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Opinion Ten years into redevelopment, is Tysons what we envisioned?

A pedestrian crosses above Leesburg Pike in the Tysons West neighborhood in Fairfax County in August 2019.
A pedestrian crosses above Leesburg Pike in the Tysons West neighborhood in Fairfax County in August 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Emily Hamilton is a research fellow and director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s Urbanity Project.

Ten years ago last month, ahead of four new Silver Line Metrorail stations opening, Fairfax County adopted a 40-year redevelopment plan for Tysons. The goal was to facilitate a new downtown where people could enjoy walking, exercising, supporting local eateries and shops, and easy access to greater D.C. via the new stations. The plan was heralded by the American Planning Association for seeking to transform a sprawling, highway-oriented area into a series of transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods. So far, for all its progress, it has not ushered in an era of easy walkability.

Fairfax County policymakers were motivated, in part, by the need to maintain Tysons as an important job center and tax base. Many suburban office parks were (and still are) suffering from increasing vacancy and falling rents. Tenants in recent years have increasingly come to value office space in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods. When planners finalized the redevelopment plan, Tysons’s office vacancy rate had risen to 20 percent, up from below 2 percent in the 1990s, according to real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield.

New Metro stations provided one ingredient for transforming Tysons into a walkable area. To fully succeed, it would also need pleasant infrastructure for pedestrians and housing for residents who would provide street life and support neighborhood retail.

County leaders started the redevelopment planning process by appointing a task force of residents who developed recommendations for Tysons, many aspects of which were officially adopted. The task force included different types of stakeholders, including representatives of the real estate industry, environmentalists and homeowners from the surrounding neighborhoods. The task force’s plan and the comprehensive plan it shaped, attempted to thread the needle between leaving existing single-family neighborhoods untouched and permitting dense redevelopment next to the Metro stations. The rezoned land had been developed mostly as suburban office parks and low-density commercial development.

In general, limiting development to the areas closest to Metro stations hasn’t stood in the way of new construction. Permitting of new multifamily buildings is on pace to exceed the plan’s goal of bringing tens of thousands of new residents to Tysons.

However, there’s one major way in which the two goals have conflicted. A freeway and multiple major arterial roads cut through Tysons. The comprehensive plan calls for slowing cars down and transforming the arterials into tree-lined boulevards with wide sidewalks and medians that would make them safe for pedestrians.

At the same time, the plan promised to maintain commute times for drivers going to or through Tysons. To this end, policymakers have actually widened some Tysons arterials rather than making major improvements to them for walkers. To cross parts of Route 123, walkers have to traverse 12 lanes of traffic.

Partly a result of roads that are hostile to pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders, the Tysons plan has failed to make the area as walkable and transit-friendly as it’s supposed to be. It also failed to reduce the number of car trips in and out of the area, relative to the 2011 baseline.

All in all, permitting denser development on outdated commercial sites makes fiscal sense. With demand for 20th-century-style suburban office parks waning, industry experts forecast that they will lose value. In turn, their jurisdictions will lose property tax revenue. Nonetheless, the politics of permitting increased development — particularly multifamily housing — in suburban jurisdictions around the country have proved difficult. Some high-profile efforts to facilitate more construction at the state and local levels have failed.

The Tysons approach provides one proven way to successfully bring about suburban densification. By appointing a task force to determine how, not whether, Tysons would be redeveloped, and by appointing members with diverse interests, Fairfax policymakers set the effort up to succeed. The remaining question is whether all — and not just some or most — of its goals can be met.

The major roads cutting through Tysons remain hazardous to pedestrians and present a potentially insurmountable obstacle to widespread walkability. Transforming sprawling commercial development into walkable neighborhoods ultimately means reducing the amount of real estate dedicated to cars. Fairfax policymakers have not yet shown how to manage the politics of this final step that is necessary to their vision.

Read more:

Letter to the Editor: Environmental improvements are part of the plan in Tysons Corner

Dara Elasfar: With high-rises and one ‘hidden gem,’ an urban center is sprouting in Tysons West

Jonathan O’Connell: Up next for Tysons? Another year of staggering growth

Randy Atkins: Tysons Corner road plan runs counter to visions of a ‘green’ city