A transit-friendly Tysons Corner would support growth, cut auto traffic

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, June 27, 2010

If you're upset about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and want to do something to fight America's petroleum addiction, support a local cause that would make a difference: transforming Tysons Corner from a snarl of suburban sprawl into a grid of transit-friendly, urban high-rises.

If done right -- a big if -- it would curb reliance on automobiles while allowing continued growth of population and jobs.

Tuesday's vote by Fairfax County supervisors to approve a long-term plan to redo Tysons as a walkable, livable community was a milestone for the region. Experts say it also could be a blueprint for the rest of the nation. It offers a jumbo alternative to the traditional suburban lifestyle of a single-family home with two-car garage and a lengthy commute.

"This is going to be the most exciting large-scale redevelopment initiative in the United States," said Adam Ducker, managing director of RCLCO, a national real estate advisory firm headquartered in Bethesda.

"There are lots of places like Tysons Corner, but nobody has demonstrated yet how you can really do this. Nobody else has the mix of political, development community and general population buy-in to make it happen," said Ducker, whose firm has advised some Tysons developers but not the project itself.

Folks in Maryland and the District needn't feel left out. They can back similar efforts in various planning stages at White Flint and Shady Grove in Montgomery County, Greenbelt and New Carrollton in Prince George's County, and at spots along the Green Line in the District.

The underlying model already exists in our area, albeit on a smaller scale. It's the conversion over the past three decades of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor into a lively mix of mostly high-rise residences, offices and stores.

People there rely heavily on Metro, bicycles and their legs to get around. As a result, Arlington County was able to achieve city planner nirvana by adding millions of square feet of building space without worsening congestion.

Now the car-clogged mess that is Tysons wants to do the same. In particular, it hopes to add apartments and other housing units so that many of the 105,000 people who drive to work at Tysons will come live in the neighborhood. Only 18,000 reside there now.

"Presumably, you will get some people out of their cars, which is the goal," said Rob Jackson of the McLean Citizens Association, which includes Tysons.

Young families needn't worry if they prefer a house with a yard for the kids. Plenty of Ozzie and Harriet neighborhoods will remain. Space in such communities will come open as baby boomers move out and downsize to communities with easy access to transit -- just like the planned Tysons.

The complex changes will unfold over decades. Two big challenges will be getting banks to resume lending money and the chronic difficulty of finding cash for road work.

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