When Walt Hutchins moved into McLean's Rotonda condominiums five years ago, he could pull onto Leesburg Pike and be shopping or dining in nearby Vienna in 15 minutes.
Today Hutchins, a 55-year-old investment consultant, says the trip often takes more than half an hour, forcing him to "sit and wait in the bumper-to-bumper mess."
The reason for Hutchins' delay is simple: He lives next to Tysons Corner, Northern Virginia's premier development area. In the past five years construction has boomed at Tysons. The area accounts for one-quarter of Fairfax County's real estate taxes. And one-third of its workers -- 70,000 by the latest count -- work there, more than in most cities in Virginia.
Tysons' boom is far from over. In the next three years alone 3 million square feet of office space -- almost as much as in the Pentagon -- will be added to the 13 million square feet already at Tysons.
In the next decade, some Fairfax County officials say, development at Tysons likely will nearly double, fueled, paradoxically, by the very force that some say now threatens it: location.
"That's what makes Tysons Corner unbeatable," said Thomas F. Nicholson, vice president of West Group Inc., the largest landowner in the area.
Yet the major highways that converge at Tysons -- the Capital Beltway, Leesburg Pike (Rte. 7), Dolley Madison Boulevard (Rte. 123), the Dulles Toll Road and the Dulles Airport Access Road -- are funneling so many vehicles into the area that a growing number of county officials fear that congestion may threaten the boom, which they want to run into the next century.
When developers last month announced a $100 million expansion of the Tysons Corner Mall that is the core of the area, some county transportation officials were aghast. "The last thing we need out there is more stores and more traffic," said Shiva K. Pant, Fairfax County's top transportation official.
Tysons is home to some of the country's premier defense con- tractors and high-tech firms, as well as many of the area's most prestigious law firms. Bloomingdale's, Clyde's and many of Washington's most renowned retailers and restaurants are there.
Businesses Are Wary
But some businesses -- among them some of the high-tech variety that the county wants -- are as wary of the traffic as is Fairfax's Pant. Planning Systems Inc. Vice President Ronald L. Spooner said that his firm, which has 70 employes, has thought more than once of leaving Tysons because of the congestion.
"It's difficult getting around here now," said Spooner. "Unless they build another access to the Beltway, you're just not going to be able to get around."
Officials at Honeywell Corp., another high-tech defense contractor and a major Tysons employer, echo that worry. "It's a situation that we are looking at very, very closely," said a spokesman for the company, which has 700 employes at Tysons.
Publicly, some county officials and developers reject such concerns as unfounded. "They don't know what they're talking about," snapped James Lewis, developer of the three 17-story Tycon Towers that are rising along the Beltway and a member of a group that monitors transportation problems in the area. "The traffic problems are greatly exaggerated out here. Road improvements are far outstripping the construction."
Others, including Fairfax transportation planners, say planned road improvements, many funded by developers who agreed to the road work as they sought zoning approvals for their projects, will provide relief only until the next wave of openings of office buildings and shops.
The Next Wave
That wave will be of typhoon proportion. Some examples:Tysons II, a $500 million shopping center and 11-building office park, will begin to rise this spring on a bald 107-acre tract directly across Dolley Madison Boulevard from Tysons Corner Center, the 18-year-old shopping mall. Tysons Corner Center will undergo a $100 million face lifting, adding 60 stores and four multiple-level parking garages. Tycon Towers, three 17-story office towers, are being built near the Beltway, and the first will open this year. The three towers will cost $300 million and add 1.5 million square feet of office space. West Group plans to develop 3.5 million square feet of office space in addition to its West Park and West Gate complexes, which contain 55 buildings. Tysons International Plaza, twin 10-story office towers costing $30 million with a combined 414,000 square feet of office space, is being developed by Metropolitan Partnership Ltd. on Gallows Road just south of Leesburg Pike. Tysons-Dulles Plaza, an $80 million project consisting of three buildings at Springhill Road and the Dulles Access Road, is being built by Georgelas Corp., the Milton Co. and Kay Builders. The Corporate Center at Tysons Corner, a 37 1/2-acre, 10-building office park, is being developed by the Henry A. Long Co. The Sheraton Tysons Corner Hotel, a $60 million, 24-story hotel with 455 rooms, is to open April 20.
More is one the way. The mile-long strip of automobile dealerships on Leesburg Pike is zoned to allow high-rise office development, and many of those dealers say they are considering lucrative offers to sell their properties to developers. The K mart store, a sprawling, one-story discount store near the mall, is being sold for high-rises, according to a developer.
Offices in Demand
Despite the pace of office construction, real estate agents say companies appear ready to fill the buildings as quickly as they open.
The Tysons Corner area has an office vacancy rate of 11 percent, compared with 9 percent in the District of Columbia, according to Lewis Bolan, managing director of Colliers, Leggat & McCall, a Washington real estate and investment firm.
"You're going to have a little softness now and then, but the leasing climate [at Tysons] is still very good. It's a very strong market," added Harold Boles, senior vice president of National Real Estate Investments Inc. Boles, who helped arrange the recent sale of Tysons Corner Center as an official of Coldwell Banker Real Estate, said that the new office space "will go quite quickly."
