Taming Tysons Corner

Must reading for those of you interested in the future of Tysons Corner: A group of architects recently proposed a radical redesign of Tysons Corner that calls for more density through increased housing. Check out Roger Lewis' column from Oct. 29.

Tysons Corner's Unique Character Requires Bold Plan for Transformation

BYLINE: Roger K. Lewis


They call themselves the Tysons 4 Collaborative -- a small, loosely organized group of architects, planners and economic development experts with a visionary, undeniably radical plan to reinvent Tysons Corner, if and when Metro extends the Orange Line through its center.

"Taming Tysons Corner: Transforming the Quintessential Edge City" was the catchy title of their presentation at an urban design conference held in Washington this month. The equally catchy conference title, "Communities on the Line: Transit and the Design of 21st Century Communities," succinctly conveyed the overall conference theme: opportunities, obstacles and real-world experience in pursuing transit-oriented development.

The American Institute of Architects, in collaboration with the American Planning Association and the Transportation Department's Federal Transit Administration, sponsored the three-day conference. Many attendees were design and planning professionals from all parts of the country, but joining them were public officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, as well as representatives of civic and professional organizations concerned with transit and land use.

Conference participants described specific transit-oriented challenges and initiatives undertaken in Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore and Boston. They also discussed the national capital region and went on tours of Washington and its Metro system.

During the Tysons Corner session, at which I was a speaker, and again at a workshop the following day, the Tysons 4 team made a compelling, cogent presentation of their vision.

Architects Sidney G. Rasekh and William Gallagher Jr. set the stage with a critical analysis of present-day Tysons Corner, which has long been the favorite example for all the failings of conventional land use and transportation planning. Using bold, clear graphics, they cited Tysons Corner's well-known deficiencies: chronic traffic congestion; pedestrian unfriendliness; inadequate and formless road network; ubiquitous surface parking lots; lack of tranquil civic spaces; imbalance between jobs and housing; relatively low, suburban density; and the absence of a sense of place.

They reminded their audience of just how big Tysons Corner is by showing plan overlays comparing the area spanned by Tysons Corner to the downtown areas of Boston and the District of Columbia. The comparison surprised many. Tysons Corner covers most of downtown Washington and engulfs all of downtown Boston, including the Back Bay.

The point was to demonstrate that in the 21st century, Tysons Corner could be truly citylike rather than being just a fragmented, suburban shopping and office complex. Tysons Corner could become denser, more functionally diverse, genuinely urban and urbane, and the four planned Metro stations could be the catalyst to make it happen.

Taming Tysons Corner, they say, will require substantial transformation. The most dramatic aspect of the Tysons Corner 4 Collaborative plan entails imposing a new grid of streets across all of Tysons Corner's' 1,750 acres. The team has devised a road pattern that they believe would require demolishing only a couple of buildings. Portions of the arterials serving Tysons Corner -- Routes 123 and 7 -- would become wide boulevards, and a new "Main Street" would be created. The proposed street-block pattern also includes strategically located public plazas and parks.

A pedestrian-friendly street network, plus transit, would support much higher-density land use. Parking lots would vanish, with most off-street parking accommodated in multi-level garages. Streets lined with sidewalks, trees and storefronts would both facilitate and encourage walking and biking, thus reducing the need to rely on automobiles to travel within Tysons Corner.

Most important, the plan proposes that much of the increased density be new housing rather than new office buildings and retail. Tysons Corner is suffering from a land use imbalance: too few residents compared with the number of jobs. The imbalance contributes significantly to traffic congestion, since almost everyone who works in Tysons Corner lives elsewhere and must drive to work or, for that matter, to anywhere else.

If Tysons Corner were transformed as proposed, with a healthier, denser mix of housing and commercial uses, new cultural and entertainment amenities, and Metro access, many of those employed in Tysons Corner could also live there.

The Tysons Corner 4 Collaborative proposal emphasizes that if the proposed Metro rail line were elevated above the streets, it would constitute an undesirable barrier bisecting the community. Accordingly, their plan calls for the line to remain underground through most of Tysons Corner.

To conclude the team's presentation, urban economic development specialist Peter Bass explained how this ambitious redevelopment could be financed. Focusing on the economic and fiscal impact of the plan, he said that greatly increased property values and property tax revenue, increased income tax revenues and private sector investment would more than pay for the new infrastructure required.

The official Fairfax County plan for Tysons Corner, under study once again, anticipates and could enable some of what the Tysons Corner 4 Collaborative proposes. But the county plan inevitably will be less audacious, less dense, less interventionist, given the many concerns, mostly about traffic, voiced by local residents, property owners and elected officials.

The political challenge to reshaping Tysons Corner is far more daunting than economic and fiscal challenges. No matter how logical and farsighted this or any other plan for Tysons Corner might be, adopting and implementing it will require political courage and forceful leadership. It remains to be seen if Fairfax County is up to the challenge.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

By Steve Fehr |  October 31, 2005; 10:53 AM ET  | Category:  Development, Growth
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