Greater Greater Washington

With its new plaza, Tysons begins to feel urban

Metro's Silver Line isn't the only indication the transformation of Tysons Corner is clearly underway. Further undeniable evidence: The Plaza, a popular new urban-style open space at the front door to Tysons Corner Center mall.


All photos by Dan Malouff except where noted.

The Plaza (that's its official name) is on the north side of the mall, near the pedestrian bridge from the Tysons Corner Metro station. Three new high-rises are under construction around the plaza, tightly enclosing the space like a genuine city square.


The Plaza and its surroundings. Original photo by Macerich.

The pedestrian bridge to the Metro station isn't open yet, because the high-rise it connects is still under construction. But when all is said and done, The Plaza will become the main entry point to the mall from the Metro. In a very real sense it will become the center of this emerging urban neighborhood.

Befitting Tysons, The Plaza is a thoroughly contemporary update on the classic city square. There's no marble statue in the middle, no grand fountain like in Dupont Circle. Instead, there are padded couches, small-scale artistic flourishes, and outdoor games.


Couches (left), and sculpted birds (right).


Ping pong (left) and corn hole (right).

The first plaza-fronting retail, a Shake Shack, opened earlier this week. More is coming soon.

One crucial difference between The Plaza and a traditional city square is who owns it. This may masquerade as civic space, but it's clearly private property. Security guards patrol the square, and you can bet homeless people aren't welcome to sleep on benches.

But still, The Plaza is a big step forward for Tysons. It's a genuine gathering place, and people are using it. Even without the Metro connection, plenty of other people were hanging out nearby when I visited last weekend. It's not the kind of place that a mere 20th Century office park would support.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for Arlington County, but his blog posts represent only his own personal views. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives car-free in Washington. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post

Comments

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Thoroughly upscale!

by Scoot on Aug 14, 2014 12:07 pm • linkreport

It still looks very suburban office park and not very urban to me.

by Richard on Aug 14, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

Richard, it suffers from whats around it for sure. Its a case of lets not let perfect be the enemy of good. On Weekend nights its been a legitimately great place for people to gather. It will be better onces the buildings are done because of the "plaza" level retail that will open up, but yes it will always be next to the superblock that is the mall, that makes it difficult.

Its certainly a leap forward from the parking lot that used to be there, but not quite the comprehensive plan goals either... which makes sense because the entire Tysons redevelopment for the mall was approved prior to the comp plan approval.

by Navid Roshan on Aug 14, 2014 12:21 pm • linkreport

Again it might be nice.

It isn't urban.

It is a 21st century office park. Now with cornhole!

by charlie on Aug 14, 2014 12:29 pm • linkreport

It definitely makes being outside pleasant. It also will encourage people to walk between the mall and the metro. What the cannonical definition of "urban" is, I do not know - I guess it matters if you are talking real estate, and trying to talk someone into living in Clarendon, or Foggy Bottom, instead of Tysons - but in terms of this being a big improvement with much promise, I don't think it matters.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 14, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

Looks a little sterile but overall I like it.

by h st ll on Aug 14, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport

Lord knows DC and Rosslyn-Ballston looked completely different one week before and one week after the Metro opened. It certainly didn't take years/decades for transformation to happen.

Sheesh, people, get some perspective!

by MLD on Aug 14, 2014 12:47 pm • linkreport

So why does everyone condemn bridges and tunnels and such in Ballston, Crystal City and other urban areas cause it takes people away from street level but here it is perfectly fine ?

If this is so called becoming urban why is there not anyone saying anything against the bridges and not asking why the sidewalks around the south metro entrance to the mall not expanded; whats with the hypocrisy.

The plaza could have been built directly below where it is, along with better sidewalks all around the mall connecting the metro entrance to the mall via a network of sidewalks.

by kk on Aug 14, 2014 12:50 pm • linkreport

"So why does everyone condemn bridges and tunnels and such in Ballston, Crystal City and other urban areas cause it takes people away from street level but here it is perfectly fine ?"

Because rte 123 is a lost cause - its too wide, too fast, and too ped unfriendly even for its size and speed for the benefits of a crossing at the surface to be worth it. Unless and until there is both a radical change in VDOT, and also a change in the politics of Fairfax, esp in areas like McLean, that will not change.

