The question of the night was not ‘Should there be more density in Tysons Corner?’ The question was: ‘How much more?’
"I want to see another city. Better than DC. It’s a true edge city," said Jon Cox of Avalon Bay Communities.
Seven representatives of businesses and property owners in Tysons met the evening of Feb. 2 as part of a series of outreach meetings sponsored by the Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force.
The 35-member Task Force was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to study the Tysons Corner area, and determine what changes, if any, are necessary to prepare for the paradigm shift that Metro is expected to bring.
The Comprehensive Plan typically allows for increased density within about 1,600 feet of a Metro Station. However, when the current plan was developed in 1994, the county did not know how many Metro stations there would be in the Tysons area, or where they would be.
Many properties in Tysons Corner already have an option for increased development if they are in proximity to a rail station. Additionally, in recent years, the Board of Supervisors has become more receptive to increasing density near transit stations. This is a part of the strategy called "smart growth" which tries to focus higher density projects around existing transportation infrastructure in order to leave other areas low density.
Fairfax County does not currently have the authority to transfer density from one area to another, but there is legislation in the General Assembly which could allow it.
Developers and landowners have seized on the coming of rail to Tysons Corner to propose increased density around the now-established locations of four Metro stations. This initial public outreach phase is scheduled to end in mid-February. The Task force will then study the results of the outreach meetings and formulate broad concepts and principles.
There is another round of community input scheduled for the late winter or spring of this year. The Task Force is scheduled to make its non-binding recommendations about Tysons Corner in the summer or fall, which would then go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing before moving to the Board of Supervisors. The Board may choose to adopt all, some or none of the Task Force’s recommendations.
THE SEVEN WERE a savvy group, a sharp contrast to at least one of the citizen’s meetings. On Jan. 12, at meeting of citizens who live along Old Meadow Road, many did not know that they actually live within the boundary of Tysons Corner.
The citizens that night wanted better pedestrian access throughout the area, and stressed their desire to focus increased density tightly around the new Metro stations.
The developers, however, advocated taking a larger view. They thought it best to view the Tysons Corner area (1,700 acres not including roads) as a whole. Some did say that there should be more density around the Metro stops which would then gradually step down from there. "The density really has to be to the level to make it a true urban area," said Tasso Flacos of West Group, which owns more than 100 acres in Tysons Corner.
Mel Myers, an attorney for a property owner which he did not identify, suggested densities more than three times currently allowed in the Comprehensive Plan.
Tysons Corner is unusual, they agreed, since it is a city which is being built from scratch. Most major urban areas evolve over centuries, but Tysons has really only been growing for a few decades. And the way its grown isn’t necessarily the best, said Bill Lecos, a member of the Task Force and president of the Chamber of Commerce. "There is a pretty good consensus that what we do next has to be different from what we’ve done," he said.
Chris Weber of Federal Realty Trust, owners of the Pike 7 Plaza, said the process is somewhat backwards. Usually, transit stations are designed to serve existing high-density areas, not the other way around. "In some ways, you’re putting the cart before the horse," he said.
One thing that must be different, all agreed is the transportation network. Tysons with its looping roads and handful of ways in and out will not work as an urban area. "If you are going to increase the densities without the [road] grid system, you’ll have L.A." said Myers.
Even the grid, Cox noted, would not change the limited number of roads going in and out, with the exception of rail.
They also generally agreed that the densities cannot be monolithic. Tysons needs some things to give it a true sense of place. There should be numerous public areas and new cultural opportunities, wide sidewalks with street-level retail to encourage people to walk around. All present agreed that Tysons would need to add a number of residences in order to really achieve a critical mass needed to transform the area.
Elizabeth Marchant, a representative of Tysons Self Storage, echoed the call for a sense of place. She lamented the idea that the mall might end up as the defining feature of Tysons Corner.
ANOTHER CONTRAST between the residents and the property owners is the idea of a time frame. Many residents seemed to expect the bulldozers to show up shortly after the Metro starts running in 2011.
The property owners were thinking in longer terms. They noted the Ballston corridor in Arlington, which was planned in the 1970s with the coming of Metro and is only now realizing the complete construction of that plan.
Much of Tysons is still in fairly good shape, and they expect it to take decades for the economics to favor redevelopment. "But now is the time to plan, Weber said.