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Designing for walkability in Fairfax and Loudoun

In a suburban context, developers tend to propose suburban designs for new development. Those designs separate buildings with large amounts of space, fill that space with empty lawns and plazas, and channel traffic to wide boulevards around the periphery of a site. These designs don't lend themselves to walkable environments with lively ground level activity.

If Northern Virginia wants its growing areas, like those along the Silver Line, to become walkable neighborhoods like Arlington, Bethesda and Silver Spring, we need to ensure that new development builds the connected street grid with small blocks common to all of those places, and even more common in older cities like DC and Old Town Alexandria. Unfortunately, many of the developments currently proposed or under construction miss this opportunity.

Last week, DCmud discussed the Towers Crescent development just south of the Tysons Corner Center mall. They have already built several office buildings on the site, and are interested in adding several residential buildings on the west edge. Residential buildings are a good idea, but unfortunately, they've designed them, along with the already-completed buildings, in a very un-urban form.

No streets stretch all the way across the site. There are pedestrian paths from one side to the other, but require people to take a circuitous route around the various and motley buildings, plazas and gardens. Nothing lines up. The mall and Marriott on either side are just as bad, but planners are trying hard to evolve Tysons into more of a walkable place. This design will hinder that evolution.

The plan reflects a "suburban sensibility", a term I first saw used in the context of the Newport development in Jersey City, right across the Hudson from Manhattan. Suburban office park developers design something for a denser, more urban place that looks like a suburban office park, but with all the buildings a little taller and a tad closer together.

Some projects are trying harder. The Connection recently profiled the Dulles World Center, a proposed "town center" style project adjacent to the Dulles Access Road at Route 28, just outside the airport property. The property is very close to the future Route 28 Silver Line station.

The developer is excited about creating a "mixed-use transit-oriented development" including residential, office, and hotels. Of course, some people don't like that idea, including Loudoun Supervisor Andrea McGimsey, who isn't pleased that the project could devote 25% of its space to residential units.

According to the Connection, the project includes "a pedestrian-friendly grid network of streets, a large central park, public plaza and ... LEED certification." The grid is more pedestrian-friendly than most, though the blocks still lean to the large side. Based on this site plan, there appear to be eleven internal intersections, or 89 per square mile. LEED-ND calls for 150 per square mile.

The project still follows the suburban "towers in the park" design, with tall buildings surrounded by a lot of open space. That's far more open space than people could actually use, meaning most of the lawns will function more as voids than parks. On the other hand, by putting the buildings along streets and more of the space in the center, they maximize the opportunities to activate the street with cafes, retail and more.

The more mixed-use TOD we can get around the Silver Line, the more riders it will have and the more we can recoup our investment in this transit line. Still, all development isn't created equal. Entirely suburban designs like Towers Crescent will hinder Tysons' progress toward a walkable place. Dulles World Center, meanwhile, jumps ahead of most of its surroundings, but would look like horrible superblocks in Arlington or DC. We can and should do even better.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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The key is the Metro. After that, a connected human scale street grid. Then, building to the sidewalk.

by Cavan on Feb 26, 2009 4:01 pm • linkreport

I agree with the post: What Towers Crescent does isn't nearly enough. It leaves the little bit of walkable urbanism too isolated from anything else. Sort of like a shopping mall surrounded by parking lots.

I do want to point out though that Crescent was the first Tysons office park to put buildings close to the street. By the standards of the late 90s this was fairly progressive (it shows buildings 8020, 8010 and 8000 from the above site plan).

by BeyondDC on Feb 26, 2009 4:07 pm • linkreport

The Dulles Project looks like Crystal City with landscaping and I'll bet it would be just as dead as Crystal City can be outside of rush hour (and, yes, I'm taking into account the miniscule amount of foot traffic inside the mall). I think part of the problem is the lack of good models for building new urbanism de novo and the limitations of places like Clarendon/Ballston and Silver Spring seem like urbanism as designed by people who develop shopping malls.

Tyson's is an odd area inasmuch as it has a surpsing amount of undeveloped land, but much of it is in places that would not be attractive for much of anything that would give life to the place. A better long-term plan would be to prod builders to move some of the existing stuff to new locations and expensive process, but the only way that the space could really become even semi-urban.

by rich on Feb 26, 2009 4:18 pm • linkreport

I would be shocked if Tysons is able to resemble and urban form in my lifetime. I know it may be possible, but is the will truly there? It would take a tremendous effort to undo some of the damage and lost opportunities of that area (which is currently a poster child for what NOT to do).

