New land-use plan for Tysons Corner envisions a pedestrian-friendly downtown
- December 1, 2008
by Robert Burke
Traffic at Tysons Corner is awful and no wonder: Fairfax County’s most successful commercial center was designed to make cars feel welcome. Nearly all the
people who fill the offices and stores that sprawl across its 1,700 acres arrive by car. About 105,000 employees work at Tysons, but only 17,000 of them live there.
Plus, four major highways cross through Tysons: the Capital Beltway, Dulles Toll Road and state routes 7 and 123. They’re jammed daily with thousands of commuters going to and from work.
Despite the congestion — especially during the holiday shopping season — the county’s largest employment center generates about $300 million in tax revenue a
year. With 22 million square feet of office, Tysons already is the 14th largest office market in the U.S. And it’s poised to get bigger with the expected
construction of four Metro stations.
So, Fairfax County leaders faced a conundrum: how to plan for future growth while easing the bottleneck. A new 40-year land-use plan completed this fall by a
county-appointed task force sets the stage for a major makeover. Instead of an auto-centric center, the plan would transform Tysons into a walkable mix of
shops, restaurants and housing with an urban grid of pedestrian-friendly streets. The county’s Board of Supervisors approved a first draft of the ambitious
plan in September, but it could be years before Tysons is turned into Fairfax County’s downtown.
Anchoring the plan is four Metrorail stations scheduled to be in place by 2014. Word may come before the end of the year on whether the Federal Transit
Administration will put up $900 million to help fund expansion of the subway system, which includes the four new stops at Tysons.
The new model also envisions a more vertical look. Offices and condos built close to the Metro stations would be higher and denser than other buildings in
the project. Meanwhile, a free bus line would link neighborhoods built farther away.
The plan is the collaborative result of the Tysons Land Use Task Force, a 37-member body that included community activists, developers and environmentalists.
It took more than three years to reach a consensus, says Clark Tyler, chairman of the task force and a transportation and economic development consultant for
Science Applications International Corp. Finding common ground was important, he explains, because the group felt it couldn’t let Tysons continue to develop
in a pattern Tyler likened to “a suburban office park on steroids.”
The plan calls for eight distinct districts, with the highest densities around the Metro stations. Over time, it boosts the number of jobs at Tysons to
200,000, and allows enough housing for 100,000 residents.
Increased density is key to a main funding tool — tax increment financing. It provides a way to channel taxes from higher real estate revenues toward
infrastructure improvements. Tyler says the plan’s higher density would allow development of up to three times the current 44 million square feet. “Simple
math tells you it may generate close to $1 billion a year from the very same tax rate,” he says.
William D. Lecos, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the task force, says the plan gives Fairfax — which already has
more than 1 million residents — “a capacity for managing a pretty significant amount of jobs and growth, but in a way that is eminently sustainable. We’re
If the county incorporates the plan’s recommendations into a new comprehensive planning document, Lecos says leaders are going to have to stick to it when
property developers push for rezonings. “There’s going to have to be a discipline that says, ‘This is what the plan requires.’” The report urges the county
to create a separate “authority” to manage implementation of the Tysons’ vision.
Some criticism, though, comes from community groups nearby. Rob Jackson, president of the McLean Citizens Association, doesn’t oppose the higher density, but
worries the county won’t get the street networks and other infrastructure built in time. Consequently, surrounding neighborhoods could suffer a spillover of
traffic, along with extra demand on schools, parks and public safety. “We need to know the answers to this stuff before we say we have a solution,” he says.
Tyler, though, scoffs at such criticism. “There are citizens around who don’t want anything done, which is insanity,” he says.
The urgency to take action at Tysons is real. Tonya Ginter, director of research and marketing for commercial real estate firm GVA Advantis, says many
developers are well into making plans that tie into the task force’s vision, and are ready to move on projects once funding is in place for the Metrorail.
For instance, Santa Monica, Calif.-based developer Macerich won county approval last year for a plan to build a ring of eight towers around its existing
mall, Tysons Corner Center. The addition would add 3.5 million square feet of space for office, residential and commercial use and tie into one of the new
While the Macerich project was designed ahead of the task force recommendations, it reflects some of the same goals. That the project won approval shows the
county’s willingness to abandon suburban-style development, says John Harrison, vice president of development for Macerich and a task force member. “That’s
really one of the fundamental changes, that there’s an acknowledgement that some of those urban design criteria need to be applied.”
Moving forward, Fairfax planners now are faced with the challenge of translating the task force vision into language for the county’s comprehensive plan.
Tyler expects changes but thinks the county’s Board of Supervisors will eventually adopt it, because they have to do something. “There are only two choices —
you let Tysons develop as it has always developed, or you change it,” he says.