Lunch-time traffic is seen in Tysons Corner on International Drive. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON…)
The first thing to go was the parking lot behind the Container Store. And if all goes according to plan, more lots will be bulldozed — as will dozens of mid-rise office buildings, hotels and car dealerships.
Two years after Fairfax County adopted a radical, four-decade plan to redevelop Tysons Corner, it is finally beginning to happen, block by block, building by building.
Inspired by the decision to run Metro’s new Silver Line through Tysons, the county essentially is undertaking a do-over, one that seeks to replace much of what stands today with an urban, vibrant, walkable, downtown built around residents and rail. It is a monumental task that has never been done on such a grand scale. And there is no turning back.
Even the name has been remade. It is now just Tysons — no “Corner” — a sleeker brand that the marketing people hope will sell “the new downtown.”
“No one in the history of mankind has ever tried to do this” in a place that is already so developed — and developed entirely around cars and commuters, said Christopher Leinberger, with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “There is nowhere to look for a model for this kind of transformation.”
What is wrong with Tysons Corner, at least in the eyes of county officials, is what’s missing. There are very few sidewalks, parks, neighborhood hangouts and places to live — none of the things that make a city a city. Instead, the 1,700-acre swath of Fairfax is home to nine times as many parking spaces as people.
But now that the county has embarked on the redevelopment effort, some remain skeptical that such an ambitious, expensive urban retrofitting will ever come to fruition. Will anyone want to live in place long known for shopping malls and some of the region’s most horrific traffic? Will a shaky market emerging from recession support such development?
“We’re trying to create utopia through regulation,” said Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), one of two county supervisors who voted against adopting the Tysons plan in 2010.
“But is anyone going to buy the product? Will it be too expensive? All of these costs we’re attaching to it — they will be passed down.”
No soul, just traffic
Seventy years ago, Tysons Corner was little more than a quaint intersection surrounded by farmland. What exists today is the product of six decades of growth that gave little thought to the bigger picture: a soulless, sidewalkless sea of superblocks, office buildings, highways and car dealerships.
Fewer than 20,000 people live in Tysons, while nearly five times as many commute there for work, bringing with them dreadful road congestion.
But the traffic is not all that defines Tysons. Home to two well-known malls, countless federal-contracting giants and at least six Fortune 500 companies, it is among the largest employment and retail centers in the nation, ideally located near the Capital Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road. It is a huge reason why Northern Virginia’s economy is so strong, and if Fairfax has a downtown, Tysons is it, soul or not.
Two and a half years after Fairfax adopted the plan for the redesign, and after years of meetings and discussion, there is a mix of relief and amazement that construction has actually begun.
Four aboveground Metro stations, set to open late this year, stand nearly finished. Seventeen redevelopment proposals are in the pipeline, submitted by developers and landowners eager to cash in on density levels never before permitted.
Together, the proposals cover roughly 240 acres, or 15 percent of land in Tysons. They include a total of 36 million square feet of new development. Three have won the county’s approval, and about a dozen others are on track for rezoning within the next year or so. Most are massive mixed-use projects that include high-rise office and residential buildings, ground-level shops and restaurants, athletic fields, bike paths, parks and plazas.
The county recently finalized a plan for a pedestrian-friendly street grid cut into walkable city blocks, to be built piecemeal as individual landowners redevelop their parcels. The Board of Supervisors is expected to decide next week whether to set up a special Tysons tax district that would raise $250 million over 40 years for transportation infrastructure. The biggest sticking point has been whether to exempt or include residential landowners.
“Sure, this will be great for the future of Fairfax County, but not for the people living [in Tysons] now,” said Michael Bogasky, a Tysons resident and president of the Rotonda Condominium Association.
“We’ve already lived through years of construction hell, and it’s just the beginning. In our lifetime, I don’t see how we’re going to benefit, but yet we’re going to have to help pay for it,” he said.
Although residents and businesses fought over the retrofit’s details, almost no one disagreed with its goals when the plan was adopted.