Greater Greater Washington

Many Tysons developers aren't learning

Transforming Tysons Corner into a pedestrian-friendly urban environment is one of the region's most important goals, but some of the latest proposed development projects completely fail in urban design.


Photo by VaDOT on Flickr.

A multitude of development projects have already been proposed around the upcoming stations on the Silver Line to Tysons Corner, scheduled to open in 2013. Some developers' proposals conform to Fairfax County's new urban design guidelines for Tysons Corner, but others continue to think in more suburban terms.

The most prominent anti-urban proposal is an older one, by Lerner Enterprises, which is developing the area around the Tysons II shopping center. Lerner's plan absolutely fails to create an urban neighborhood and instead amplifies the existing over-reliance on automobiles.

Lerner's master plan, viewable in this attached image from Kohn Pedersen Fox, is completely inadequate if Tysons is to be made into an urban community. Unfortunately, the county's review process has not stopped projects such as this one, or forced them to adopt good design practices this development was approved years ago, before the current review processes were in place.

There are several key issues with the Lerner plan. The most prominent is the anti-urban street pattern, which relies on cul-de-sacs for street access to the buildings. Lerner's neglect for Tysons' proposed new street grid is a serious and major flaw. Their development proposal is a replication of the towers in the park movement that became obsolete many years ago.

The failure to include any new through streets is a major problem, as it hinders the improved accessibility that the Metro expansion is supposed to promote. Calming the crossing of Chain Bridge Road (Route 123) is not likely to be practical, and that elevated walkways will have to suffice there, but it's not acceptable for Lerner to completely neglect any aspects of walkability in the interior of their multi-block development.

Lerner's plan includes only minimal street front retail. For that matter, it includes very minimal street front anything, since the buildings don't interact with any sort of grid. Meanwhile, the site plan shows at least two new additional massive parking lots.

With poor pedestrian access to large new buildings and continued reliance on the car, Lerner's proposal threatens to overwhelm the area's infrastructure and defeat the purpose of bringing Metro to Tysons.

Lerner's plan should be modified to feature actual city blocks rather than cul-de-sacs and superblocks, and to bring every building up to the street front. Rather than leaving vast areas of land open on the fringes, Lerner should create a single consolidated urban park for their proposal.

Furthermore, Lerner should integrate the new Metro station more effectively with their proposal. In its current form, the station appears to lack an entrance from the sidewalk, feeding directly into a private office building. This would discourage pedestrian traffic to the rest of the neighborhood.

Also, it does not appear any thought was given to placing the tallest buildings closest to the Metro. The plan should be modified so there is easy public access to the Metro station, and so buildings closest to the station are scaled significantly larger than those further away.

Another problem is parking. Lerner's plan includes several above ground garages, which destroy the pedestrian experience and encourage driving. Underground parking should be a primary feature of any new Tysons Corner developments, especially for projects so close to a Metro station.

To encourage these changes, particularly underground parking, Fairfax County might consider density or height bonuses in the most appropriate areas. The county's tentative 400' height limit in Tysons is arbitrary and does little to foster high quality redevelopment. There are no views to preserve in Tysons Corner, so there is no reason developers should be prevented from building tall towers. Indeed, tall, iconic buildings could help Tysons to be perceived as a true urban center.

Tysons Corner does not have to be a horrible place. If it is to improve, developers will have to get serious about changing the type of buildings they put there, and Fairfax County will have to be equally serious about following its impressive Transforming Tysons plan.

If Tysons is to change for the better, the Lerner proposal cannot be built in its current form. It is sorely deficient in embracing urbanity, and is the same type of development that has made traffic in Tysons so bad. With Fairfax County's help, Lerner should learn from past mistakes and reorganize their site plan to be first and foremost urban and pedestrian friendly.

Update: Brian Worthy from Fairfax County pointed out that this plan was approved under Tysons' previous land use plan, which permitted this type of design. It would be prescient of the county to try to convince Lerner to move toward a more urban solution, which could increase their profits as well as creating a development that better fits into the future of Tysons.

Nicolai Fedak graduated from Fordham University in New York City with a degree in political science in 2011. He originally hails from McLean, Virginia and graduated from McLean High School. He currently lives on the Upper West Side and still travels regularly between New York and Washington. 

