The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Silver Line, Tysons makes progress in becoming less car-centric

The arrival of the Silver Line has spurred new development, but walkability is still a challenge eight years after the Metro line opened

Pedestrians cross Route 7, one of the main arteries running through Tysons. (Eric Lee/For The Washington Post)

On a sunny fall afternoon, Kathy Killion enjoyed a takeout lunch in a small park at The Boro, a budding cluster of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments near the Silver Line’s Greensboro station in Tysons.

According to Google Maps, the development is a 15-minute walk from Killion’s office, but whenever she goes there, she drives.

“You could walk, I guess, but you’d have to go across Route 123, and that’s a six-lane road,” said Killion, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Arlington and enjoys walking and biking. “And it’s a little awkward with Route 7 with this massive Metro line [in the middle]. It doesn’t seem too enticing to walk.”

More than a decade after Fairfax County set out to remake the traffic-swamped suburban office center into a walkable urban downtown, Tysons remains a conundrum.

Since opening in 2014, the Silver Line has brought plenty of new places to eat, live, work and shop within walking and biking distance of Metro. But as Killion and others have found, getting beyond, and between, those burgeoning areas remains daunting without a car.

The Silver Line to Dulles opens Nov. 15. Here's what to know.

The Tysons transformation, expected to take 30 more years, is being watched in suburbs across the country, including in next-door Loudoun County, where the rail line’s second phase is scheduled to open Tuesday afternoon. The six new stops include one at Dulles International Airport and two others in Loudoun, about 30 miles from downtown Washington.

As in Fairfax, Loudoun officials plan to use Metro to jump-start a different type of suburban development: a dense mix of high-rise apartments and offices above restaurants and entertainment designed to attract more companies, workers and residents. They also hope new apartment buildings will bring more affordable housing to the affluent outer suburb, where single-family homes make up more than 80 percent of housing options.

“We get to start from scratch,” said Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. “We get to learn from everybody’s mistakes. When Dulles Airport was put out here so many years ago, it changed the game for Loudoun. Now with Metro coming, it will really change things.”

Unlike in Loudoun, where Silver Line stations are still surrounded by large parcels of vacant land, Tysons’s makeover requires retrofitting a densely developed area spanning three square miles. Loudoun, however, will face similar challenges bringing walkability to the county’s wide roads designed to move cars, not pedestrians and cyclists.

Fairfax officials say their transit-oriented plans have been most successful in encouraging home construction amid a sea of office buildings. The area has added 4,459 apartments and other homes since 2010, leaving about six jobs in Tysons for every household, down from the initial ratio of almost 12-to-1, planners said.

A place that once emptied out by 6 p.m. on weekdays and lay dormant on weekends now has residents buying groceries, attending concerts and rooftop happy hours, and taking Saturday yoga classes.

Amazon's $55 million speeds up affordable housing project in Tysons

“It is living up to its promise,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a longtime supporter of the rail project and former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “If you want to see part of the future, go see the Capital One development [at the McLean Metro station]. … It’s an urban center within an urban space.”

Tysons has a performing arts center, Whole Foods and Wegmans supermarkets, 34 acres of public parks and plazas, and three athletic fields. Since 2010, 31 new buildings have sprung up, and another seven are under construction. The area has added more than 10 miles of bike lanes and 14 Capital Bikeshare stations.

Even so, it remains an area in transition, where sidewalks and bike lanes suddenly end and narrow sidewalks hug roads 10 lanes wide. Crosswalks remain few and far between, and direct walking routes sometimes send pedestrians through parking lots. The area is surrounded and divided by the Capital Beltway and other major commuter thoroughfares.

“To make sure these Metro stations flourish, you need to get the street design right,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Fairfax leaders say plenty of Tysons-area residents are frustrated that walking and cycling doesn’t feel safer or easier. Still, public officials say, the area is showing potential. It will take more time, they say, to find a balance between moving thousands of vehicles and creating space for what they hope will be a growing number of pedestrians and cyclists.

“You don’t just wave a magic wand and turn an auto-oriented suburb into a walkable, transit-oriented community overnight,” said Fairfax Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill), who chaired the county’s planning commission committee that developed the Tysons plan. “It’s a huge lift.”

A Virginia professor seeks to plot Tysons's transformation from the start

Jeffrey C. McKay (D), chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, said he hears from residents who are disappointed with the slow pace of change. But the increasing number of walkers he sees in Tysons, especially on weekends, shows the county’s ambitious plan is working, he said.

“Patience is a really important virtue when it comes to transforming a place that in my entire lifetime has required you to get in a car,” McKay said. “Is it perfect? Far from it. Are we making tremendous progress? Absolutely.”

For decades, Tysons was best known for auto dealerships, two mega shopping malls and for being one of the largest office markets in the country. One question facing it and Loudoun: how transit use and Metro-centric developments will emerge from the pandemic as more people continue to work from home.

After a slow start, ridership along the Silver Line’s five new stations climbed steadily, peaking in 2019. Since then, passengers — like on the rest of the rail system and transit nationwide — have been slow to return, at less than half of pre-pandemic levels.

