An overflow crowd of well over 150 jammed a small meeting room at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board to hear a two-hour discussion the planned transformation of Tysons Corner into what, on its own, is expected to be the United States’ seventh largest downtown in 2030, eclipsing Seattle and Houston.
All the speakers focused on what sets Tysons apart from other American “edge cities.” While similar auto-oriented suburban jobs centers in other parts of the country are being redeveloped in a more urban fashion, Tysons is the only one to be centered on a heavy-rail transit connection to the rest of its metropolitan region.
Tysons Corner, which in the 1950s consisted of a general store at the corner of Virginia routes 7 and 123 (then only 4-lane roads), has expanded to hosting 170,000 jobs — and 160,000 parking spaces, mostly in surface lots. It is now the economic engine of Northern Virginia, if not the entire state.
While a significant number of those who work there live close by, its design make walking and biking very unpleasant and often dangerous. Located almost exactly halfway between downtown Washington and Dulles Airport, the area around Tysons often sees the worst traffic in the metro area.
The planned, and now under construction, extension of the Metrorail system through Tysons provided the impetus for re-planning the area. The Master Plan that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved in 2010 is the result of five years worth of work: hundreds of meetings with close scrutiny and ample public involvement.
Its implementation will cost $1.698 billion over 20 years, not including the $4 billion invested in the Silver Line itself and the new High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the Beltway and I-66.
The new Tysons, in addition to very dense evenly mixed-use development near the three Metro stations, will feature an urban circulator, which could take the form of a streetcar or a rapid bus line. An expanded network of on-road bike lanes and off-road bicycle & pedestrian paths, as well as bike parking minimums, will help increase non-auto modes’ share of daily commuters from just three percent today to 36 percent in 2030.
Automobile traffic will still increase, though, so more road capacity will be needed. Parking, however, will go from a current minimum of 2.6 spaces per 1,000 square feet of office space, to a maximum of 1.6 spaces per thousand square feet within a half-mile radius of each Metro station. The use of smart parking meters will provide an even further deterrent to parking problems.
The planning process generated some tension and controversy, as well as some factually erroneous statements made in the press. The McLean Citizens’ Association, a federation of neighborhood groups representing Tysons’ surrounding residential areas, was a cooperative partner throughout the process and endorsed the final plan.
The Association wants to see paid parking become mandatory in Tysons, and increased bus service and ride-sharing incentives in the area. Association President Robert Jackson says residents are likely to fight road expansion and private property condemnation, despite that the current state of traffic diverts cut-through drivers onto residential streets.
Ronald Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, shared a relevant story from his own life. In the late 1960s, he worked in an office building on Connecticut Avenue near Farragut Square, where he enjoyed the urban environment and being able to walk to a variety of restaurants for lunch. His company moved to a new Tysons Corner office in the early 1970s.
Kirby’s commute then was easy: the Beltway’s speed limit was 65 mph and there was very little traffic. Though he could see the Tysons Galleria from his office window, he had to drive there to grab lunch because walking was a harrowing experience. The building he worked in was declared functionally obsolete in 1990 and the site has since twice been redeveloped — while the building he worked in on Connecticut Avenue still stands, and its environs have hardly changed.
Kirby touted the funding structure that made the Silver Line possible: half from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the other half from Dulles Toll Road toll revenues. He hopes developers can contribute to the financing of the Tysons Metro stations as they did to building the New York Avenue station (NoMa developers proposed its construction and paid a third of its costs).
“Tysons’ future is urban; deal with it,” said Dr. Robert Cervero, city and regional planning professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has had extensive involvement in the redesign. He noted that placemaking (transforming Tysons into an attractive place to live) remains a large challenge, but maintained that the good thing about its vast amounts of surface parking is that they serve as “land banking,” making strategic infill easier.
Inclusionary planning, offering a compelling vision, and using conceptual images to give people a street-level view of the future mini city were key to the plans’ broad acceptance, Cervero said. He noted also that bringing more residents into Tysons would do more to reduce traffic in and out than just improving transit and bicycle options.
Tysons Corner is poised to become North America’s only example of a former sprawling edge city becoming a fully-fledged downtown in its own right. Making it successful — a task to which developers, nearby residents and government leaders are committed — will be a key step on the way to making our fast-growing region more livable and sustainable.