News and notes from Reston (tm).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tysons Corner's Future Provides a Glimpse of an 'American City,' Walmart And All

Tysons New.jpg

Looking at this fancy rendering, you might think this is a taller, glassier reject of the original plans for Reston Town Center. But it's actually part of the plan for a revitalized, re-imagined Metro-friendly Tysons Corner, which the Washington Post inexplicably calls an "American city." Let's play make-believe imagine along with them!
Imagine, it’s a shivery January morning in 2014 and you are riding one of the first of Metro’s Silver Line cars to Tysons Corner.
Don't worry -- the heat from the track fires will keep you warm.
As you step onto the platform five stories above Leesburg Pike, you look out over an area that Fairfax County officials imagine as a modern American city — a “walkable, sustainable, urban center.”

If all goes to plan by 2014, a 400-unit apartment building twice the height of buildings in downtown Washington is under construction beyond the tracks on one side. It’s next to an Exxon station, a McDonald’s and other single-use buildings surrounded by parking lots.
We bet the residents of those fancypants apartments will enjoy their breathtaking views of car lots and the Walmart across the street. Wait, did we forget about that?


To be fair, they get that current-day Tysons isn't exactly the ideal urban center:
When you get off one of those first trains, reaching either side requires shuffling along a pedestrian walkway above six lanes of traffic. And keep in mind that a “block” in Tysons can be a quarter-mile or more, lined with auto dealerships and strip malls. That next street is a long way off, and the only shopping you can expect to do between here and there is for a Honda or a Mercedes...

When you step off the Silver Line in 2014, Tysons in all likelihood will still be a spectacle of imbalance, a place with the same number of Macy’s department stores (two) as grocery stores, where a glut of restaurants offer steak to the suit-and-tie crowd — the Palm, Fleming’s, Ruth’s Chris, Shula’s, Morton’s — but an apple can be hard to find.
Don't worry, though, because they have, as they say in the movies, a plan. It's sidewalks:
Can a major American city — a place of authenticity, culture and even grit — evolve out of a 50-year-old place built with none of that in mind? More than 20 years into planning, it is unclear. But paramount to that effort will be sidewalks...

Retrofitting Tysons into an urban street grid is a challenge on a scale that urban planners and academics say they have never seen.

Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing & Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said twisting the bones of Tysons into a grid will probably be more difficult and expensive than it was to build places such as Philadelphia and Manhattan from scratch.
But it will all be worth it, when we can stroll through authentic urban streetscapes like this:

Tysons - intensely urban feel.jpg

Part Vegas, part Ikea -- we dig it. We can't wait to shop at aBcd. But as with the breathtaking plans for Reston, a lot of this depends on the willingness of developers to do the right thing, and so far, what's happening in Tysons is mixed at best:
Some developers are not so focused on walkability.

Take Lerner, owner of 20 million square feet of real estate and estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of $3 billion. His firm is sticking with its original plans, approved before the new guidelines came through, for an office building near a Metro stop. The county’s new blueprint for Tysons, approved in 2010, encourages more density but requires builders to contribute to public amenities such as parks, fire stations and libraries.

Another Tysons landowner, the defense contractor Mitre, is proposing 1.4 million square feet of construction but appears to ignore walkability and mixed-use principles emphasized in the new plan.

And the largest property owner in Tysons, Cityline Partners, recently sued a neighbor, Capital One, in a possible attempt to prevent it from proceeding with a dense urban plan next door. Capital One countersued last month.
The solution? The article suggests that people might get sick of it all and move to Santa Fe. Seriously. And before you get really depressed, bear in mind that it's possible that Reston could someday have more square footage than our "American city" to the east. Let's just hope we don't get a Walmart to boot.


  1. The good news, such as it is, is that the economy probably won't let the developers have their way in Tysons over the next 20 years.

    The bad news is that it could become "Gridlock City" thereafter.

  2. I work a few blocks from that location. I guess we get to have construction traffic even after the Metro is complete.

    What companies are filling up these buildings? I thought we were in the middle of a 'great recession'?

  3. Bob Simon's Metallic Alter EgoSeptember 27, 2011 at 3:55 PM

    What exactly will they sell at aBcD? Ironic picture books for hipster children? Or will it become one of those wacky "debranding" names for a defense contractor, like Blackwater becoming Xe, or Waterboarding-R-Us becoming aBcD?

  4. These people are only fooling themselves. The BoS and the locals can dream and plan all they want. But, in the end, the developers have the money and they will use it to get what they want. Tyson's will turn out according the developers' desires (which is to maximize their bottom line) with a passing nod to the locals and the BoS, just as they are doing in Reston. (Hint: see JBG and Fairway apt.s)

    The best laid plans of mice and men...

  5. Santa Fe, here I come . . . .

  6. High on drugs, anything can be dreamed of. I guess that's the case here.

  7. Excellent points by all: Fairfax County continues to be gutless and unable to provide stewardship or leadership when presented with developer money. Party affiliation is irrelevant; the money is specially designed to fit in anyone's pocket. In the past, I was not a fan of Reston becoming a town, but the sprawling cautionary tale to the east has changed my mind. Anon 2:01 points out that the only restraint in place is the economic downturn, which should finally arrive in the DC area in the next year or so.


(If you don't see comments for some reason, click here).