Christopher B. Leinberger, a developer and real estate professor emeritus at the George Washington University School of Business, said urbanizing a built-out suburb as big as Tysons takes time.

“Without a doubt, Tysons is fundamentally getting a complete makeover from a drivable suburb — it was traffic hell — to a place that’s walkable,” he said.

Silver Line gives Metro, Dulles International Airport optimism for new passengers

One of the big problems, pedestrian advocates say, is the pace of adding shorter side streets with wide sidewalks, bike lanes and frequent crosswalks — the kind of pedestrian-friendly street grids found in downtowns. More people would walk between Metro stations and within surrounding communities, advocates say, if they didn’t have to brave major thoroughfares like Route 123 and Route 7.

Nikhil Gokhale, who grew up in Fairfax, said he remembers Tysons as a place with a mall but “nothing to do and nowhere to walk to.” The glass high-rises and restaurants in the growing Boro development, he said, are starting to feel “more hip” than Reston Town Center.

“That feels more like a suburb, and this feels a bit more like a city,” Gokhale, who works in software sales, said as he walked back to his office from lunch. “Granted, it’s kind of an isolated block, but if they can [grow] this … and have shops close together and more people out, I think you’ll get that downtown vibe and that community feel.”

He said he drives to work because riding Metro would take far longer. The mall is just over a half-mile from his office, but he said he’d rather drive than walk through vast parking lots or cross Route 123.

Tysons, he said, “is still not amazingly walkable.”

Even if they don’t commute by Metro, experts say, the fact that Gokhale and others can easily walk to lunch or a cup of coffee in dense developments like The Boro helps to reduce the midday rush hour that has plagued Tysons for years. Some developers say it’s more realistic to focus on walkability around each Metro station rather than between them.

Donna Shafer, a managing director of Cityline Partners, said her company has built a grid of smaller streets and bike lanes in the Scotts Run area across Route 123 from the McLean Metro station. She said they have attracted far more pedestrian traffic to a development where new restaurants, shops, apartments and a hotel have been built or are under construction, replacing low-rise office buildings surrounded by a sea of parking.

Trying to remake Tysons into a cohesive downtown, she said, would be the equivalent of redesigning the area between Capitol Hill and Georgetown.

“You’d never note that land mass and say, ‘Is it walkable?’” Shafer said.

The new street grid is emerging piecemeal as property owners are required to build sections when they redevelop parcels. The street network surrounding Loudoun’s Metro stations will be built in the same way, officials said.

The challenge in Tysons: The pace of redevelopment — and, in turn, build out of the street grid — depends upon each property owner’s business calculations. A parcel that might be ideal for a pedestrian-friendly street, experts say, might not be redeveloped for years if it already has a business with a lucrative long-term lease.

Fairfax officials say they’re working to get more people out of their cars. Tracy Strunk, director of the county’s Department of Planning and Development, said the Tysons plan has been “wildly successful” in adding more transit-accessible housing.

She noted the county and Virginia Department of Transportation recently opened a pedestrian bridge across the Beltway to connect McLean and Falls Church neighborhoods to the mall. Scotts Crossing Road, which opened in 2020 with bike lanes and lighted sidewalks, provides another Beltway crossing near the McLean Metro station.

The county also is working with VDOT to make crossing Route 123 easier, planners said, and is studying how to redesign the Route 123 and Route 7 interchange to simplify navigating on foot. Meanwhile, 37 of 41 pedestrian improvements that were identified to make Metro stations more accessible have been completed since 2012, including new crosswalks, sidewalks and trails. Property owners in Tysons pay a special tax devoted to transportation projects in the area.

“I am not concerned long-term that we’re going to end up with little bits and pieces [of walkable areas] and no connections between them,” Strunk said. “There are going to be places that take some time … but I think even in the last 10 years, the places where [walking] has gotten better is really striking.”

But building better-connected side streets won’t help enough if busy thoroughfares continue to divide the area, critics say.

Emily Hamilton, a senior research fellow in urban economics at George Mason University, said the Tysons plan “includes a bit of wishful thinking.” She said major roads can’t become more comfortable for walking and cycling without narrowing lanes to slow down vehicles — a politically sensitive move in traffic-clogged suburbs.

Without doing that, Hamilton said, “I think the best we can really hope for are little pockets of environments that are safe and pleasant for pedestrians.”

Reshaping suburban growth will bring similar challenges in Loudoun, where Silver Line stations sit in the middle of the Dulles Toll Road, separating future development on either side. Dense, transit-oriented development is unlike anything that has been built in Loudoun.

Loudoun Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said he is optimistic Metro will attract the kind of development that many people are seeking — and at lower prices than in closer-in areas.

“If you want to live in a little bit more of an urban environment with amenities and places to eat and some stuff to do, but maybe a little bit less cost than what you’re going to see in Arlington and Washington, D.C.,” Letourneau said, “I think [Loudoun] becomes a viable option.”