Looking out a Silver Line Metro window on the way into Tysons feels like looking into the future—albeit a car-dominated one. Glass and steel buildings seem to race each other towards the sky. Ribbons of highways swirl around and through the city, which rises from 2,100 acres plopped between DC and Dulles Airport. As big as it looks now, it’s only the beginning, if investors, developers, and residents have anything to say about it.
The Tysons Comprehensive Plan is the blueprint of this vision: To transform from an “edge city” into a true urban downtown for Fairfax County. But to better understand the continued metamorphosis of Tysons, we need to take a step back and look at its past.
From Manahoac land to farms to a crossroads
What’s now Tysons is located on Manahoac land. War and disease from European colonizers greatly reduced the Manahoac’s numbers by the late 1600s, and there’s little record of them after 1728. Farmers began to take over the land, and the area eventually became known for its peach groves.
Prior to the 60s, Tysons was defined by two interchanges at Route 7 and Route 123, according to the book This Was Tysons Corner, Virgina: Facts and Photos. In 1803, Turnpike Road was renamed Alexandria Leesburg Pike/Route 7, and it intersected Vienna-Lewinsville Road/Route 123.
In 1813, Congress comissioned the Alexandria and Leesburg Turnpike Company to build a toll road between those two areas. The price to cross was five cents for every head of sheep, and 10 cents for every stage or wagon and two horses, This Was Tysons Corner says.
Lawrence Foster, who also owned the local post office, purchased the 714 acres located around this intersection in 1843. Foster’s peach farm and the surrounding area were informally known as “Peach Grove,” and the intersection of Route 7 and Route 123 was known as “Peach Grove Crossroads.”
In 1854, William Tyson, a native of Cecil County Maryland, bought the Foster property, and the intersection of Route 7 and Route 123 was referred to as “Tysons Corner.”
Tysons Corner was known as a farming community up until the 1950s.
Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova, who is now serving out her last term, has been instrumental in getting the Tysons Comprehensive Plan approved in 2010. When she arrived in the county in 1966, the area was starkly different from what it is today.
“When I first moved to Fairfax County it was during the Vietnam war and my husband worked for the department of the army,” Bulova said during an interview at her office. “He was a scientist who worked for the night vision lab.”
Bulova got a job at Fort Belvoir at the Davison Army Airfield. There wasn’t much to do in the area then.
“I remember the closet shopping was Landmark,” Bulova recalled, referring to the mall in Alexandria. “So if we wanted to shop for clothes or furniture or anything else it was at Landmark.”
As for Tysons just down the way?
“Tysons was not much of anything at the time,” Bulova said. “I remember Tysons becoming Tysons Corner Mall, and that was a huge, big deal. But during the 60s Tysons was just a crossroads…Over the years it has grown and expanded. So it was a relatively short amount of time.”
The jet, the computer, and the mall transformed Tysons
So what transformed Tysons? Joel Garreau is a former Washington Post reporter and author of Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, the preeminent text on the phenomenon of edge cities. He says for Tysons, the jet—in combination with the mainframe computer and the mall—shaped the area into what it is now. Highways and Metro played a role too.
“Once thing I’m convinced of is that cities are always shaped by what is the state of the art transportation device at the time,” Garreau told me in a phone interview. “If the transportation is shoe leather and donkey like at the time of Jesus, what you get is Jerusalem.”
Ocean-going sails and wagons brought us cities like Boston and Amsterdam. Railroads created places like Chicago. The car got us Detroit and Los Angeles. And jet passenger planes brought us “world cities” like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and eventually Sydney and Beijing—as well as business-centered “edge cities” like Tysons.
With air travel, places that were considered remote just years earlier were now accessible, and businesses left cities for areas with cheaper real estate. Spanning 10,000 acres and just 26 miles from downtown DC in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Dulles International airport was the first airport in the country designed for commercial jets. When Dulles opened near Tysons in 1962, this helped turn it into a place on the periphery to one that could be used for corporate space.
“The state-of-the-art in the 70s and 80s was the automobile, the jet passenger planes, and the corporate mainframe computers,” Garreau said. “The corporate mainframe big computers meant [corporations] could put pieces of their puzzle wherever they found an advantage…You didn’t have to have everybody working at headquarters anymore.”
Mainframe computers allowed for more information to be processed, and required fewer people to do it. They also did not have to be housed at the same place as the executive offices were, and could be placed somewhere cheaper or more advantagous to a company.
The coordination of all these elements were important, Garreau said, because, “People were moving their homes out to the burbs since the late 50s and 60 since after WWII. But with the rise of the big computers, that was a big deal because you can put the most important part of the city—the means of creating wealth—out to the ‘burbs.”
But it was the Tysons Corner Shopping Center (now Tysons Corner Center), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, that drew the people—millions of them. Even today as malls are in decline, about 25 million people still visit each year, according to Macerich, the company that owns the mall. While the area was still built around cars, the mall became more accessible when Fairfax successfully pushed to bring the Silver Line to the area, connecting Tysons to the rest of the Metro system.
More businesses followed, and Tysons (the area dropped “Corner” from its name in 2015) grew into the 12th-largest business district in the US, according to the Tysons Chamber of Commerce. With 26.4 million square feet of office space, it’s now the largest business district of Fairfax County.
Tysons continues to evolve
Now Tysons is on the move again. It hopes to transform itself from a suburban area into a dense city where people actually want to stay, live, and play. Each year brings a new iteration—more buildings are going up, and green spaces are being installed.
But the real challenge will be bringing the people. The comprehensive plan calls for 200,000 jobs and 100,000 residents in the coming decades, but the process takes time.
“I think it’s moving at the pace that I thought it would, and there are some people, some impatient people, who sometimes will say ‘well you approved the Tysons plan and where is the grid of streets, where are all the parks, where is this and that,” Bulova said. “And I remind people that this is a 40-year plan that was adopted.”
What does the future of Tysons look like? Who are the architects behind the vision? Stay tuned for part II of this series.