David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington brings us this story on the future of Tysons Corner. Tysons is in many ways the poster-boy for post-war American suburbia. Even PBS has noted it’s car-dependent, highway-oriented state. Pedestrians in Tysons are taking their lives into their hands. The city is made up of single-use office towers, strip shopping centers, tract housing, and parking, parking, parking. Fortunately, Tysons’ local leaders are aware of the changing market conditions pointing toward mixed use development, and they are trying to fix their city. Fairfax County has produced Transforming Tysons, a document that is still being revised that will guide more pedestrian-scaled development, focused on Tysons’ four Metro stops and tapering down to the surrounding low-density development.
Traffic engineers don’t believe that the plan will work, and are advocating expanded freeway facilities. But Washington has ample examples, the District in particular, of how wrong traffic engineers could be. According to their models, DC couldn’t be built today. This and other debate has encouraged Planning Commissioner Walter Alcorn to propose that 3/4 of the proposed density be built in the next 20 years instead of building 100% in the next 40 years, as well as eliminating density maximums in favor of having the Board of Supervisors analyze every proposal in turn. The Sierra Club endorsed Alcorn’s plan, hoping that the shorter time frame will encourage that the necessary transit upgrades to the periphery of the city are built. The Audubon Society, on the other hand, wants the complete plan. Stella Koch of Audubon said, “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.”
Also agitating the process are landowners in the non-transit-oriented areas. Many have been waiting on the plan to be finished, and some people are worried that these land owners may just up and build a strip mall instead of waiting for pedestrian-friendly guidelines. If Alcorn’s plan is implemented, it could hurt the county’s ability to pay for necessary amenities, such as the improved street grid, storm water system, transit, and streetscapes. The plan also opens up the possibility of the plan being compromised a little bit more for every project. By doing it all at once, it’s easier for elected officials to do what is right for the largest number and not be swayed by NIMBYs. Tysons should work to avoid the evenly spread, low density development of nearby failures such as Gaithersburg‘s Science City. This type of development is hard because instead of trying to build a city from green fields like Washington was, Tysons is trying to build it out of an existing framework of suburban sprawl. Development happens fast today, and if the leaders of Tysons don’t get this plan figured out quick, they may have a few thousand more acres of strip malls to deal with.