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Oboe-Schiller Index of Inside-the-Beltway Home Values surprisingly only up +1.33% on today's news. Many economists had expected a bigger jump.

by oboe on Jun 29, 2011 3:04 pm • linkreport

What do you expect from a family that deserted their own city- Washington DC- for the suburbs- in the 1950's? The Lerer's are extremely suburb and car oriented people- and I am surprised that they even considered DC for their new baseball studium- which they probably would have not built w/o extreme concessions on the part of the very city that they not only abandoned- but have shown that they also despise. The Rouse people are also cultural criminals ont he level of the Lerners- peole out to make a buck on white flight and the drainage of the city core of all of our amenitites and advantages.

by w on Jun 29, 2011 3:08 pm • linkreport

Is it too late to change?

by cmc on Jun 29, 2011 3:19 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this review -- I recommend follow-on GGW input on of each of the more recent development proposals. As for the Lerner's project, the Fairfax Board had to review the Lerner proposal under their old comprehensive plan and zoning, many years before the new Tysons Corner plan was approved. At least one board member told me at the time that they were not happy with the poor urban design, but their hands were tied. The 1960's "Brasilia" design is a real problem in the heart of Tysons and I hope that the Lerners can be convinced to offer a more urban, vibrant and walkable design that integrates better with the Metro station and surrounding development. The Lerners also insisted on building the above ground parking garages in front of Nationals stadium, while developer Herb Miller, the Coalition for Smarter Growth and others fought for underground or wrapped parking with active retail, restaurants and housing. Today the garages do not enhance the approach into the stadium.

by Stewart Schwartz on Jun 29, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport

A link to the plan would be nice.

Looking at the picture, I'd imagine the station at the bottom is the one on 123 across from the mall (tysons I)

Given that you have the mall -- and a huge need for parking -- as well as a lot of existing buildings there, I think the was always going to be limited. Tysons East and Tyons west is where the new urban stuff needs to go.

Man that elevated railroad is going to be ugly.

by charlie on Jun 29, 2011 3:23 pm • linkreport

Breaking out of the old model is apparently really hard to do. It's easier (and cheaper) to do a "cut and paste" of an existing development. And most developers and banks just assume that their customers will arrive in cars, and so they plan giant asphalt parking lagoons to surround their new developments. I have a feeling we'll be seeing this for another 20 or 30 years, until the current crop of developers who came of age in the auto era die or retire.

by Kara on Jun 29, 2011 3:25 pm • linkreport

Breaking the old model is especially hard with the very limited number of land owners in Tysons. Instead of focusing on one small block at a time, the developers are throwing out these massive plans that do look very similar to existing development in Tysons. Fortunately, there won't be the office demand in Tysons to build these dozens and dozens of buildings that have been proposed, so there should be time to make things better.

by xtr657 on Jun 29, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

Yeah, Lerner is the one who insisted on the parking garages at Nats Stadium that severely hamper the view to the north. Fairfax County should insist that it re-review the plans. He is very litigious however...

by NikolasM on Jun 29, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

Great article. How do we get this information to the decision makers. Who are they?

@oboe
How did your index do on the news of lengthy delays for the streetcars and possible cancellation of cycle tracks? Suburbs aren't the only, place that can screw things up.

by Falls Church on Jun 29, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

Perhaps the Lerners should do X and Y and Z, but all they're obligated to do is what is required by the Fairfax County codes and zoning ordinances. If Fairfax were serious about reshaping Tysons, that commitment would be reflected in the standards imposed on new development. It's all well and good to have a "Master Plan" for Tysons, but if it's toothless you're going to get more of Tysons present and less of Tysons future.

by Nate on Jun 29, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

"Man that elevated railroad is going to be ugly."

No one wanted to pony up the extra money for the Tyson's tunnel, so we've stuck with the elevated line. Subway construction in the U.S. is ridiculously expensive compared to the rest of the world.

by Kara on Jun 29, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

@w,

the Learners didn't have a choice on the location of Nationals Park. The city was already building it when MLB awarded the Learners the team. What they did get, though, was the addition of those atrocious above-ground parking garages.

by Birdie on Jun 29, 2011 3:57 pm • linkreport

Subway construction in the U.S. is ridiculously expensive compared to the rest of the world.

