Tysons Corner owes its existence to the many important highways that intersect nearby. Ironically, by dividing Tysons into fragments, these same highways now threaten its future success as a cohesive urban place. Air rights development at key locations could reunify Tysons.

One problem with the otherwise impressive Tysons Corner redevelopment plan is that the two main streets, Route 7 and Route 123, will continue to function as suburban arterial high­ways. They’ll be so hard to cross that the neighborhoods on either side will be effectively cut off from each other. Rather than main streets, they are de facto freeways, barriers that divide the community in two.

Route 123. Image from Google Maps.

Fairfax County proposes to address this problem by adding 4 pedestrian bridges. But a better solution would be to deck over these roads wherever possible, and then stitch together the neighborhood fragments with air rights development.

Imagine grand pedestrian plazas, lined with a grid of narrow local roads and high-rises with ground-floor retail, all elevated above the main roads below carrying vehicular traffic from the Dulles Toll Road and I-495. Decks could transform barriers into true urban places. Roads that waste vast amounts of land could be converted to more productive use.

An air rights development similar in concept is advancing in the District of Columbia, and is an example of how this idea can work. The Return to L’Enfant plan (PDF) will deck three blocks of I-395 in downtown DC with new buildings.

The High Street deck over I-670 in Columbus, OH is a successful example of an air-rights development that was implemented a few years ago, although it is smaller in scale.

Route 123

The best opportunity for a deck may be along Route 123, where it passes the Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria malls.

Route 123 during construction of the Silver Line. Image from Google Maps.

Top: Route 123 as proposed in existing plans. Bottom: Route 123 as it could be, with a deck and air rights development abutting the elevated Silver Line. Images by the author.

By my estimate, it would cost $120 million more to develop a deck with air rights buildings on top than it would cost to produce those same buildings under normal circumstances. In order to make this profitable, Fairfax would have to give developers some significant concessions. Developers may need the right to build larger, more profitable buildings in order to cover the high initial costs. Parking requirements will have to be changed, since below-grade on-site parking will be impossible. The sale of 10 acres of land to developers would likely yield somewhere around $60 million, based on previous land sales nearby. Fairfax could rebate some or all of this money to the developer to help cover the cost of the deck. Once the development is in place, the county would receive tens of millions of dollars per year in added tax revenue, which could help underwrite a TIF for a period of time to help fund the deck as well. Even if the county gives up much of the direct revenue, doing this would still reap tremendous rewards. Route 123 would be a unified urban corridor. The most valuable land closest to the Metro station would be the center of the community, rather than a gaping hole. The local street grid would continue across the highway, and pedestrians would not be faced with a dangerous and daunting crossing. This concept could provide an urban heart to the functional center of Tysons Corner, and provide Fairfax County with a strong revenue stream in the long term. There are many challenges, but if it can be made to work the payoff could be huge. Air rights development over the Dulles Toll Road has been discussed for the Silver Line’s future Reston station for over 10 years. Although a study found that the proposal was infeasible in the current economy, it may make sense in the future. If it’s on the table in Reston, it makes sense to consider it in Tysons Corner, too.

Navid Roshan is a civil engineer who works and lives in Tysons Corner. He has a degree in civil engineering from Virginia Institute of Technology, has worked in the Northern Virginia land development field for 10 years, and has been a resident of Fairfax County for 27 years. Navid blogs at The Tysons Corner about reforming poor land use and design practices in the Northern Virginia region.