Tysons, Virginia by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

While jurisdictions across the country face criticism from homeowners for their approaches to building new residences in suburban areas, Fairfax County’s way of upzoning in Tysons has moved forward with far less friction.

Reflecting recommendations from a diverse group of stakeholders, Tysons crafted a transit-oriented plan that’s careful not to disturb existing single-family neighborhoods. It’s led to an influx of new market-rate apartments, in addition to units catering to people earning less than the county’s median income.

While there are advantages and disadvantages relative to replacing single-family zoning with two- to four-unit zoning, Tysons’ plan may provide an alternative model for suburban upzoning in locations where eliminating single-family zoning runs into political roadblocks.

Homeowner opposition stalls development across the country

Prior to the urgent pandemic response taking over legislative sessions, 2020 was the year of housing bills in state legislatures. Last year, policymakers in Oregon preempted single-family zoning across much of the state. Legislators in California, Maryland, Nebraska, Virginia, and Washington introduced bills that would similarly have permitted development in their suburbs by eliminating or limiting one-unit-per-lot zoning and permitting something between duplexes and fourplexes in its place.

Allowing single-family homes to be replaced by duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes provides important affordability advantages. This style of development allows multiple households to share high-cost land without relying on the expensive construction techniques that high-rise development requires.

Perhaps in part because of these affordability advantages of two- to four-unit development, 2020’s zoning preemption bills faced substantial opposition from homeowners and local politicians and have failed to advance so far. Whether or not the Oregon model comes back in other states with more success in future years remains to be seen.

Tysons Metro Station by GKJ.

Fairfax County provides an alternative path to upzoning wealthy, suburban areas

In 2010, ahead of four new Metro stations opening in Tysons, the Fairfax County Board passed a new comprehensive plan for the area permitting dense development of all sorts, particularly encouraging housing, near the stations. The plan permitted residential development on land that had previously been zoned for commercial uses. It also increased allowable height and density and reduced parking requirements. So far, the plan has resulted in thousands of new apartments in Tysons with tens of thousands more permitted.

Both the Tysons approach and the Oregon model permit more, lower-cost housing to be built in exclusionary suburbs. The Oregon model directly limits single-family zoning, one of the most salient tools of suburban hegemony and exclusion. In contrast, the Tysons approach goes to great lengths to limit the effect of new development on surrounding single-family neighborhoods. Not only does it not touch the zoning in surrounding neighborhoods, it also requires developers to pay large impact fees to cover the cost of new necessary infrastructure, limiting the effect of growth on the county’s budget.

Relative to allowing slightly more density across an entire jurisdiction, the Tysons approach embraces transit-oriented development — permitting dense, high-rise development only around its four Metro stations.

The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor model’s influenced Tysons’ plan

Ahead of Orange Line stations opening in Arlington, the County Board adopted a plan for high-rise development around its Metro stations that opened in the late 1970s. Since then, the county’s population has grown by a third, primarily through dense, infill development. Yet over time, many of Arlington’s corridors have experienced decreased traffic as residents take transit, bike, or walk to work.

The Arlington model presented Fairfax policymakers and homeowners with a model for growth without making traffic worse for current residents. Permitting more housing specifically around transit stops may present a more feasible way to allow growth without exacerbating traffic congestion relative to the Oregon model.

Fiscal considerations also gave Tysons reason to move forward

Ahead of rezoning the Tysons area, Fairfax policymakers were facing a challenge common to many aging suburbs: high commercial vacancy rates. Since the 1960s, Tysons developed in the familiar suburban pattern of single-family subdivisions connected to office parks and malls by freeways and roads lined with low-density commercial development.

However in recent decades, particularly since the Great Recession, the commercial market in Tysons weakened. Office tenants increasingly prefer more central, walkable locations, choosing DC or Arlington offices over some of the older office buildings in Tysons. And while Tysons’ malls are still some of the most profitable in the country, they’re not immune to changing retail habits. More residents in the area would mean more foot traffic to support the malls as well as ground floor retail in new buildings.

Permitting walkable redevelopment in Tysons was seen as a route to improve conditions for existing and new commercial development, which the county relies on for tax revenue. And allowing dense housing in Tysons was an important component of making Fairfax more appealing to office and retail tenants.

With these fiscal considerations in mind and the Silver Line coming, the Fairfax County Board took it as a given that increased development would be permitted around the Metro stations. The Board appointed a task force to develop ideas for what new development in Tysons would look like, not whether or not it would be permitted. The task force members included real estate professionals, other members of the business community, homeowners, and environmentalists. Ultimately the comprehensive plan that the County Board adopted closely reflects the task force’s recommendations.

Like eliminating single-family zoning, the Tysons approach permits new residential development in exclusionary suburban jurisdictions at lower price points relative to the baseline zoning. And even though Fairfax and Arlington before it have relied on high-cost, high-rise development to accommodate population growth, the region’s embrace of transit-oriented development has helped make the region much more affordable relative to some of the country’s other high-opportunity coastal areas.

Many of the brand new, market-rate units in Tysons are affordable to households earning 60 to 80 percent of Fairfax’s median income. This is due to both a high median income in Fairfax County and the region as a whole relative to the national median along with the region’s policymakers’ willingness to accommodate housing construction relative to other high-income parts of the country.

Permitting dense residential development on commercially zoned land does not specifically reverse single-family zoning’s racist, classist origins and effects. However, it may be politically feasible in locations where changing the status quo in low-density residential neighborhoods is not.

In our region, policymakers in DC and Maryland, in addition to Virginia, have had some success in permitting new housing in high-opportunity locations by allowing dense development along transit corridors and minimizing the impact on single-family neighborhoods. In localities struggling with increasing commercial vacancy rates, permitting dense housing where none was permitted previously may allow more housing to be built at a lower political cost relative to upzoning single-family neighborhoods.

  • Tysons Partnership

This article is part of our ongoing coverage of Tysons underwritten by the Tysons Partnership and community partners. Greater Greater Washington maintains full editorial independence over its content.

Emily Hamilton is a Research Fellow and Director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She lives in the Langston neighborhood of DC. She enjoys riding her bike and observing housing construction around the region.