Crytal City, by constrast has narrow streets with slow speeds. So its better to deemphasize the underground. Or are you talking about the tunnel under Rte 1?

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 14, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

I agree with Navid et al. The plaza, while not as "urban" as many would prefer and perhaps lacking a high degree of architectural merit, is a substantial improvement over the previous conditions. Everyone please remember that this area was until very recently just a parking lot adjacent to the small street connecting the mall to Route 123. While not perfect, what was entirely pedestrian unfriendly is now moving smartly into becoming an inviting and human scale space. I think that is something we can all applaud.

I have not visited there yet, but this reminds me of other recently built public spaces in Northern Virginia. I am thinking specifically about the splash park and seating area next to the Giant along Columbia Pike and the small plaza (with coffee shop and, again, a splash park!) between the movie theater and Target at the Mosaic development in Merrifield. These spaces are new and novel for their surrounding communities and so as can be expected they have a certain anti-septic and kitschy feel. But they are drastic improvements nonetheless and I welcome them.

by ndw_dc on Aug 14, 2014 1:05 pm • linkreport

They’ll have concerts and movies in that space too. Better than Ezra is actually playing there tomorrow night (they were pretty popular in the mid 1990s, though less so now).

I’m excited for the area. It’s not perfect, but it’s a huge step up from where it used to be. One of the three new towers is complete and activity being used (a corporate office). The other two aren’t far behind (a hotel and an apartment tower).

The public space vs. private space idea is interesting though. I left the mall as it was closing a few days ago. I had planned to walk through the plaza, go down to street level, and walk over to the metro to head home. Instead, a security guard told me that I couldn’t go that way because the mall was closed, and pointed me to another exit instead (with a lovely view of the mall’s dumpsters). Hopefully, that’s a temporary problem that goes away once the hotel / apartment towers open.

by Jason on Aug 14, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

Re: hypocrisy on tunnels and pedestrian bridges

CrossingBrooklynFerry said it well. The difference in Tysons is that 123 is basically a highway unto itself. Short of an underground station, a pedestrian walkway was always going to be the best alternative alongside a high speed corridor like 123. I suspect that had the walkway to the metro been at grade instead, the pedestrian experience would have been no better. A bridge is certainly not ideal, but it beats certain death coming at you from 60 mph (which is how fast many drivers travel on 123).

by ndw_dc on Aug 14, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

While I'm sure to be flamed by a certain overzealous Tysons cheerleader, I agree with charlie and others in that it's hardly urban. I really like the development itself, especially the residential tower (which I believe will be the tallest in the region). However, as soon as you step off the property you find a very hostile pedestrian environment. The development is very inwards focused and ignores the surrounding area.

by King Terrapin on Aug 14, 2014 1:11 pm • linkreport

Re: Urban

Yeah, I wouldn't try to compare Tysons to any place whether urban or suburban. It's going to be it's own thing.

Rather than applying the urban/suburban yardstick here, I'd apply the successful/unsuccessful measuring tool. I'd bet this will become a very successful and activated space similar to the plaza at the heart of Merrifield Town Center.

As for the rest of Tysons, I'd measure their success in terms of attracting people (both residents and visitors/workers). On that basis, they're already very successful and their plans will likely take their success to the next level.

by Falls Church on Aug 14, 2014 1:23 pm • linkreport

It felt hopelessly sterile to me when I visited last week. Sure it will fill in a bit with age, but when even the mall wasn't playing canned music inside, sure enough the speakers underneath the benches were blasting pop music, not exactly serenity. All in all it felt like a another a place to hustle on through, if I lingered any longer I'd feel trapped in a doll-house.

by Petrarch on Aug 14, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

Yea, there's really no one-size-fits-all rule regarding bridges/tunnels and urbanism/urbanity. Hong Kong is a giant maze of bridges, to the point that people rarely set foot on ground level. No one would suggest Hong Kong isn't urban (or, to use that awful buzzword, "vibrant").

by Dizzy on Aug 14, 2014 1:30 pm • linkreport

@ ndw_dc, CrossingBrooklynFerry

You are both missing the point that you don't have to cross 123 to reach the Metro. There is a bridge leading from the actual station to escalators and buys bays.

I'am talking about the pedestrian bridge that leads from the Metro bridge to the Vita Apartments and Plaza. If you look in the photo above you can see what I'am talking about.

