Planning Commission Won’t Endorse Added Density

Planning Commission Won’t Endorse Added Density

Five Vote to Deny; Four Abstain; Three Vote for Tysons II Proposal

On a motion by Providence District Planning Commissioner Linda Smyth, the Fairfax County Planning Commission last week rejected a final development plan that would double the density at Tysons II with the coming of rail service, but asked the developer to continue to work with the county’s planning staff to come to a compromise.

At-Large Commissioner Laurie Frost Wilson seconded Smyth’s motion to deny the application.

It would allow the applicant, Tysons II Land Company, to increase its by-right density from 1.9 million to 4.1 million square feet. In return, the developer proffered 4.5 acres of land for a Metro station at Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard, a five-acre park and amphitheater, three affordable dwelling units, and the requisite donations for schools and recreation.

But several commissioners said Tysons II’s proffers contain too many loopholes.

Chairman Peter Murphy (R) said he agreed with both sides reflected in the Planning Commission’s divided decision, but the application needed “tightening up.” Murphy abstained. So did Hunter Mill District Commissioner Frank de la Fe (D), Mason Commissioner Janet Hall, (D), and Mt. Vernon Commissioner John Byers, (D).

Voting with Smyth against approval were Suzanne Harsel (D -Braddock) and At Large Commissioners Walter Alcorn, Ilryong Moon, and Frost Wilson, appointed by Board of Supervisors Chairman Kate Hanley.

Voting for the application and against Smyth’s motion were Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville), Ronald Koch (R-Sully), and Jack Kelso (D-Lee).

In the final vote on April 3, five commissioners voted not to approve Tysons II’s proposal. Three voted for it, and four abstained.

“The Planning Commission was divided, and I agree with everybody,” Murphy said. “I agree wholeheartedly with the argument that this application should be approved to send a message that we support rail. On the other hand, I think there are some loopholes.”

Murphy said the plan had been studied hard. “There is a lot of wood burning up here,” he said. “I can smell it.”

Before the proposal goes to the Board of Supervisors for a public hearing at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, April 28, Murphy said, Providence Supervisor Gerry Connolly (D), who is running for chairman of the Board of Supervisors, “now has an opportunity to throw out a ring buoy to the developers, and they have an opportunity to grab it.”

SINCE A PUBLIC HEARING on March 26 that continued into the early morning hours of Mar. 27, the applicant offered to change the Route 123 improvements and moved back a “drop dead” date to employ the added density, with or without rail, from 2017 to 2019.

But several commissioners said that despite a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) from the federal government that would have to be in place by 2005 for the second phase of density to kick in, the proposal was still too risky.

The major sticking point is the year 2019, when Tysons II wants to build all the permitted added density whether or not rail is in place through Tysons Corner to Reston Parkway. Some 25 percent or more of the ridership for rail is projected to come from the west.

But even a slight risk that the developer could build to full density before rail is in place is too great, Smyth said.

“[County] Staff is concerned about the precedent this would set,” she said. “We certainly have four rail stops [coming] in Tysons. What staff had hoped to have in place was a safety net,” she said.

“Staff thinks there should be some contingency plan in place to be sure that the road network is not overwhelmed.” But the applicant would not agree to provisions sought by county staff, such as a traffic study, road improvements, and “a strong, enforceable Traffic Demand Management (TDM) program,” Smyth said.

She also cited concerns about some other proffers, including intermodal transfers between buses and trains, inadequate provisions for affordable housing, and the TDMs, mandated by the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

Smyth said the plan provides for “a strong and enforceable” TDM program that would balance out the transportation system with or without rail present, said Smyth.

The proffers would allow Tysons II to add 25 percent of the higher density when rail reaches Tysons, another 50 percent when it reaches the west side of Tysons, and the full 100 percent when rail reaches Reston Parkway, or a combination of rail and rapid bus transit reaches the Dulles Airport.

BUT BY 2019, says Tysons II’s proffer, the density could go in whether or not rail is present.

With both Smyth, a Democrat, and Joan DuBois, a Republican who represents Dranesville District, running for open seats on the Board of Supervisors, the vote on the Tysons II proposal set up an election year debate on the pace and form of density at Tysons Corner, considered Fairfax County’s “downtown.”

