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Clouds Over Tysons

The hopes of glorious vision face reality of a post recession Northern Virginia.

Back when Clark Tyler was running meetings of the citizens group planning the redevelopment of Tysons Corner, the transformation of this traffic strangled cross roads seemed a glorious vision.

The ambitious plan grew during one of the hottest housing booms of Fairfax’s history. Housing prices soared and equities grew. The boom in turn was fed by millions of dollars of federal and defense expenditures in Northern Virginia. Typical family real estate taxes grew as well from $2,400 a year to $4,800.

But now in 2012, the hopes of that glorious vision have run into the reality of a post recession Northern Virginia and the tightening of federal expenditures that could spell limitations in the future.

THE PLAN called for the crowded traffic corridors of the present Tysons to be replaced by Metrorail bringing thousands of workers to its offices each day. The streets would be pedestrian friendly, neighborhoods joined by perhaps a trolley or a local bus system. There would be restaurants and urban parks, playgrounds and bike trails and a 21st Century ambiance without the exhausts of thousands of autos each day.

The plan would grow Tysons over the next 40 years from a village of 17,000 permanent residents and 105,000 day workers to an employment Mecca of 200,000 and a residential population of 100,000.

The Metrorail has arrived and is slated to be completed some time in 2013; four stations in Tysons and one at Wiehle Avenue in Reston. The $2.9 billion project was on budget until this spring when the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority acknowledged that it was $150 million over budget.

Whether the second nearly $3 billion phase from Reston to Dulles will go forward is in serious doubt unless Loudoun County votes to pay its share (answer in July) and millions of additional dollars come from Virginia and the federal government. Fairfax County has already voted to pay its share of Phase 2. Up to now this entire project is backed primarily by tax payers and the drivers along the Dulles Toll Road.

As Thomas L. Cranmer, a director of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance wryly puts it, "the taxpayers have generously provided subway stops for developers." He is one of a growing clique who thinks that Phase 2 of Dulles Rail will be an economic disaster, based on faulty estimations of cost.

But the unexpected costs of Dulles Rail are not the only clouds hovering over the "glorious vision" of a new Tysons Corner:

*Housing values have fallen due to recession, but the high taxes of the mid-2000s have remained high.

*Federal government spending is growing tighter and the Department of Defense anticipates sharp cuts.

*The office market, the very center of the notion of historic expansion for Tysons Corner, is down 17 percent and the federal workforce is contracting. An analysis by Jones Lang LaSalle, an international real estate broker doesn’t see federal employment expanding sharply in the near term.

*Large projects in nearby jurisdictions mean competitors for Tysons Corner. In Alexandria construction is under way on a 20-year, 300 acre project which will include high rise office buildings, perhaps an additional Metro stop and could attract a work force of 60,000. In Arlington, the county is working hard to repopulate the Crystal City development which until recently had a work force of some 60,000.

*When the military’s Base Realignment and Closure program (BRAC) moved 20,000 employees from Arlington to Alexandria, South Fairfax and Prince William County in 2010, it created an office building boom around Ft. Belvoir and increased development in Prince William County.

IN 2009, the Fairfax Planning Commission estimated that to make Tysons Corner into the city of the planning vision would cost $15 billion for roads and transit not including the Dulles Rail costs. Who is going to pay this enormous cost is the argument now reverberating around Fairfax.

One proposal was a 50-50 split with owners and developers of Tysons paying 50 percent of the cost and the taxpayers the rest. But Rob Jackson of the McLean Citizens Association argues that it should follow the pattern of the Route 128 project with the developers paying 75 percent. Others believe that the developers, who will be the principal beneficiaries of the redevelopment, should pay 100 percent.

The debate has certainly made agreement on the Planning Commissions Tysons Committee difficult to come by. It postponed every meeting since Feb. 15. The committee next meets on May 2 and if the schedule holds details of the disagreements may become known.

Correction: The $2.9 billion project was on budget until this spring when the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority acknowledged that it was $150 million over budget.