Tysons Plan Faces Persistent Doubts

Critics Say Case Hasn't Been Made

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008; Page B01

A day after Fairfax County leaders adopted a vision for a new, urban Tysons Corner, skeptics said the county has not demonstrated that the plan will protect the region from increased congestion and overburdened services.

Members of two leading groups of critics, the McLean Citizens Association and the Greater Tysons Citizens Coalition, said they will continue to demand more justification for and more data about the high-density urban landscape that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed Monday to move ahead on.

Their greatest concern is traffic. They are skeptical that four proposed Metro stations in Tysons and high-occupancy toll lanes on the nearby Capital Beltway will adequately serve thousands of workers and residents expected to move into new high-rise condominiums and office buildings planned for the area.

"My gut feeling is that the high end of this thing will make it crash and burn," said Rob Jackson, president of the McLean Citizens Association. "The roadways are really jammed now. HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway are certainly going to help, and rail will certainly help. But to make it bigger -- the [Dulles] Toll Road's at capacity now during rush hour. The Beltway's at capacity a lot of times. And routes 7 and 123 are jammed. I haven't seen anything, but instinct tells me it's not going to make it."

At issue are the dramatic conclusions of the Tysons Land Use Task Force, which on Monday recommended to the Board of Supervisors that the county transform Virginia's most concentrated jobs district and shopping hub from a sprawling suburb to a series of eight urban districts with high-rises, green buildings, sidewalk culture and the arts.

The proposal, which supervisors agreed to send on to the next step, depends upon a proposed Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport. It also depends on contributions from developers toward the cost of such expensive infrastructure as sidewalks, sewers, parks, schools and a grid of streets.

The skepticism has even supervisors jittery. Although they all voted Monday to move the proposal along, some were very pointed in explaining that they would have other opportunities to scuttle the plan. The supervisors voted to send the plan to county staff, which will come up with specific language for the zoning ordinance. Those changes will go to the Planning Commission and back to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

"That motion was very careful to say nothing about 'approval,' " said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes several neighborhoods near Tysons.

Still, there was a certain inevitability to the speeches that supervisors made before the vote. Tysons must change, many of them said; the region's economy depends on growth occurring in ways that protect the environment, reduce traffic and keep jobs coming.

Critics are already looking to the end of the year, when county staff members are expected to complete specific language to implement the task force's goals. Several critics have contacted state transportation officials to ensure enforcement of a relatively new law requiring traffic impact studies on development proposals.

The law was instrumental in causing the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors to reject a massive residential proposal near Dulles Airport last year. Tysons redevelopment critics say the same could be true in Tysons.

"The big part as I see it is that they didn't do the traffic analysis up front, and they didn't show us how they got here," said Charlie Hall, who leads the Greater Tysons Citizens Coalition. "And that's just maddening."

The county has not seen a traffic study being performed by the task force. Clark Tyler, chairman of the task force, said the study is expected in two to three months.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said that the state would complete the required traffic impact study but that it is far too early to do so now, before specific regulations have been written.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) pushed the measure into law, but he did not intend for it to be used to defeat transit-oriented developments such as Tysons, which he supports.

"Obviously, there are still a lot of details to be worked out, but this vision recognizes the need for denser development to minimize the negative impact of sprawl on traffic congestion and the environment, which is a positive direction for the community," said Delacey Skinner, Kaine's spokeswoman.

Critics are also asking who will pay for the public infrastructure necessary to build a city over a suburb.

According to an initial analysis by the task force, the new Tysons would require a new electric substation, two fire stations and two police stations, 86 new elementary classrooms, a library, and new storm water and wastewater systems, and an expanded water supply. The report also calls for a 500-seat performance space, an exhibit space for artists, and a 160-acre network of restored streams, green spaces, trails, neighborhood parks and one central "signature" park.

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