As the pedestrian bridge is closed right now you have to go to ground level and cross over and either walk though Lord and Taylor or one of the exits that lead behind the mall near Lord and Taylor. I was saying after a person descends the escalators they should walk on ground level beside the Vita Apartment Building and Lord & Taylor on sidewalks.

Route 123 does not have anything to do with it I consider the stations the same as West Falls Church, Dunn Loring or Vienna which are over I-66.

by kk on Aug 14, 2014 1:30 pm • linkreport

I do note the public-private disinciton. IIUC both Penrose Park and the plaza in Mosaic are formally public parks, as The Plaza is not. While I don't think either Penrose or Mosaic have become hot places for protests and rallies, the free speech issues presented by the public place being private property are not trivial.

And again, in many ways this IS urban. It encourages outdoor recreation, it links to metro, it visually balances with high density. That the places NEAR it are not urban does not mean this plaza is not urban.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 14, 2014 1:32 pm • linkreport

@Petarch

Merrifield's plaza had the same problem with noise initially. They have a giant TV blasting commercials into the plaza. They eventually put it on mute which solved 80% of the problem. Now, on a nice day, the plaza is full of people.

Hopefully, the managers of the Tysons plaza will solve the noise problem too.

by Falls Church on Aug 14, 2014 1:33 pm • linkreport

but KK, the point is that there is never going to be retail facing north toward the metro at surface level because of rte 123. So there is no benefit to pushing more peds to grade level. And unlike many places with above relatively dead above grade spaces, the second floor at Tysons is every bit as vibrant a location as the first floor at Tysons. I mean unless you remove the mall and replace with a grade level neighborhood, I just don't see the harm from the ped bridge here. I do not see it as comparable to places like Crsystal City Underground, to Rosslyn, or to the other skywalks. BTW no one is suggesting that CCU be closed, AFAIK. Merely that CC be more oriented to the surfane, which is what ArlCo is implementing.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 14, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

Judging from the photos it looks pretty barren and cement-covered. Maybe that will change with time, and if trees grow, but right now it looks like it will be blazing hot in summer and desolate in winter.

by Willow on Aug 14, 2014 1:59 pm • linkreport

@ CrossingBrooklynFerry

Never say never because there already is surface level retail outside Chipotle, Cava, BGR

by kk on Aug 14, 2014 2:20 pm • linkreport

My mistake Elevation Burger not BGR & CAVA

by kk on Aug 14, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

Chipotle, Elevation, and Cava are street level on what count's as a very calm street especially in the context of Tyson's. And directly across from a giant parking garage. But right now a Chipotle and an elevation burger will make money no matter where you set it down.

Anyway, the plaza isn't about avoiding the street level. It seems to say that this is the new street level. Whether it was advisable to do that from the beginning can be debated but it looks like they've incorporated many other best practices in terms of lively public space.

The plaza and Tyson's at large will get better as long as they keep up decent to good work like this.

by drumz on Aug 14, 2014 2:28 pm • linkreport

If there is a pedestrian bridge, how can it be truly urban?

by Randall M. on Aug 14, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

I don't see Tyson stealing any millenials from DC & Arlington anytime soon.

by mike on Aug 14, 2014 2:51 pm • linkreport

I don't see Tysons stealing any millenials from DC or Arlington anytime soon.

by mike on Aug 14, 2014 2:51 pm • linkreport

40-50 years I'm sure parts of Rt.123 will be decked over and buildings and or parks built on top.

by Josh on Aug 14, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

@Josh - correct. DC is just now decking over 395 downtown and that took decades to correct. Give Tysons 40 some years and the development urge and the locations of the Metro stations may lead to decking over 123/7.

by JDC on Aug 14, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

@Randall M.

Please show me what definition of urbanity you're working off of where pedestrian bridges are mentioned. As Navid said above, let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.

by Mike M on Aug 14, 2014 3:13 pm • linkreport

While Tysons is as urban as it gets in Fairfax, I have to agree that by virtue of this plaza being located next to one of the country's biggest indoor malls (surrounded by parking lots), it is still suburban in character.

Tysons will definitely keep growing, but its office market is pretty topped out and cannot sustain much more growth. The proof is in the rising office vacancy rate, which is 15.3% and rising with negative demand, compared to 9.6% and rising in DC with steady demand.

