There's something deeply wrong with Tysons Corner. For starters, Virginia's bustling commercial district the 12th biggest employment center in the nation has more parking spaces than jobs or residents. What was a quaint intersection of two country roads 50 years ago is now a two-tiered interchange with 10 lanes of traffic-choked hell; try to cross it on foot, and you're taking your life into your hands. Located about 14 miles west of downtown Washington, the nearly 1,700-acre area is home to fortresses of unfriendly buildings surrounded by oceans of parking lots, as well as single-story car dealerships, strip malls, fast-food joints, highways and a big toll road. Pedestrians are personae non gratae here. What few sidewalks exist often abruptly end.
The overgrown office park which sprang up around Tysons Corner Center, the ninth largest indoor mall in the U.S. has become the opposite of a bedroom community. Some 120,000 people work in Tysons, but only 17,000 live here. "Every morning, 110,000 cars arrive, and they all leave at 5," says Clark Tyler, a former federal transportation official and the chairman of a task force whose ambitious goal is to help transform Tysons into a full-fledged city where people live and work and play 24 hours a day.
The blueprint, which has been four years in the making and calls for a dense, walkable green city, is a model of public-private partnership and the largest such undertaking in the country. The implications of this redevelopment project stretch far beyond Fairfax County, as suburbs and exurbs across the country look for ways to repair the damage from five decades of outward, rather than upward, expansion. There are scores of so-called edge cities that have popped up near urban centers, suburbs on steroids that often grew around a giant mall like King of Prussia, Pa. (outside Philadelphia), and Schaumburg, Ill. (Chicago). "If Tysons can be retrofitted, then there's great hope for a lot of others," says June Williamson, an associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York and a co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia.
The impetus for unsprawling Tysons is a 23-mile extension of the Metro line that will connect Washington proper to Dulles International Airport, with four stops in Tysons along the way. The U.S. Department of Transportation agreed in March to cut a $900 million check for the rail line. But a simple park-and-ride project this is not. To help more people live closer to their jobs, the proposed land-use plan, which the county is expected to adopt in October, calls for adding as much as six times the number of existing housing units, bringing the total to 50,000. And to encourage the use of mass transit, the plan envisions a Tysons Corner where 95% of its land will be within half a mile of a train station or within 600 ft. of shuttle routes designed to ferry passengers to Metro stops and neighboring suburbs. Money from an increase on the Dulles toll road and special tax districts will help Uncle Sam pay for the rail stations. Funds for bicycle paths, schools, police stations and storm-water management systems will likely come from the county, property owners and developers who will be asked to pay extra for the privilege of helping Tysons build toward a goal of doubling or even tripling its density.
Whoa triple the density? Isn't the goal to ease traffic, not to add to it? What can be hardest for people to wrap their minds around is that to undo sprawl and the traffic and smog and environmental waste that come with it we might have to build a lot more on top of it. Right now, nearly half the land in Tysons is either roadway or parking. The new incarnation will be less car- and more people-oriented. So instead of there being stores and offices set back from the road, with parking in between, new mixed-use buildings will hug the sidewalk, with retail on the first floor to accommodate passersby. Buildings will be squeezed together, Manhattan-style. "The new plan? It's basically known as urbanism," says Fairfax County planning commissioner Walter Alcorn.
Or, rather, it is the 21st century version of slum clearance, with parking lots and strip malls getting razed and superblocks long stretches uninterrupted by cross streets getting chopped up to create short, walkable city blocks.