Temporary urbanism, like holiday markets, beer gardens, and Park(ing) Day parklets, are an increasingly important part of our cities. But in many places, including Tysons, zoning regulations make them difficult to build.
We don’t know for sure when temporary retail establishments started, but Game of Thrones indicates they existed in fictional Westeros. All jokes aside, we know that they date at least as far back as the Medieval Christmas markets. But some of these modern “temporary” amenities end up sticking around for years.
Temporary amenities make cities more lively
Take the biergarten at the Greensboro Metro station for instance, which falls into the gray area between temporary and permanent use. Drew Sunderland, Director of Communications for Tysons Partnership, classified it as a “long-term popup” type of “placemaking initiative.” The biergarten has been there since 2016 and will be there until the owner decides to develop the lot it currently sits on.
The owners are also in the process of opening a second location in the Scotts Run development, a decision that was approved in a public hearing this past December. According to Sunderland, “identity creation has to start now and cannot wait for all projects to be delivered,” which could come in phases over the span of decades. A transitional use, such as sustainable pop-up retail, is needed.
This raises the question: Are Fairfax County and other jurisdictions which have a lot of sprawl prepared for these types of transitional amenities?
To get a deeper understanding of the relevant law, I questioned David Schneider, Land Use Zoning Attorney with Holland & Knight, chair of the Emerging Leaders Council of the Tysons Partnership, and head of its placemaking subcommittee. “The Fairfax County zoning ordinance provisions pertaining to temporary or special use were initially developed to regulate short-term events and festivals lasting no more than 21 days,” Schneider said.
So what about long-term interim uses like the biergarten, what he calls “pop-up structures and repurposed buildings,” that surpass that time constraint?
Schneider explains: “The current zoning ordinance provides flexibility to establish pop-up uses in existing buildings or for a short duration outside. The Tysons Partnership is working with the county to explore more streamlined procedures to establish pop-up/interim use structures that may exist for more than 21 days.”
Are zoning codes keeping up with modern needs?
A multi-billion-dollar Metro extension has been built in Tysons, and homes and shops will eventually arise around it. But for now, the immediate space around the stations must provide some sort of function for people to want to go and spend time there. Planners need to create a lively space where residents will actually want to walk and linger.
However, the development planned for the area will not be completed for years. In the meantime, the space is lifeless unless we draw people there, and a 21-day market is too short to fulfill this role. In other words, having long-term temporary amenities in these spaces is arguably a necessity for Fairfax and, further down the line, Loudoun County, if these jurisdictions want their transit-oriented development projects to succeed.
Right now, the only structures that can be built on-site in Tysons are those that were approved on the submitted plan (except for in areas that have not yet been rezoned to a Planned Tysons Corner Urban (PTC) District). Sunderland worries that these requirements provide little incentive for developers to create temporary spaces that attract people to linger, since they involve additional complexity and cost. “Everyone is on board, but it gets complicated,” he said.
Schneider agreed: “Deviating from what is shown may require an amendment to the approved rezoning, which could be cost prohibitive for an interim activation,” especially when “certain regulations, such as the Building Code and Health Code cannot be waived or modified.”
Fortunately, Sunderland says the Tysons Partnership has established a Land Use Council, consisting of development stakeholders and Fairfax County representatives, to address zoning and regulatory challenges that affect issues like placemaking and housing diversification.
If places like Tysons want to make more sustainable forms of transportation and development successful, the zoning code needs to keep up.
This article has been updated with information about the Tysons land use council. Dave Schneider has also updated his statement to clarify that Tysons Partnership is currently working with the county, rather than it would like to.