Look at the cost estimates for London Crossrail. We get a bargain compared to what Europe pays.

Yeah, Lerner is the one who insisted on the parking garages at Nats Stadium that severely hamper the view to the north.

They're the ones responsible for that?? Good riddance.

Their development proposal is a replication of the towers in the park movement that became obsolete many years ago.

To be fair, you need to have a park in order to complete the "towers in the park" design paradigm. I don't see that being proposed here.

"Man that elevated railroad is going to be ugly."

Looking at Sand Box John's photos in the other thread, I'd have to say "Yes and No." Many portions of the line are being built as a "skyway" with the elevated segments very high off of the ground, single support columns, and a minimal visual profile.

This is vastly preferable to the elevated railroads of yore, which Metrorail was specifically designed not to emulate (note that virtually none of the original system runs aboveground parallel to local streets). Unfortunately, there are a few segments that look like they're going to be hulking masses, built close to the ground. The stations look particularly awful.

by andrew on Jun 29, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

The rendering is similar to the plan on Lerner's website, but here's what's on their site as well. As you can see, it's even worse than the rendering above.

http://www.tysons2.com/master.html

by Nikolai on Jun 29, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

"Falls Church" asked who the decision-makers are. At the outset know that a number of the planners in the county are concerned and are working to address urban design. More detailed design standards are in work. But input is always helpful to show the demand for the best possible walkable/bikeable urban design.

Here are the emails for the Fairfax Board of Supervisors:

I placed the emails in the following order: Chairman Bulova, and Supervisors Cook, Foust, Frey, Gross, Herrity, Hudgins, McKay, Hyland, Smyth.

The districts for Foust, Smyth and Hudgins all touch on or include parts of Tysons.

chairman@fairfaxcounty.gov
braddock@fairfaxcounty.gov
dranesville@fairfaxcounty.gov
sully@fairfaxcounty.gov
mason@fairfaxcounty.gov
springfield@fairfaxcounty.gov
hntrmill@fairfaxcounty.gov
leedist@fairfaxcounty.gov
mtvernon@fairfaxcounty.gov
provdist@fairfaxcounty.gov

by Stewart Schwartz on Jun 29, 2011 4:09 pm • linkreport

The Lerners are stupid and cheap, which is a lethal combination.

Sand Box's picture of the station area (as best as I can tell)

http://mysite.verizon.net/cambronj/wmata/DCMP_2011-05-07_N03_Gantry2.htm

Ugly. Very Ugly. And the plan on the website is even uglier.

You've got to think those developers just wanted metro so they can now bid for GAO office leases...

by charlie on Jun 29, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church:

The L&M cycletrack issue is actually quite a good analogy. There's a last-minute failure of political will similar to the kind we keep seeing in the suburbs. (Though there's obviously a difference of degree between the decision to build a bike lane now, or a year from now, or never, versus a massive development that will change the character of a neighborhood for decades to come.)

But you'll notice there's a fundamental little-c conservativism going on that's preventing change in the case of the cycletracks, and that conservativism works to maintain the current fabric of the city. Those same forces of conservativism work to maintain the current fabric of the suburbs. It shows how difficult it is--even in one of the most progressive jurisdictions in the country--to alter the built environment in any other direction from the status quo.

(The streetcar situation is different: it's a problem with execution. The situations would be analogous if Gray had announced that, rather than build out a streetcar system, they were going to instead build an elevated eight-lane overpass on top of H Street called "The Streetcar Expressway".)

Don't get me wrong, the only reason DC is at an advantage on the urban agenda is that it's the status quo. If we had to retrofit an existing sprawling suburban mess, there's even less chance we'd be able to do it either. Ironically, it's largely thanks to the political incompetence of previous administrations that DC has retained the built environment that makes it unique among local jurisdictions.

For all the tweaking, I hope Tyson's makes a successful transformation--though obviously I'm skeptical that the experts can overcome the incredible inertia inherent in the system.

by oboe on Jun 29, 2011 4:32 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church:

How did your index do on the news of lengthy delays for the streetcars and possible cancellation of cycle tracks?

