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.
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