' doorsteps.

With the county sanctioning unlimited density at the rail stations, WestGroup, the office park's biggest landowner; defense contractors SAIC and Mitre; Capital One, the bank and credit card giant; and the Georgelas Group and NV Commercial development companies are expected to submit plans for urban towers, many with sidewalk-level stores. The county must approve each project case by case, and beyond a quarter-mile, the density allowed drops off dramatically.

Most agree that when the first leg of the Metrorail extension opens in late 2013, the trains through Tysons will open their doors to the same parking lot-studded suburban office park that has defined the place for 40 years.

"It took 40 years to get to this point, and significant changes are going to take another couple of decades," said Mark C. Lowham, a senior vice president at WestGroup, which owns about 140 acres around the Capital Beltway. WestGroup tried unsuccessfully to sell its Tysons portfolio last summer, and now will propose a hotel and office center with condominiums on 40 acres at the Tysons East station along Route 123, Lowham said. The project would be phased in over 20 years. WestGroup sold three properties in its portfolio this year.

Other projects include mixed-use towers proposed by Capital One and offices by Mitre, both at the Tysons East station, and a major expansion of the SAIC campus on Route 7 to accommodate more employees at what is now the company's corporate headquarters. It is unclear when they would break ground.

But the centerpiece of the redevelopment -- two mammoth hotel, office and apartment complexes around the area's two malls -- is on hold, indefinitely.

"We continue to take our time with planning and preliminary design . . . and will be guided by market demand," said Rebecca Stenholm, spokeswoman for Macerich, owner of Tysons Corner Center, which won approval for an extensive expansion from the county Board of Supervisors several years ago.

General Growth Properties, the owners of Tysons Galleria, has a concept for a similar project. But the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and has no immediate plans to move forward, company officials said.

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