There is still hope for the other "silver line" areas if development is done appropriately. I am not impressed with Dulles World Center, at all.

by SG on Feb 26, 2009 4:30 pm • linkreport

I'll also defend Towers Crescent to a degree - there aren't any street connections to Fashion Boulevard and the Tysons Corner Center. There's a huge grade change between the low point of Fashion Boulevard and the internal Towers Crescent roads - it's on the order of 5, 6, or 7 stories of parking deck. Remember that Tysons Corner is atop the high point of Fairfax County - it's a hilly part of town.

I believe there are also property issues. Not all of those roads are public, and most are privately owned. Thus, they were not designed with future connections in mind, and there are legal issues with making those connections now.

I'm not trying to put these items up as excuses, but they are certainly challenges to designing such an environment with an eye towards retrofitting urbanism and walkability.

by Alex B. on Feb 26, 2009 4:32 pm • linkreport

Alex's points are amore articulate form of my critique. I think you'd need to provide incentives for people to bulldoze a lot of things in order to remake the space. If the Silver Line succeeds it might be a catalyst for this, if developers see more prfit in different land uses. OTOH, I suspect that Tyson's may wind-up looking more like Rosslyn than as a functional urban place.

Re: Crystal City, I was referring to the miniscule amount of foot traffic outside of normal working hours. The place is really dead on weekends.

by Rich on Feb 26, 2009 6:35 pm • linkreport

Actually, I'm in the reverse opinion here: the Dulles World Center (sounds very "Epcot") is way too close to the highway and not close enough to the Metro to work. And the "one feeder road" to the Metro stop kills me. The Tysons project, while not exactly being ideal, is kind of like a "city in a box." It doesn't exactly connect with the rest of the landscape well, but eventually, as it becomes surrounded by other "cities in a box," they'll have some real activity there. The Tysons project kind of reminds me of the initial infill development around the Dadeland North and South Metrorail stations in Miami. They were also "suburban ideas about what an urban design is." But eventually, they hit critical mass and they have a fake downtown Dadeland. Is it "real" or as "connected" as a traditionally gridded city? Of course not...but I'd rather have these fake downtowns than the ugly sprawl. I'm frankly amazed that just by adding some skyscrapers, urban pocket parks and hiding the parking that these places can look so much better, "real" or "fake."

by AaroniusLives! on Feb 26, 2009 6:57 pm • linkreport

David, I agree with your critique of the 'empty lawns' of many of these suburban developments. These green spaces add absolutely no value as open space and hinder the walkability of these developments by needlessly separating the buildings. I would prefer to forgo these in order to preserve habitat that actually has value as open space elsewhere. Additionally, the lawns of these developments require a tremendous amount of water and chemicals to keep them so green all of the time, causing further degradation.

by Ben on Feb 26, 2009 7:10 pm • linkreport

I'm sorry, where's the walkable block(s)? Just calling something walkable doesn't make it so.

by MarkM on Feb 27, 2009 12:18 am • linkreport

Maybe this is impractical for some reason, but couldn't those vast empty lawns be turned into a useful space? Athletic fields, playgrounds, and maybe for the bigger spaces, plant trees and turn it into a mini-forest with a trail passing through? Keeping them as lawns is not only useless, it's ugly. But they don't need to be replaced with more buildings to fix that.

by Scott on Feb 27, 2009 12:32 am • linkreport

Prince George's County ought to have a smile on its face. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

I honestly would have hoped that the Silver Line would have learned from the Green Line's mistakes, but alas it looks like history will be doomed to repeat itself.

by Dave Murphy on Feb 27, 2009 2:10 am • linkreport

Corbusier, and that sacred cow facist a$$hole of USA "architecture"- F L Wright- and his cousin the equally evil Robert Moses- all would have approved of these new tower in the park designs- with one exception...where is the new freeway[s]? They didn't like trains or mass transit either.

by w on Feb 27, 2009 8:07 am • linkreport

Good pull on Towners Crescent - it exemplifies well how many areas of Tysons are destined to become better than they are now, but not perhaps fully integrated into the urban fabric of other areas, despite hitting a certain "FAR".

The sheer power of the effect of a single Cul-de-sac to destroy urban, humane intent is quite amazing. But the irony is that even if your site does not provide room for cars to traverse continuously, there is usually ample opportunity for visual cues and sidewalk connections to the grid around one's property. But this developer doesn't appear to be taking full advantage of those opportunities.

by stevek_fairfax on Feb 28, 2009 8:13 am • linkreport

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