Redesigning Tysons Corner

Redesigning Tysons Corner

Community forum examines design options and smart growth.

Looking to the future of Tysons Corner, what will be the dominant image: Metro stations standing above gridlocked traffic, or pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods on tree-lined streets blending commercial and residential areas?

That was one of several questions asked during a community forum at the McLean Community Center on June 21, as representatives from three architectural firms and the Coalition for Smarter Growth met with residents to discuss what the future might hold for Tysons Corner.

"We need to talk about how the area can grow in a way that protects the environment and in a way that we can live with," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and moderator for the evening's discussion.

Citing the reduction in traffic in the Rosslyn and Ballston area since the opening of the Metro stations there, up to 70 percent of people who use the Metro in those areas walk there, he said. "Morning and evening trips in cars are one-third the number in that area than the rest of the county," Schwartz said. The same could be possible in Tysons if properly planned and developed, he said.

THE TRAFFIC CONCERN, coupled with residents wary of what new development and the installation of the Metro line will mean, is "the issue of the year," he said, leading the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to appoint a task force to determine the best way to develop Tysons in the next few years.

"We want rail and public transportation to work here and we want Tysons to work," Schwartz said.

Speaking on behalf of Torti Gallas CHK, Inc., an architectural firm from Silver Spring, Md., Rob Goodill said his firm has worked with 19 Metro stations in the area, including Shady Grove, Courthouse in Arlington, White Flint and Twinbrook, to blend the stations into their surrounding communities as harmoniously as possible.

"At Wheaton, we were dealing with a mixed-use building that was not in a market that supported underground parking," Goodill said. "We've embraced the residential area near that station with a great street front and streetscaping."

The White Flint station "could be a model for the in-filling in Tysons," he said, adding that the station was designed with the character of Rockville Pike in mind. "This design comes from a world where moving by automobile is the preferred method," he said.

A diagram that showed an image of a street in which the storefronts were not aligned and one where they were, demonstrated that "disjointed development can be filled in to humanize the road and sidewalk areas," something that could be put into place in Tysons Corner, Goodill said.

His company tries to incorporate the commercial and residential needs of the area surrounding a Metro station, he said, to make the community next to the station livable and attractive for families and shoppers alike.

Pointing to the Twinbrook station, Goodill said it "does exactly what is responsible and smart growth. It brings people to the Metro station and makes it a rich place to be. It wouldn't work if it didn't solve those problems."

IF THE RESIDENTS of a community want to retain a certain aesthetic, incorporating form-based building codes should be considered, said Geoff Ferrell of Ferrell Madden Associates L.L.C., a proponent of the practice.

"They are popular for a reason, it's all about common sense in the way of getting and saving good places," he said.

The Ballston area of Arlington is a "terrific success" of form-based coding, he said, the groundwork for which was established in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Form-based codes are not about being abstract and vague, it's about being concerned with the livable quality of an area," Ferrell said. "With intelligent growth, we need to change the game plan ... we need to change the rules in order to make sure that what you want is what you get."

Regulations like setbacks and build-to lines are "not about style but about how the street and the buildings interact," he said. "If it's bad for a building to have a straight wall with no windows or doors, the building codes should say that."

Store fronts with windows at street levels are inviting, homes with windows at street level tend to be a bit uncomfortable, Ferrell said.

Regulating plans, which show what a building or neighborhood should look like, can depict all aspects of the construction of a structure, including height, build-to and setback specifics, how the building looks as it faces the street, Ferrell said. "The codes need to be simple and clear, be specific. It's a functional element about how the building looks," he said.

By holding charrettes, or localized meetings of residents and developers to plan out an ideal neighborhood, both sides have the opportunity to hear what would be wanted and what would be hated in an area, he said.

When Columbia Pike in Arlington was being revitalized, charrettes took place to incorporate resident's desires with what developers wanted to include, and the result was residents supporting the developer's plans at planning meetings, Ferrell said.

THE PROBLEMS faced in the Tysons Corner area are cropping up in developing areas across the country, said Jeff Speck, an architect and director of design with the National Endowment for the Arts.

"The smart growth movement has been trying to say that Tysons is not a city, but it really is," Speck said. "Why aren't we recognizing what most of America is becoming? Form-based codes are an example that statistics do not make a city."

Schwartz asked Speck about the possibility of making Tysons Corner a more walker-friendly area.

"The majority of the area is not pedestrian-friendly and may never be, but some places could be connected with walkways," Speck said.

"The principals of a pedestrian-friendly area are how people can get to work," he said. "In order to make an area pedestrian-friendly, it needs to be safe, comfortable and interesting, and people need a reason to want to walk somewhere."

The concept of smart growth "supports public transit," Speck said, "but we're not about the belief that transit will solve all problems. You can increase density forever but when I get off the train, I need to be able to go somewhere."