The vote against Tysons II’s proposal broke generally along party lines, with DuBois voting in favor of the added density.

“This has been a very, very difficult case, and it has gone on for a long time,” Smyth said.

“We don’t have any argument with the development [Tysons II] is doing. Their pictures are lovely. This development could be a showcase,” she said.

“[But] We need to be thinking in terms of possibility. The applicant would like to have the certainty of a building schedule.

“We all would like certainty in our lives, but it is a little difficult in uncertain times.”

“It may be a matter of timing; it is very difficult to write proffers that will take into account all the possibilities,” Smyth said.

“I WOULD HOPE that this gets worked out before it goes to the Board of Supervisors,” said DuBois.

“We have to start planning now for the future. I have a constituency, and there are citizens in McLean, who have overwhelming support for rail in the Dulles corridor, and rail to Tysons.

“The McLean Citizens Association board of directors met again last evening in a special meeting to reconsider this application. They voted overwhelmingly to support it.

“I am very concerned about the message we send if we recommend denial of this application,” said DuBois.

“I know there are issues; I am not sure I agree with the gravity of some of them as they are being described,” said Dubois. “I think there is room for compromise.”

“I AM GOING to be taking the coward’s way out and abstaining, said de la Fe.

“This is a matter of timing. I am really afraid the message we are sending to others who we are looking to for funding of Dulles rail if we turn down the proffers,” he said, particularly the proffer of land for the Metro station.

But “I do also have major concerns about granting higher densities by a date certain of 2019 now, even if rail doesn’t come. I do have that as a problem,” he said.

The ADU contribution, de la Fe said, should be “somewhere around a million [dollars], give or take $200,000.” Tysons II has proffered three units in a 31-story, 540-unit residential building as ADUs, or a contribution worth $450,000 towards the purchase of three units to be used as ADUs in the immediate area.

“I just can’t vote against the application completely,” de la Fe said to explain his abstention. “I really think there is an awful lot of good in here.”

“It is my most ardent wish that between now and the board date, these issues can be resolved,” said Smyth. “But we have done everything we can.”

After last week’s public hearing, several planning commissioners pleaded for a compromise between county staff and the developer.

“Obviously, the applicant has made an attempt to compromise. Has staff?” asked Koch. “Would you characterize the negotiations as the applicant having to hit a moving target?” he asked Zoning Evaluation Director Barbara Byron.

“I think that would be absolutely incorrect as a characterization,” Byron answered. She said there had been a three-hour meeting that tried to resolve the differences.

“From our perspective the ADU and pedestrian network [proffers] have not changed,” she said. The applicant moved back the “drop dead date” for density by two years, and sweetened the proffer for road improvements to Route 123.

“THE PEDESTRIAN BRIDGES were a litmus test for me and unfortunately, the applicant didn’t meet it,” said Wilson (At Large).

“I got the impression that a lot of the planning was based on what had been done originally in 1984 for Tysons II and that many of the proffers are still based on that original planning whereas the planning has to be more for the future … rather than 20 years ago,” Wilson said.

“There are a lot of proffers where the applicant is appearing to be giving something. But there are too many loopholes where they can back out of it. They are too amorphous. You can’t promise something on the one hand, and then put some language in there to say ‘I don’t really have to do it if at some point in the future, I don’t think I can.’”

Pedestrian bridges between buildings are one example, Wilson said.

“It is an excellent design. It has many excellent amenities,” said Harsel. “However, unfortunately, they are based on rail. We do not have an excellent rail-type proffer on this.

“What’s amazing, is … they could build 25 percent of density in 2005. If that is the case, then we are premature. We are early,” said Harsel. “What they are asking, and what they are giving, is premature.

“Traffic is the main thing at Tysons, and I have not seen any improvement, in all of the rezonings we have done at Tyson’s. We have been promised, and promised, and promised, and it still has not improved.”

“I think this application can fly without the pedestrian bridges, but there are other things that I think need to be tightened up,” Murphy said.

“I am glad we are sending it to the board with a recommendation. It allows the board and the developer to really get down to brass tacks.”