Sprawlsville Steps Back From the Edge

Tysons_7.jpgA section of Tysons Corner slated for infill development. Image: Fairfax County/PB PlaceMaking [PDF]

Last week the Federal Transit Administration finally approved the Silver Line, a long-awaited addition to the capital region’s transit system that will extend to suburbs in northern Virginia. There are still a few hoops to jump through to secure the necessary funding, but it looks like some relief is in sight for the area’s crushing congestion.

Four of the line’s stations are planned for Tysons Corner, a collection of malls and offices so unwalkable that traffic clogs streets when employees break for lunch. Only 17,000 people live there, but it provides 167,000 parking spaces for the hordes of commuters and shoppers who drive in on a daily basis. In this excellent NPR segment (listening to the audio is well worth the time), Robert Siegel looks at how Fairfax County officials are attempting to transform Tysons Corner into a more urban setting:

…a central part of the plan is to build residential housing, and
plan for 100,000 people. But that means more than build apartment
houses — Tysons is also utterly inhospitable to pedestrians.

Tyler, who chairs the Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force, says there are
nine lanes of traffic near Tysons Corner Center, but the street lights
give pedestrians only 40 seconds to cross them. Sidewalks mysteriously

So, what will the new Tysons be like? 

"Hopefully it will have sidewalks that aren’t hyphenated," Tyler
says. "It will have a grid of streets, shorter blocks, it will have a
circulation system, so the other thing that would be radical is what
they call LEED certified — or green buildings that are energy efficient — and all the rest because that’s what we’ve recommended."

to get you from the rail stations to these stores — right now, that
sounds like science fiction. It also sounds like a city.

Siegel’s guide, Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, sees Tysons Corner as a watershed of sorts, a model that other sprawling edge cities might follow. As the story makes clear, however, there are still plenty of misconceptions to dispel about density and smart growth:

Mayor Jane Seemans of the neighboring town of Vienna has some concerns about the Tysons plan. Will it increase her town’s traffic, which is already congested? Will Vienna’s schools and parks become overcrowded? "It’s the impact that it will have on our quality of life in Vienna… We just want to make sure that we have a voice in the continuing development."

  • rlb

    This is an exciting development. It’s interesting to note that similar things have been happening in the DC area for about ten years. Areas in Maryland like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Gaithersburg have succesfully filled in many parking lots, increased density and promoted urban living.

    What else is interesting is that the other major DC Metro battle which has been waging for about 10 years is the purple line. That line is to connect Bethesda and Silver Spring and continue on to the Univ of Maryland – circumferentially linking up several radial legs of the DC Metro. Though it’s considerably further, a compelling case could be made to bring Tyson’s Corner into that mix.

  • Oddly enough, there are transit activists in the SF Bay Area who are trying to stop a BART extension to San Jose – which could generate much more infill than this, since San Jose is much larger than Tyson’s Corner. I am planning to send them the article about Tyson’s Corner, in the hope that it will interrupt their dogmatic slumber.

  • The opposition to the BART extension to SJ mostly revolves around the fact (no longer conjecture) that this $6 billion extension will suck up all available transit programs in the region. Approving the extension in this political climate is essentially defunding other cheaper and more effective transit solutions like electrification of Caltrain and the Dumbarton Rail project:


  • buses to get you from the train to the mall, huh? that’s a great idea. that’s _definitely_ going to work.

  • Peter — the story is a little confused. Or poorly worded. There will stations right between both malls (there are two) as well as near other major intersections. Areas around the two malls that are currently parking are to be housing and offices. Delineating a new streetgrid. But as there are only 4 new stations. And the whole redevelopment area is many, many acres, There will still need to be, in addition to the pedestrian improvements, development of circulator and bus systems. Or enhancement of the one that are already there. Arlington, Va, which underwent a somewhat similar transformation over the last 30 years (to its advantage a street grid of sorts, already existed there), has several Metro stations but they still require ART buses for shorter trips and to circulate people around. Metro does not function, because of the heavy rail nature of the trains and the depth or height of the stations, very effectively as a circulator system. It’s no subway, it’s no trolley.

  • Josh: years ago, the same people were saying the same thing about extending BART to the airport: it would suck up all available funding and prevent other more cost-effective projects from being built. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

    In fact, Santa Clara county voted to tax itself to pay part of the cost of BART, and that transit funding would just disappear if BART were not built.

    Transit funding is not a zero-sum game – dramatic projects, like BART to SJ, generate more funding. As Obama talks about increasing federal funding to transit, the last thing we need is the negativism of BART to SJ opponents.

  • I agree that transit funding should not be a zero-sum game, but in this year it is in fact a negative-sum game! We now have confirmation (http://transbayblog.com/2008/12/12/from-the-horses-mouth/) that BART to SJ is taking funding priority over all other VTA projects.

    My point was not that BART shouldn’t go to SJ, just that doing so now and with the proposed funding plan would do more harm than good. I just wanted to go on record as saying that the argument was more nuanced than just “transit activists in the SF Bay Area who are trying to stop a BART extension to San Jose.”

    But your example of BART to the airport/Milbrae strikes me as odd. By all accounts I’ve found that project was a disaster from which BART is only just beginning to recover.

    For one thing the “we’ll tax ourselves to pay for it” plan that Santa Clara county is copying from San Mateo county cost the BART counties tens of millions of dollars in the following years as revenue from the extension failed to pay for its operation. There is a very real chance that that could happen again, because the SJ BART stations all have wildly overestimated ridership projections.


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