Forgot to answer your question: I think the streetcar / cycle-track news accounts for the relatively small increase in the index this week. I would've thought news that the Lerners were planning on re-creating Crystal City 1.0 in the heart of Tysons 2.0 would've driven the index much higher than 1.33%

by oboe on Jun 29, 2011 4:38 pm • linkreport

@ oboe; as usual, you are way wrong. Crystal city would be an improvement.

by charlie on Jun 29, 2011 4:46 pm • linkreport

Stewart Schwartz is correct. Lerner received its rezoning under the former Comp Plan. Despite citizen opposition, Macerich also received approval under the old plan even as the new plan was under study. Those are both done deals and require no major approvals unless they make significant changes in their plans.

But also read the Tysons 527 TIA. It shows that automobile and truck traffic will continue to dominate Tysons even with rail, more bus transit, and quality mixed use development.

VDOT is also insisting that the new blocks in Tysons be 400-600 feet in order to provide better traffic flow and avoid air pollution. Some want shorter blocks, but VDOT owns the roads.

by tmtfairfax on Jun 29, 2011 4:50 pm • linkreport

@charlie,

That was not intended to be a factual statement.

by oboe on Jun 29, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

@tmtfairfax:

Stewart Schwartz is correct. Lerner received its rezoning under the former Comp Plan. Despite citizen opposition, Macerich also received approval under the old plan even as the new plan was under study. Those are both done deals and require no major approvals unless they make significant changes in their plans.

See, there's your problem, if you had the Boeotian bureaucratic culture we District residents enjoy, these guys would still be waiting for DCRA to process their application. You Virginians are too efficient by half.

by oboe on Jun 29, 2011 5:07 pm • linkreport

Oboe - point well taken. Efficiency can be more costly sometimes. The presence of the then Chairman of the Fairfax County BoS had a major impact as well. Gerry Connolly was a strong supporter of these two approvals.

by tmtfairfax on Jun 29, 2011 5:37 pm • linkreport

When you have very tall height limits, as opposed to the ones in DC, there are ways to build above ground parking and still honor the urbanism model effectively. I've seen new skyscaper office buildings in downtown Seattle where they have two levels of below ground parking, a ground floor with retail, then more parking on floors 2-4. Then everything above was office. I think that's fine. Building a garage 5 or 6 levels deep is very expensive and people don't really want to park that deep. Splitting the garage the way I've described decreases costs and allows the different users for the garage use to be segregated some.

All that said, I doubt that's what the Lerner's are proposing given their other anti-urban elements.

by Paul S on Jun 29, 2011 5:51 pm • linkreport

It sucks that this is a done-deal, but I'd hope that the county would place a higher priority in making sure that the areas adjacent to metro stations get developed properly. There's plenty to dislike about this plan. I think shorter setbacks, smaller blocks and a few more through streets would go a long way. It's also disturbing that there's not more street-level retail. It's bad enough that such large blocks have to get developed together with the way things are done, but the county needs to understand that they will not have another shot at this and should do it right the first time.

I'm not always against above-ground parking garages or above-ground rail, but this master plan doesn't adhere to the kind of vision that the county has been putting forth.

by Vik on Jun 29, 2011 6:09 pm • linkreport

The Lerners run a bad team, made horrible design choices around their new stadium, and are going to attempt to throttle any good urban design in Tysons. Why is this surprising?

by Michael on Jun 29, 2011 6:29 pm • linkreport

@charlie:

You've got to think those developers just wanted metro so they can now bid for GAO office leases...

Exactly, which explains why they aren't building to the lot line or putting in street-level retail. GAO's post-9/11 rules require big setbacks to discourage truck bombs and no retail that might encourage foot traffic...

by aces on Jun 29, 2011 7:15 pm • linkreport

With a bit of creativity, you still create an inviting urban area despite the anti-terrorism requirements, as shown by some of the newer local developments. Unless the county makes it clear what it wants, the path to least resistance may be the status quo, which has lead to some rather sterile environments. Maybe that is the best we can hope to achieve in the areas where lots of office space is going. But, one of the highest priorities of the county with respect to Tysons has been to increase the residential population of the area.