Even if county officials wanted to reverse the development, many doubt they could do so because of the zoning in place on the 1,700 acres that the county calls Tysons.
"I think our options are very, very limited," said Supervisor James M. Scott (D-Providence). "The kind of pattern that has been established will be very difficult to reverse."
"There's not much more we can do now," agreed Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale), one of the county board's few critics of the rapid development of Tysons. "Most of the building blocks are in place. The densities have been established."
She called the area "a mess. There has been no planning there -- and it shows." She added that the county board's approval of the Tysons II project represented a major capitulation to developers. "When the board approved that, it agreed to just throw away the plan and let the market make the decisions," she said.
Some county officials dispute Moore's pessimism and say concessions wrung from developers, who are planning $20 million worth of road improvements, will offer relief.
"There will be a short-term, very dramatic improvement," said Lilla D. Richards, a longtime Tysons area resident and civic leader who has been in the forefront of efforts to control growth at Tysons. "But then there will be a steady increase of congestion as those buildings come on line."
Robert L. Moore, chief planner in the county Office of Transportation, seems to agree with the skeptics. "We have negotiated as many improvements as we could from the developers," he said. "If there are solutions that are apparent to others, we would be happy to consider anything that anyone would suggest."
One suggestion that developers have rejected is that they limit construction until adequate roads are in place.
Robert Moore said the time soon may come when they have no choice. "If the situation ever gets to the point of absolute gridlock, perhaps that's what it will take to limit development out there," he said.
Fairfax officials, who have adopted Tysons as the county's long-awaited downtown, say growth there has had an incalculable impact on Fairfax.
"It's a tremendous economic asset to the county," said Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity. "Without it, real estate taxes would go out of sight and the level of county services would go significantly down." He said the complaints about traffic congestion can just as easily be made about several other bottlenecks in the county.
Many Tysons residents do not share Herrity's enthusiasm. Some civic leaders say Tysons reflects flawed planning and accuse the county board of surrendering to high-powered developers.
Richards said the county long ago abandoned Tysons area residents and "adopted the outlook of the development community." She said county officials "give lip service" to the concerns of residents while embracing the "anything goes" wishes of developers.
Howard E. Ball, who has lived in the area since 1958, accused county officials of overstating Tysons' importance. "There are a lot of people who want to glamorize Tysons, to make a mini-Manhattan out of it," he said. "The politicians never come to us and say, 'Do you want more of this Tysons nonsense or do you want a more quiet pace and a higher quality of life in the community?' "
William D. Harkins, a McLean resident who has fought many of the county's actions, said the mood of Tysons area residents is one of resignation.
Living With the Decisions
"The decisions have been made. Now we have to live with those decisions," Harkins said. "The developers have gained approvals for projects that are completely out of balance with what the roads can handle. We are stuck with a series of roads that are inadequate for current and future use."
One hope of some area residents is a county study that seeks to limit the height of buildings on the perimeter of Tysons. Advocates of the limit contend that tall buildings on the perimeter invite more development adjacent to residential neighborhoods.
"The key problem now is containing Tysons," said Supervisor Scott. "We have to stand firm every time somebody comes in and wants to move the boundaries in this direction or that. We have to let them know that that's clearly not acceptable."
Tysons II, the retail complex planned across from the original mall, troubles many residents. The developers originally proposed a large shopping mall but eventually gained the county's approval for a much smaller mall and an 11-building office park.
The shift in focus enraged many nearby residents, who argued that office buildings posed a far more serious threat to the road network than a shopping mall.
Richards, a leader of the unsuccessful campaign to block the change, says the county and the developer made things worse by reducing the level of road improvements that had been promised at the time of the initial proposal. "They cut back the road improvements and increased the density by 10," she said.
According to Richards, the Tysons II developers initially promised to build an overpass above Dolley Madison Boulevard at International Drive, one of the busiest intersections at Tysons. They instead are negotiating with their counterparts across the highway at the Tysons Corner Center to build a smaller overpass about a quarter-mile from International Drive that would connect their properties.
An official at Homart Development Co., one of the developers of Tysons II, said the initial plan was shelved because of its $25 million cost and because developers and state transportation planners believed that it would not significantly relieve traffic congestion.
"We didn't have the money to do it. Nobody had the money to do it," said E. Wayne Angle, vice president of development for Homart. "And even if we did, the conclusion of our transportation consultants, as well as the state and the county, was that it just would not work as well as what we're planning to do now."
Chicago-based Homart and Theodore N. Lerner, the Washington shopping mall magnate who is the other Tysons II developer, have begun work on $14 million worth of road improvements there. Angle said the developers should be credited for "providing 100 percent of the road improvements up front," before any work on the mall, office park or hotel. "If we weren't building, these roads wouldn't be going in," he said.
In addition, James Lewis, who is developing Tycon Towers, is spending an estimated $6 million to build an overpass above Leesburg Pike near the Beltway interchange.
Lewis, an attorney who heads Tytran, a committee of business persons and government officials that monitors transportation problems at Tysons, bristles at assertions that Tysons faces a transportation crisis.
Tysons "has developed so fast that people aren't thinking of it in the proper context," Lewis said. "It has become a major, major metropolitan area with one of the largest concentrations of office space in the country. The traffic here is simply not that bad if you consider Tysons as a major office center."