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With Silver Line, will people live in Tysons Corner?

The Ascent at Spring Hill Station, the guinea pig for new high-rises near the Silver Line. (Natarsha Wright/Capital Business)

Brandon Henry figured the Silver Line would be up and running by the time the 404-unit apartment building he was constructing in Tysons Corner was complete.

“I never thought we would beat Metro,” he said. “Never, ever.”

But beat it he did. The Ascent, a 25-story high-rise, welcomed its first tenants in April.

Not only is the building the first of its kind within close proximity of a new Silver Line station, but it is a test case for one of  the most central questions about the future of Tysons: Now that the area has Metro, will people choose to live there?

Tysons already has a city’s worth of office space, shopping and jobs. But it has hardly any people. In 2010, when the county passed a nearly 250-page plan calling for the urbanization of Tysons, only about 17,000 people lived there. That’s up to 21,228 according to the latest estimate. Still, there are 3.39 employees there for every resident — more than double the ratio in Arlington.

The county’s plan for a Metro-accessible, urban Tysons calls for 100,000 residents, and Henry’s building is the first of more than a dozen major projects and more than 10,000 apartments or condos targeted for empty parking lots and industrial properties surrounding the Metro stations.

So far Henry, a managing director at Greystar, a South Carolina firm with offices in Tysons, likes what he sees. About 30 percent of the building is leased to a mix of people, most of whom work in Tysons. The project is leasing at a pace that he says will have the building filled in another two years.

He and the company are confident enough that next month they will begin work on a second building even closer to the Spring Hill Metro Station station, on a mostly empty lot. That building, designed by R2L Architects of Georgetown, will add another 400 units.

Greystar is attracting residents with many of the amenities that are already popular in newer buildings in Arlington and the District: common areas that offer a rooftop pool, fire pits, pool tables and numerous grills and entertaining areas. It is about a quarter mile from the entrance to the Spring Hill station.

The rapid construction of new housing surprised Stuart Mendelsohn, a real estate attorney and former member of the board of supervisors who helped shaped the Tysons plan.

“If you had told me even a year ago to see nine high-rise buildings under construction in Tysons, I would have told you you’re crazy,” he said, referring to the office, hotel and apartments already being built. “I expected people to have rail come and then it would slowly build but people have really jumped in and gotten ahead.”

But designing the building to create an urban feel in an area that remains a mix of office parks and strip shopping centers is a work in progress. On one side of the Ascent, for instance, is a Container Store and a parking lot. The building’s entrance faces Broad Street, which eventually will be extended to reach Westpark Drive but for the moment is a dead end.

Given the surroundings, Henry decided to swap out retail on the ground floor — a tenet of urban design — for five extra apartments with glass fronts. He said one of them has been rented. “I just don’t think retail would have made sense,” he said.

Since there is no grocery store nearby, Greystar installed a walk-in refrigerator and freezer in the lobby so residents can have grocery services like Peapod deliver their groceries.

“This is how we compete with Harris Teeter,” he said.

Part of what is attracting companies like Greystar to Tysons is the Silver Line, but part of it is math — so many people work there now, the thinking goes that some are bound to want to live there as well.

Bob Kettler, founder and chief executive of one of the area’s largest housing developers and managers, has had his office in Tysons since 1977 and is developing another of the first buildings to arrive in Tysons, a 429-unit, 350-foot tower beside Tysons Corner Center.

Kettler is managing another building, the Ovation at Park Crest on Crestwood Heights Drive, which is now 36 percent leased, and working with PS Business Parks on plans for development along Jones Branch Drive.

“The thing about Tysons is it was zoned as an office park. It’s absolutely an enormous, euclidean-zoned commercial behemoth of low density,” he said. But he said the incredible investments in transportation — not just the Silver Line but parks, sidewalks, toll lanes and other roads — made it a rare opportunity to build and shape new neighborhoods.

“You’ve got this confluence of infrastructure in one place that you are never going to see again anywhere,” he said.

One of the difficulties for developers along the Silver Line is determining how many parking spaces to build into their buildings. Renters in Tysons today have little to walk to and are likely to own cars, but that may not be the case as stores and attractions open.

Kettler and his president of management, Cindy Clare, compare the situation to the buildings that were built in Arlington after Metro opened there. Kettler built an apartment building in 2001, the Metropolitan at Pentagon City, with three levels of parking that at the time was in high demand. A decade later half the parking was regularly vacant.

At the Ovation, Kettler has 429 parking spaces to serve the building’s roughly 300 apartments — far more than the company would likely build in Rosslyn or Clarendon.

“Think about when Metro first came to Arlington,” Clare said. “They still had their cars, they still drove, they just weren’t sure. And now you see people in Arlington getting rid of their cars. Our guess is that people will still have cars in Tysons at least right now.  And they’ll keep their cars and take the Metro to work, and then maybe later you’ll see a drop in the number of people who have cars.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz