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Will Tysons halfway plan bolster or doom the future city?

A few anti neighbors aside, Fairfax County leaders and advocates broadly agree with the goal of transforming our nation's largest and most successful suburban office park district into an urban city, where most residents and workers travel in ways other than single-passenger vehicles. But nobody has done this before on such a scale, and there is less consensus on how, exactly, to achieve the vision.

A Tysons task force has spent years developing a plan for a city with 113 million square feet of development, with four high-density districts centered around four Metro stations and four other, lower density districts farther out that transition to the adjoining suburban neighborhoods.

It's a compelling vision, but acolytes of traditional traffic modeling worry. Their models show that the traffic generated by this level of development would overtax existing roadways, and Fairfax County staff therefore concluded that the plan couldn't succeed without new exits off the Beltway and new collector-distributor lanes on the Toll Road.

However, traditional traffic modeling also has its flaws. As Congressman Gerry Connolly noted recently, we can only imagine what Pierre L'Enfant's traffic modelers would have said about his crazy idea to build a city along the Potomac, had he proposed it today.

We have living proof that cities much larger than Tysons can exist; Arlington did it with the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Tysons will be far larger, about the size of the L'Enfant Plaza/Navy Yard area of DC, according to COG. The question is how to create the reality that should be possible in a place that's far more car-dependent now.

Last month, Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn proposed cutting the plan in half temporally, developing about ¾ the proposed density in the next 20 years instead of planning for the full 40. Alcorn's plan would also eliminate set density maximums, instead having Fairfax planners and the Board of Supervisors evaluate each proposal as the developers applied for them.

The Sierra Club endorsed Alcorn's plan, arguing that the full Tysons requires more and better transit than just the Metro stations, and the exact nature of that transit and financing for it is not yet clear. They prefer the shorter planning horizon to ensure that the transit to the periphery, and from other parts of the County to Tysons besides just the east-west Silver Line, get built.

On the other hand, the Audubon Society advocated for a complete plan. In her testimony at a recent hearing, Audubon's Stella Koch said,

Unlike many plans where a piecemeal approach may work, Tysons Corner redevelopment is different. This plan must be implemented as a whole or it falls apart. Without the internal grid of streets, transportation inside of Tysons does not work. Without an integrated network of sidewalks and paths, and inviting shops and storefronts, people do not want to walk to destinations. The Tysons Vision must be implemented as a whole.
Developers with parcels farther from Metro stations say the change would chill development, "particularly in the non-transit oriented development areas. However, development in the non-transit oriented areas are precisely those that will generate the traffic that people are worried about.

Making those landowners wait longer, until the city grows in a way that facilitates good transit to the parcels, makes sense. On the other hand, many landowners have been waiting for this Tysons plan to build; it's also possible they'll just build a strip mall or other auto-intensive land use that will be harder to replace in 20 years. As Koch wrote, "If insufficient density allotments in the four outlying parts of Tysons induce by-right development and the lack of contribution to the grid of streets or any other part of the plan necessary to the success of Tysons, the plan fails."

A big part of the plan, and reasons environmentalists like Koch are so excited, is that it makes the property owners invest in substantial amenities. There's the street grid, which everyone agrees is essential, state-of-the-art stormwater management, transit, streetscapes and more. The Alcorn plan could focus Tysons growth around Metro stations first, but it could also cut out profitability enough that Fairfax won't be able to get these amenities.

Moreover, Alcorn's proffer-by-proffer approach makes it more likely the urban vision will become compromised in the future. We have a lot of suburban sprawl because it's often politically the path of least resistance. It's hard to insist on no development, because a property owner pushes hard for the right to build, but also hard to allow denser development, because the volume of neighbors' objections seems exponentially (or at least geometrically) related to the nearby density.

The ideal Smart Growth design for a city would have no development in some areas and more development in others, but that's really hard to implement when different property owners own each piece, as we saw with the Great Seneca Science Corridor (formerly Gaithersburg West, aka "Science City"). Therefore, most of the time, you end up with low-density development spread evenly, which from an urbanism, transit, and environmental point of view is the worst kind.

If the Fairfax County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors have to debate each development one by one, it'll be tempting just to cut each one down a little, then the next a little more. Each decision might sacrifice a small amount of amenities, but that would be like boiling a frog slowly, where the frog doesn't notice until it's dead. With a larger plan, we can see how many amenities are or aren't there all at once.

This is all very tricky because Fairfax is trying to build a city not from nothing, not in the pre-auto age, but today. We know that wonderful cities can exist today because we have some, like Washington, DC. But Washington grew very slowly. The L'Enfant Plan only covered a small area, and even most of that wasn't filled up for many, many years. Building cities a bit at a time worked.

However, that happened during the pre-auto age. Cities grew from the center outward because transportation required it. Streetcar lines accelerated growth, but only along key corridors. Most land stayed agricultural because it was too hard to get to. Also, zoning didn't even exist to limit what could be built near the transit stations or downtown. Today, we can nearly instantaneously convert hundreds of acres into strip malls and housing developments, and residents fight everything. That means that without a good plan, everything can fill up with sprawl in the blink of an eye.

Is it better to plan out a complete city now, even though some of the transportation elements aren't fully fleshed out? Maybe necessity will force a solution, or maybe traffic will just cripple everything. Or is it better to start smaller and go from there? Maybe that will create a better city, or maybe it'll just forego the chance to build one at all. Good organizations are coming out on both sides of this issue.

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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I'd prefer if they stuck to the whole plan but I can see the merit in scaling back in certain areas. I don't think those should come from the infrastucture commitments. They should still push ahead with the street grid and keep the high density districts around the metro stations and upping the intensity for the further out areas as we figure how to get transit to those areas.

