Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted Mingwei Shen’s last name. This version has been corrected.
University of Virginia Professor Andrew Mondschein and his students have two goals this lovely fall day: chronicle the evolution of Tysons Corner from traffic-clogged edge city to walkable urban oasis — and don’t get killed in the process.
For the next five hours, the professor and his students will walk as much of the area as they can, recording what they see, hear and smell.
It’s the second year they’ve done this. Last year’s effort kicked off just weeks after Metro’s Silver Line opened, and Mondschein is eager to see whether the group can detect any changes, even in this short amount of time.
It doesn’t take long before they have an answer: Tysons is still very much a work in progress.
From the group’s meeting spot in the Sunoco gas station parking lot where they stand plotting their route, cars speed by along Route 123, filling the air with dust and debris. It reeks of exhaust. Every few traffic cycles, Mondschein has to raise his voice to be heard above the thump and thunk of large delivery trucks barreling along the road.
The U-Va. professor and his students know that dramatic transformations, such as those designed for Tysons, don’t take place overnight.
This area of Northern Virginia was originally designed for cars, jobs and retail, but not necessarily much else. The evolution underway calls for quadrupling Tysons’ current population of just more than 21,000 and adding more than a dozen high-rise buildings to its skyline. It also means making the area walkable.
For Mondschein, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at U-Va.’s School of Architecture, the goal is to chronicle that transformation from the beginning.
“The idea is to get a baseline of Tysons’ walkability — how it feels to be a pedestrian in Tysons Corner right now,” Mondschein explains. “Once we have a measure, we’ll know if we’re making progress.”
During their surveys, Mondschein and his crew gather the kind of on-the-ground data that doesn’t always show up in a PowerPoint presentation or in architectural renderings. The group won’t just record what they see and where they go; they also will collect information about noise levels and the amount of green space. Mondschein said these elements are important because they can affect the pedestrian experience as much as incomplete or missing pieces of sidewalks.
The group warmed up by taking a stroll through one of Tysons’ most notable landmarks — Tysons Corner Center mall — before hitting the sidewalks. Joining Mondschein are four urban planning students: juniors Mingwei Shen and Ellen McAlexander, and seniors Mary Kathryn Fisher and Hannah Chako. The outing isn’t required, and the students aren’t receiving extra credit, but they were game for the challenge because they said they thought it would be interesting. Shen said he also was intrigued by the idea of Tysons’ metamorphosis.
In addition to the four Metro stations, the plan to remake Tysons Corner includes 36 million square feet of new development — a mix of office, retail and residential. The hope is to add parks, bike paths and plazas, giving residents places to gather and move about without needing a car.
But whether the ambitious plan can be realized remains to be seen. Tysons’ makeover could be a model for other auto-dependent developments, or it could be a cautionary tale.
Mondschein pulls an assortment of devices from his backpack. He hands Shen a silver pedometer that will record steps and measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Fisher passes to Chako a wearable camera that will snap photos every 15 seconds. McAlexander gets the AirBeam, a wearable air monitor that in addition to shooting video will also graph pollution exposure in real time.
“It’s making a . . . noise,” Chako says after strapping on the camera. She eyes the device with concern.
Mondschein takes a look, turning it over.
“It’s not a problem — shouldn’t mess things up,” he says.
Then it’s time to head out. From where they stand, the group can see the new Tysons Corner Metro station. After hemming and hawing for a bit, they decide to walk to the Spring Hill station — the westernmost of the four new stations and one of two located in the middle of busy Route 7. It’s a little more than a mile away.
But before they even step off the gas station property, they encounter a problem: The asphalt path leading to the sidewalk is torn up. Giant orange construction barrels mark the spot where work apparently is being done on the driveway. So the crew carefully negotiates its way along the uneven pathway, a mix of mud, grass and gravel. This will be a common occurrence during the course of their five-hour walk: sidewalks that abruptly end, partially torn up driveways, and walkways that force them into the street.
After crossing International Drive, they head toward a small side street that runs parallel to Route 123. Mondschein figures it will be a safer, quieter way to get to Route 7. They pass the Crate & Barrel and can spy the REI store a few paces up.
It’s quiet, but not exactly scenic. On the side of the street, near the chain-link fence, someone has dumped a faux leather couch and love seat. At one point, the lack of connecting sidewalks forces the group into the middle of the street — which is fine until a maroon Honda CR-V pulls up behind them and honks, startling everyone and sending them scattering in different directions. Still, using the shortcut, it takes only a few minutes to reach busy Route 7.
But in the parking lot of Woo Lae Oak, a popular Korean restaurant, they realize there’s another problem: There are no sidewalks along this portion of Route 7, making their simple walk to the Spring Hill station a dicey proposition.
Fisher crosses the service road in front of the restaurant and stands on the grassy median that separates it from Route 7. She looks down the road.
“Don’t we want to try?” she asks tentatively. Other members of the group look down the road. Shen checks his smartphone for a possible route.
“It says 18 minutes from here,” he says, eyeing the cars speeding by.
“Yes, but . . .” Mondschein pauses for a moment.
“I feel a little responsible not to get everyone killed,” he says.
“Why don’t we just head this way?” Mondschein says pointing east. The route will take them east along Route 7 and back toward the mall.
“It’s not what we planned, but remember: It’s all good data,” he says.
Despite the initial setback, the group will spend the next five hours walking and exploring, gathering data and snapping pictures. They never will make it to the Spring Hill station, at least not this time around, but during the course of the afternoon they will find that good walking paths and areas with an abundance of trees do exist in Tysons, just not necessarily near the Metro stations.
“I think that shows the challenge,” Mondschein says. “These are things we need to work on over the next 30 years.”
Indeed, it is a teachable moment for the professor, the students and for the big minds responsible for transforming Tysons into a walkable paradise.