I can't see too many more office developers pouring into Tysons anytime soon.

by Brett on Aug 14, 2014 3:42 pm • linkreport

@Dizzy

Yes! "Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook" illustrates that vibrant public spaces can exist off the ground, though I fully admit that comparing Tyson's Corner to Hong Kong is apples to cinder blocks.

by richie on Aug 14, 2014 3:46 pm • linkreport

@Randall THANK YOU. That's the article that keeps coming up in my head when I see this sort of thing.

Like, I get it, and lord knows if I've learned anything in this town it's that perfect is in fact the enemy of good enough, but at the same time we are replicating a design that we have explicitly rejected in recent years. It took us 40 years to correct the mistake once, and now we're doing it again? It's lunacy.

by LowHeadways on Aug 14, 2014 4:11 pm • linkreport

@Randall

I'm not saying that skywalks are great. I too have a general distaste for them, as they generally suck life away from the street. But there's basically no way to breathe life into Route 123, which is a six-lane arterial with high traffic speeds. Here is a rare example of a place where a skyway is probably useful. Rosslyn is a different story. The good folks of Arlington managed to avoid I-66 ramroding through the center of Rosslyn, and yet still made the mistake of building skywalks. That, I would contend, is true lunacy.

by Mike M on Aug 14, 2014 4:19 pm • linkreport

This is one plaza, and one ped bridge over a street on the back edge of an indoor mall, a location that is not among the most walkable in Tysons. The Rosslyn skywalks were extensive,and were in done in lieu of making Rosslyn walkable.

IF FFX were planning on a network of skywalks in Tysons to seperate peds from cars, and the streets for cars only, I think folks here would object. But that is not what is happening here. A broad attempt is being made to improve walkability (and bike friendliness) at the surface. One developer, one of the earliest, is creating a bridge at station level. To fill one gap.

Applea and oranges.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 14, 2014 4:19 pm • linkreport

@Mike M: To eliminate the need for Pedestrian walkways, follow these steps:

Step#1 Remove a travel lane
Step#2 Remove turning / slip lanes
Step#3 Extend the sidewalk.
Step#4 Add a cycletrack or some alternative transportation option.
Step#5 Repeat.

by Randall M. on Aug 14, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

I'll need to see the plaza with my own eyes before I pass judgement.

I am however, very glad to see the taller buildings. I am so tired of the 10 to 15-story stumps people around here call "towers".

by august4 on Aug 14, 2014 5:14 pm • linkreport

Wait about 20 years and Tyson's will be very different, but it will take redevelopment of buildings coming to the end of their depreciated life and people linking to the Metro. Expecting big changes right away Is unrealistic. Bridges and tunnels usually create dead zones. Rosslyn is dead and the overpasses have contributed. This isn't Minneapolis which pioneered tem in a large scale. And has a more extreme climate.

by Rich on Aug 14, 2014 6:21 pm • linkreport

@Randall

That would be an ideal solution, for sure. But good luck convincing VDOT...

by Mike M on Aug 14, 2014 7:36 pm • linkreport

I think people need to realize there was an existing condition here that was a problem which created the plaza. Had the plaza been at the old parking lot level, one would have to still cross on a bridge, only to come back down that bridge via escalator, to then cross a dead street adjacent to a parking garage.

Its one of those bring mohamed to the mountain situations. Yea you could tear down the garages, activate the dead street, perhaps get rid of the bridge for metro all together, take away lanes from 123, add more speed controls, so that a person can climb 30-40' to be at the lower plaza... or you could just make a full mezzanine level plaza that connects directly to the elevation of metro.

As many have said, this is one plaza, with one development, that predates the new walkable goals of Tysons in its design and rezoning timing.

There are great other plazas coming that are street level in Tysons, because the topo worked there; see the Arbor Row project, see Georgelas' plans at Spring Hill Station.

In fact I havent seen a single other skywalk proposed by a private developer... so change is happening, what we are seeing is the lag in the change in culture. This stuff still is predating the cultural shift, and development in general is a long process. Let's not judge Tysons on year 4 of its 35 year plan yet; especially when years 5 through 10 are when real implementation is going to happen.

I agree though, true walkability won't happen until the politics and tough choices (Route 7 and 123) are addressed, and we stop talking Toll Road ramps, and instead talking road diets.

by Navid Roshan on Aug 14, 2014 10:29 pm • linkreport

BTW, on the subject of Tysons Cheerleading which Im sure was directed largely to me. If trying to be here at ground level, trying to guide that cultural change, working every day to point out the good AND the bad (which I do quite often as well) then I guess I'm a cheerleader. In the old days that would be called an active citizen who cares about his neighborhood...