Sort of off topic, has anyone ever floated the idea of a streetcar or LRT down chainbridge through vienna. I know reading about a form based zoning for annadale but what about Vienna which in terms of walkability and good urban design is one of your better options in Fairfax county at least.

by Canaan on May 6, 2010 2:39 pm • linkreport

Reading over again it seems like I compeletly missed how the alcorn plan basically is what I said. I prefer the county go 100% but it seems like in the face of mounting obstacles the alcorn may be more sensible in order to accomodate all parties. Even if some of those parties are misguided about change to tysons will mean for all fairfax residents.

by Canaan on May 6, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

Long ago, modelers figure out that once you reach a certain point, roads won't help. Auto-oriented development needs to be actively discouraged within a half-mile or so of each station, because there will be no way to accommodate it. The Metro extension should get them thinking in new directions, not retreating from them.

by Rich on May 6, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

I think Alcorn's plan could work. Some sort of oversight and regulation over what kinds of buildings and infrastructure get built could be present for areas away from transit. But I like the idea of taking the max density requirement away because I think many some projects could exceed the original density caps for some areas, like adjacent to the stops. Some developers wanted the previous cap raised so perhaps some will be eager to push the limit with the county's consent, at least next to the metro.

Some of the leaders are committed to a bold vision and the developers want this as well. Obviously there needs to be proper infrastructure upgrades, but I think the people in charge have come to the conclusion that more transit is the way to go and that these farther-out areas will have the opportunity to develop in a way consistent with what's trying to be accomplished.

We've had discussions in the past, I think on BeyondDC, with future wishlists and whatnot for LRT/streetcar and a line from GMU somehow along 123 has come up before. There are areas that are narrow and winding between Fairfax and Vienna that would be tough, but I think it would definitely work from Vienna to Tysons.

by Vik on May 6, 2010 5:33 pm • linkreport

Tyson's is becoming a city when did I miss that.

by kk on May 6, 2010 6:53 pm • linkreport

I hate to be the one to bring this up, but the Silver Line isn't going to have that much capacity, and it will ostensibly take capacity away from the western end of the Orange Line (Vienna-Fairfax, Dunn Loring, and West Falls Church, which admittedly will probably lose some ridership to the Silver Line).

The Tyson's Corner stations will only have about 40% of the capacity of places like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rosslyn, which all have full capacity stations that helped stir their growth. It's possible, but it's definitely more difficult to turn an office park into a city with less transit than most of the core areas.

by Dave Murphy on May 7, 2010 12:17 am • linkreport

The Silver Line gives a substantial mass transit option for folks coming from the West (Reston) and East (Arlington/DC/PG County). In theory...the HOT lanes will give a mass transit option to long haul commuters from Springfield and beyond via commuter buses.

However, a majority of Tysons commuters come from medium distance points South (Fairfax, Centreville, Falls Church, Annandale, Burke, etc.) and will be in a donut hole of NO SUBSTANTIAL MASS TRANSIT OPTION besides infrequent buses that will sit in the same traffic as cars.

Dedicated bus lanes along the 3 southern routes (which could in the future be converted to streetcars) will be essential to avoid rush hour nightmares into a new Tysons:

GALLOWS ROAD (where ROW already exists for a 3rd lane in each direction all the way from Fairfax Hospital, through Merrifield to Tysons). Much of the road MAY be in fact wide enough already to simply re-paint the lines and re-work intersections to make room for a 3rd bus lane in each direction. a 3rd lane is already under construction through Merrifield, we just need the political will to mandate that it be painted as "Bus/Right Turns ONLY". I stress how INEXPENSIVE the Gallows option would be.

LEESBURG PIKE (ROW exists for a 3rd lane from Tysons to the City of Falls Church line and the WFC Metro, at which point priority signaling could take place to Baily's Crossroads and Alexandria.

CHAIN BRIDGE RD (ROW exists for a 3rd lane from Tysons to about the turn at the country club on Maple Ave).

by stevek_fairfax on May 7, 2010 8:51 am • linkreport

It is admirable to try to employ the lessons learned in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor to Tysons, but my problem is that even with twice as many connection points between the Tysons Corner side roads and the three highways that choke the area you still have what is essentially a planned city completely choked off by single family neighborhoods and park/flood land. You will never (without destroying dozens of modern, upscale neighborhoods) be able to have the type of grid pattern or street connectivity that Arlington or any other city has. This is why the highways will always be overcapacity as the side roads all funnel on to them. In Arlington or DC, there are an infinite number of ways to get from Point A to Point B, whereas in Tysons, you have a very finite number of ways to enter or leave the area. Even with the few additional roads they are planning, I see this as the biggest problem moving forward. It is too insulated to function on a very large scale and most of the people working there for the foreseeable future will still have to drive their cars to work, or to the metro stations along the Toll Road.

by xtr657 on May 7, 2010 9:06 am • linkreport

One of the keys to infilling Tysons with more development will be what types of uses are built and how they are phased. As a number of responders above accurately point out, upping the density just because we will soon have 4 metro stations will not in itself make Tysons a better place (let alone anything resembling a walkable city)due to the limitations of the street network (which really isn't a network) and limited reach of metro relative to where employees & customers live. Adding residential (dense residential) would not significantly worsen traffic since residents would be driving against the flow if they don't work there, though ideally they're riding metro to Arlington or DC. Tysons needs housing to balance it's lopsided mix of residents to worker-bees. Housing (in general) is over-built at the moment and financing will no doubt remain a challenge until we're clear of the subprime mess, but it is the one use that will help Tysons to begin moving toward something resembling a real downtown.

by michael-in-vienna on May 7, 2010 2:37 pm • linkreport

What ever we do,we must leave space for a future bypass.As cities grow near one another, they should not become obstacles for neighboring cities.

by Ali on May 23, 2010 2:29 pm • linkreport

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