I'm not up to date with every detail of the Tysons plans, but I hope neighborhoods with their own unique feel can develop in Tysons at some point. It may be a crappy way to look at this but, a few developments like these may not be the end of the world if there are at least some pockets here and there that actually do urbanism "right".

by Vik on Jun 29, 2011 8:21 pm • linkreport

Urbanism in a sprawlburg will require a learning curve. just look at how Arlington moved from the mistakes of Rosslyn and Crystal City through the semi-success of Ballston to reach the Court House-Clarendon corridor. All of these places had unique circumstances but reflected the conventional wisdoms of their time for what you did in an inner ring suburban environment, which tended to be the similar to what was done in urban centers (superblocks, unrelated single purpose skyscrapers, etc). There aren't good examples for a place like Tysons and Fairfax is the kind of developer friendly place that fails to challenge any accepted notions about suburbia. This isn't Bethesda, which had an existing grid and was able to evolve into a livelier environment by adding housing. It isn't Silver Sping, either, which has more in common with Arlington.

The funny thing is that Lerner probably could make more money if they did this in a more urban way. Less parking more density. Tysons is an odd place in that despite apparently very intensive land use, there are surprisingly large unbuilt parcels, which probably helps create the illusion that this will remain a suburban wonderland. If the County is stuck with an old plan and Lerner is stuck with old ideas, then perhaps the only leverage is via their likely tenants and any way in which they can be influenced.

by Rich on Jun 29, 2011 8:29 pm • linkreport

Rich, Less parking more density. That is not exactly right. The density at both Lerner and Macerich is limited because they developed under the old Comp Plan (although they both got plenty of density). The only landowners who can get unlimited density are those who are right on the stations and developing under the new Comp Plan. But even there, we have the problem of finding funding for the $1.7 billion in new roads that must be built to allow Tysons to grow to 84 million square feet by 2030. There are also huge coordination issue. For example, how do sidewalks connect with each other for pedestrian access to Metro when there is a non-developing parcel in between a developing parcel and a rail station? How long (40 or 50 years) will it take before the grid of streets becomes functional?

The Planning Commission is making progress on finding interim parking at the rail stations. This might be similar to what used to exist at some R-B Corridor stations or it might include larger structures. But taxpayers will be able to use rail better. Increased ridership will be good for the Silver Line.

One needs to ignore the rhetoric from the Task Force and look at what is going on now to understand Tysons' potential and limitations.

by tmtfairfax on Jun 30, 2011 8:34 am • linkreport

@tmtfairfax: They could always request a variance. This is a developer-friendly jurisdiction and this wouldn't be the first time. Doing that might help push the process of revising mid-century plans that probably already have been violated.

by Rich on Jun 30, 2011 9:58 am • linkreport

@andrew

Londons Crossrail project is hardly an average metro construction project. It's a full size underground commuter line with trains running 100 mph above ground and 60 mph below. The train will be 200 meters in length and hold (all stations will be built to allow 240m trains to call).

Having learned the lessons of skimping on capacity on Central London tunnels (Victoria Line), It seems planners seem to want to build super stations that can cope with 40 years of growth. These stations are so big they often connect with different stations at each end of the platform.

In France or Spain the name of the game is to expand coverage to as a large an area as possible. Smaller trains and simple stations keep costs low. In these countries if you run out of capacity then they know they will just build more lines instead. In the UK a new line is a rare thing it may take decades for a route to come to fruition. So when it finally arrives you want it to be able to cope for decades to come because there might not be anything else built for a long time. Not much was built in the UK since WW2, due to preference for new roads and the deliberate depopulation of London.

These trends have reversed so the rate of new lines has accelerated in the last 20 years and these lines seem to be getting ever more expensive.

Some are questioning the quantity quality trade off on new lines, we need lots new capacity but at these prices we won't be able to build many of them.

by Rational Plan on Jun 30, 2011 10:51 am • linkreport

Rich,

I agree that Lerner could also request some type of change, but more density might be very hard to obtain. The real problems are: 1) Tysons will generate huge amounts of additional vehicle traffic as it grows; and 2) there is not a plan to fund all of the transportation infrastructure to help Tysons grow. Keep in mind that Tysons' projected rail share is less than the RB Corridor and Bethesda. Car is king in Tysons and will remain so.