But no, you are right, snark and vitriol towards incremental change towards good are much more useful.

by Navid Roshan on Aug 14, 2014 10:32 pm • linkreport

Seeing what amount to vertically stacked streets, with the higher one far more pedestrian-friendly, makes me think of Upper and Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.

by Rob Pegoraro on Aug 14, 2014 11:06 pm • linkreport

Whether you call this urban or not dosen't matter, it's definatly an improvement. I think you have to be thankful for small miracles when the vast majority of our landscape is hostile to pedestrians.

Are the buildings mind-numbingly plain, you betcha, but again, who cares at this point. Simply getting four walls and an urban space is a great start. It's not even a true public space where you're entitled to our constitutional rights (then again look at Ferguson MO). It's going to take decades before the standards of what is good public space becomes as reflexive as before the automobile reshaped our environment. Till then I'll take one glass encolsed 'plaza' with people walking around, thank you.

by Thayer-D on Aug 15, 2014 6:43 am • linkreport

I don't see Tysons stealing any millenials from DC or Arlington anytime soon.

Millenials need jobs (and don't like long commutes) and Tysons is one of the biggest job centers in the country.

Also, Tysons doesn't need to steal any millenials. Fairfax Co. is minting new people of that age group every day and Tysons is a way to retain some of those folks in the county. Just like Silver Spring and Bethesda were ways for MoCo to retain or bring back many of the people I went to HS with in the county.

That said, Tysons is probably going to be most attractive for folks outside of the millenial demographic. Fortunately for Tysons, that's the vast majority of people. It's not just millenials who like things like plazas, restaurants, shopping and metro.

by Falls Church on Aug 15, 2014 2:04 pm • linkreport

It reminds me a lot of the Scoreboard Walk at Nationals Stadium. It definitely needs more mature trees to fill in the view.

by Sam on Aug 15, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

@ Mike M

So how many lanes are on Rockville Pike, New York Ave, Arlington Blvd, Lee Hwy, Rhode Island Ave, Pennsylvania Ave, South Capitol St, Indian Head Hwy, Branch Ave, River Road, Annapolis Rd, Baltimore Ave, North Glebe Rd, Veirs Mill Rd, Georgia Ave, Benning Rd, East Capitol St, North Capitol St, Greenbelt Rd, M St, and Bladensburg Rd?

People all seem to get across those streets

by kk on Aug 15, 2014 5:14 pm • linkreport

Those roads are all pretty awful to cross. That isn't to say we should put skywalks in those locations but I don't think "people cross too-wide roads" all the time is a compelling argument.

by drumz on Aug 15, 2014 5:39 pm • linkreport

I visited this plaza 4 days after the silver line opened. The idea is good, but the biggest problem I see is that when it's all complete there still will be no completely covered access to Tysons Corner Center from the Metro.

It will be interesting to see what happens when it rains and or snows...will folks be willing to travel all that distance in an uncovered plaza? It's baffling to me why they didn't cover it, at least partially?

Besides, adding some sort of roof structure, will provide some much needed shelter from the heat on those hot scorching days we tend to get (this summer being an exception so far) in the DC area. I can see myself just baking out there totally uncovered on a hot day.

by LuvDusty on Aug 20, 2014 1:55 pm • linkreport

That little subset of the Tysons area may indeed be an improvement. But Tysons writ large still remains extremely ped and bike hostile. Especially bike hostile - try lugging one over the pedestrian bridges. And biking on that stretch of 123 is a death wish. I have bike commuted from the Fairfax/Centreville area to the Vienna side of Tysons. But going even one mile further is out of the question.

by DJ on Aug 29, 2014 12:28 pm • linkreport

Cornhole?! Ewww how red-state.

by Ironchef on Aug 29, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

@DJ, depends where you are heading. I agree with 123 as a death wish, but you can avoid if you are heading into the north central region of Tysons also. If you have to cross 495, you are out of luck of course although if you are coming more from the falls church side, you can take the new bike trail around the mall or take the back areas of Pimmit

by Navid Roshan on Sep 9, 2014 4:37 pm • linkreport

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