Transforming Tysons with four unique districts
Last week, the Tysons Land Use Task Force released the most detailed vision report thus far. It divides Tysons into eight districts, four denser clusters (like villages) centered around each of the planned Metro stations, and four along the edges which will transition between the central density and the suburban surrounding neighborhoods.
The authors envision a unique character for each "district". Tysons West could be an arts and entertainment district with hotels, restaurants, live/work lofts, and more. They propose a "specialty retail street" paralleling Route 7 to the north. For Tysons Central 7 (centered on Route 7 just west of the route 123 intersection), the plan suggests a mostly-office district north of 7 (but with mixed-used development to make it 24-hours) and a civic center on the south side.
Tysons Central 123 (east of the 7-123 interchange) is the location of Tysons' two malls, and therefore this area will continue to be the retail hub of the area. The plan calls for more pedestrian-friendly streets (as everywhere in Tysons) and ground-floor retail, with parking shifted from large surface lots to a number of parking structures. Finally, Tysons East, along 123 east of the Beltway, centers around a public park along Scotts Run and three sub-neighborhoods: one residential, one office, and one with an educational focus.
In the more peripheral districts, the plan calls for mostly residential mixed-use development of a more modest scale, more parks, and a circulator connecting them to each other and to the Metro stations.
The plan promotes good urban design throughout. Even in the lower-density areas, almost every block is slated for mixed-use development. Every street, even the major boulevards, should be "complete streets" that balance cars, pedestrians and bicycles with ample greenery. The plan cuts up the blocks into small, human-scale sizes. And it calls for all buildings to engage the street directly with build-to lines, wrapping any above-ground parking with retail, frequent articulation (bays, entrances, changes in building materials), transparency, and lighting.
Still, the plan must contend with Tysons' existing auto-dependent infrastructure. Routes 7 and 123 will have to remain major commuting arteries, though the plan calls for transforming each into a more pedestrian-friendly boulevard with sidewalks, medians, and buildings built up the street. If fills in the street network around the major roads with a grid, but existing curving streets force, at best, a somewhat irregular and therefore somewhat more confusing grid like in Arlington.
Unfortunately, the cloverleaf interchange at 123 and the Beltway will remain, as will the half-cloverleaf at 7 and 123. The intersection of 7 and 123 ought to be a grand crossroads of Tysons; instead, no matter how much we improve the design of the highways themselves, it will never be a really welcoming spot. The planners get around this problem by connecting the street grids to the north, creating a more walkable street that cuts off the corner. But this can't entirely make up for the giant scar at Tysons' center.
Likewise, Tysons East is largely cut off from the rest of Tysons. There are but few and widely separated parallel connecting roads here, with Route 123 the main connection from Central 123 to East. Someone walking from one to the next will have to cross a vast expanse devoted to cars getting on and off 123. The suggested circulators avoid the cloverleaf entirely, meaning people will mainly get to and from East by passing through the lower-density peripheral districts, unless they ride Metro.
If approved, Tysons' evolution into an urban district will take time. The Metro is years from completion, and Tysons is full of existing auto-dependent buildings. Gradually, property owners will redevelop each parcel, and if county officials can hold firm to the vision, over time Tysons will develop into something greater than it is today.
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