The County has a ceiling of 45 million square feet on office. Once 45 million is built or approved, the County has to figure out whether any more can be built.

Also, we reach total transportation failure at 84 million square feet. Lerner would be competing with everyone else for more density. I suspect Fairfax County would want more proffers for that density, so I suspect Lerner will just build what it is allowed to build.

by tmtfairfax on Jun 30, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

" Indeed, tall, iconic buildings could help Tysons to be perceived as a true urban center."

Amen to that! It would be great to see some architecturally distinctive skyscrapers in the New Tysons.

And it's important that they "do" the New Tysons right.

Question: How much residential development is planned? How do they expect the New Tysons to succeed if no one lives there?

Without residents, New Tysons will be just like it is now - a place where the population explodes during the day and shrinks at night, only with more streets, more traffic. and a Metro station.

by ceefer66 on Jun 30, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport

There are about 17,000 residents living in Tysons today, with somewhat more than 100,000 workers. The ultimate goal would be around 100,000 residents and around 200,000 workers. With office in the toilet, many landowners are looking to build residential first. But can they get financing? Can they bring residences to the market at good value? One builder has indicated it will first construct stick buildings with the average apartment size of 850 sq. ft., at a rent averaging $2200. It will be interesting to see how the market reacts.

by tmtfairfax on Jun 30, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

The Tysons II master plan was completed in 1984. Remember 1984? I do - Tysons was still barely more than a crossroads. Certainly the master plan doesn't fit with the current intent or current thought on contemporary master planning.

No one, however, develops for any reason other than maximizing profit. Revisiting the approved master plan would take a decade and cost tens of millions of dollars before anything gets built, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of "interested parties" and commentacracy, including environmentalists, journalists, preservationists, and urban planners. Ted will be dead by that time, and Mark will want to be living in the Carribean.

They're going to built exactly what has been approved and only if the economic conditions point to profit. And I would do the same, whiners be damned. Is it perfect? No. But the perfect is usually the enemy of the good and certainly the enemy of the dollar.

Let's note: The next three buildings the Lerners plan to build will be office buildings and the parking garages will be to the back of the property; a decided improvement compared with the current condition. Some consideration has been given with the next building to be built of street frontage and views, even if the approved master plan and VDOT standards won't let them build a street-front building. After the office buildings go up, all the buildings closest to Metro are planned for either residential or hotel uses - exactly the sort of density that should be right by the Metro. And direct walkways from the Metro to the buildings are planned. I'll guarantee no one wants to walk along the seven-lane semi-freeway that is 123 at that location. Each grouping of 3-4 buildings on each corner of Tysons Blvd and Galleria Drive is designed to have first floor retail and interior pedestrian courtyards. So, while not Greenwich Village, it's an improvement on the existing 4 buildings.

The Lerners are a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. They are doing the best they can within the law and following the letter of the contract that they have been given. Until Fairfax County and VDOT change the rules and force them to adapt by not grandfathering the previous development, they're not going to change, but do the best they can while still expedient.

And for you whiners about the baseball parking, the garages are temporary. Remember? DC and another developer said they were going to deliver underground parking and retail/office development above - but then the development team collapsed and Lerner built garages to satisfy the terms of their deal expeditiously. As soon as the economics justify it, they'll bring down those stupid garages. So go to a ball game, move into southeast, and demand retail services. Then you can look at the Capital and you won't have to worry about Tysons.

by tripsterrific on Jul 1, 2011 6:05 pm • linkreport

This project is well underway so changes are HIGHLY UNLIKELY. The approval process took place some time ago before there was this new 'master plan' for Tyson's. Again, it is ludicrous that we have GAO/FED rules that are anti-people in a sense. Enough already of security...I think we can combat terrorists threats without destroying the look of a free and creative society. Tyson's fate may have been sealed with those above ground stations. Without feeder bus options...the masses will not be climbing hills on hot days to get to their offices or braving winter winds.

by Pelham1861 on Jul 7, 2011 3:08 pm • linkreport

Look at the cost estimates for London Crossrail. We get a bargain compared to what Europe pays.

Well, but we also don't get taxed at the same rate, so there's that.

by LuvDusty on Jul 7, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

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