Is the plan to rework Tysons Corner collapsing?

by on September 17, 2009 at 6:49 am in Current Affairs | Permalink

Maybe so:

Fairfax County planners on Wednesday will propose rules for builders in Tysons Corner that retreat from the vision
local officials approved last fall, a shift some civic leaders worry
will jeopardize the blueprint to remake the area into a walkable urban
center.

It seems the eight "mini-cities" are on the way out.  Why?  The area's Revolutionary War era roads can't handle too much additional population density:

Zook and his staff have concluded that the density of what the task
force envisions could be built when Tysons is fully redeveloped in
about 40 years would overwhelm traffic. [TC: Forget about 40 years, it's close to that point right now for about four hours each day.]  Planners say that would be
about five times the 44 million square feet of offices, malls, condos
and townhouses there now. Before developers can build high-rises, even
near the Metrorail stations, planners say, the area's already clogged
road network will need to expand to accommodate the extra development
because many of the new residents and office workers will drive. That
would require three new interchanges on the Dulles Toll Road; another
lane on the Beltway between Interstate 66 and Route 7, in addition to
the high-occupancy toll lanes now under construction; and wider lanes
on other local roads.

That is, in a nutshell, why Fairfax County cannot and will not become like central Arlington in the Ballston and Clarendon areas.  Recall that some time ago Tysons Corner was ranked as #4 in office space in the entire U.S., if it were to be counted as a city.  Many Fairfax County residents look upon Arlington as a quaint experiment, a kind of well-laid out duck pond in somebody's backyard, but not a model for the broader suburban area.  The walkable part of Arlington is quite small compared to Tysons Corner (by the way I used to live at Tysons and also have spent time walking it) and density in central Arlington doesn't threaten to crush much of anything.

So the result at Tysons likely will be a bigger edge city with broader roads and more difficult illegal U-Turns.  As one local rent-seeker put it:

"We're not like downtown D.C., where you walk three blocks and there's
another Metro station," said Rob Jackson, president of the McLean
Citizens Association.

Rent-seeker he may be, but he's right to suggest that a much denser Tysons — no matter how well done — will overwhelm the local support roads of Vienna and McLean.  The bottom line is that path dependence is a very strong force in all these comparisons.

anon September 17, 2009 at 7:43 am

Tysons is not now walkable, and it is a pain to get to. To make it walkable they’d have to start over: tear down the large shopping centers, increase the density, and narrow the roads. That isn’t going to happen.

It has 3 lane roads that always seem to be crowded and smaller side streets that lead you’re not sure where.

When I go to Tysons I use one particular route that is the least painful and gets me in and out of one shopping center without getting lost or stuck in too much traffic.

On the other hand, my teenager loves going to Tysons to meet friends, but they don’t notice the traffic as they are chattering the entire time.

Your description of Arlington as a “well laid out duck pond” seems about right. And Arlington voters don’t want any development that will make it anything other than a well laid out duck pond.

Many of the people I know in Arlington have lived there, most in the same house, for at least 30 years.

Andrew September 17, 2009 at 8:25 am

I’m not understanding this. For one, locals have nearly infinite ways to be silly. For two, where I live is very walkable. When I want food, I walk to the kitchen. When I want entertainment, I walk to the television. Rest, it’s off to the couch. Sleeping in bed is a lot better than on a train. When I feel guilty and the creeping need to be flogged with feelings of powerlessness, I drive to work.

a person September 17, 2009 at 8:49 am

“…as one local rent-seeker put it:…” So, so cash.

Noah Yetter September 17, 2009 at 9:48 am

Those support roads are already overwhelmed. During rush hour getting from Chantilly to Tysons Corner, a 14 mile drive by Google’s favored route, takes 60-90 minutes, no matter what route you take (and there aren’t many choices).

[So glad to be back in Denver, where there are a dozen ways to get everywhere...]

Seward September 17, 2009 at 10:18 am

Andrew,

One of the awesome things about the internets is how they allow you to experience all the good things about cities without all of the hassles.

Norman Pfyster September 17, 2009 at 10:29 am

Was “path dependence” a deliberate pun?

TomB September 17, 2009 at 10:46 am

Most of the roads were built much more recently than the revolutionary war. Tysons was largely undeveloped as recently at 1950.

I think the traffic situation would work itself out naturally. The county should expand the roads, but if there is too much traffic, changes in property values and the ability to move should balance out the situation.

I’m not sure Tysons would be walkable even if the roads (but not the buildings) were laid out differently. It is a long way from the office buildings around Tysons II (The Galleria) to the buildings around Tysons I (Tysons Corner Center). I’m not sure anyone would want to walk that. You could walk from Georgetown to the White House, but most people will probably drive or take a cab. Even walking from Glover Park down into Georgetown or Foggy Bottom is a long, long walk. Especially in the summer, while wearing work clothes, and carrying a laptop. I think Tysons would be the same.

To become a walking city, it needs local transit. Maybe cabs and more buses would be enough. A local (non-Metro) light rail system in Tysons might make sense. At least as much sense a rail system in Texas. Of course I would prefer it to be done privately, but it is doubtful that a private enterprise would invest given regulatory uncertainty.

Or maybe the Segway can make a comeback. A Segway for every Tysons resident.

nelsonal September 17, 2009 at 11:01 am

Why isn’t there an on/off ramp from the beltway directly into the Mall? That’s the easiest change I can think of to help with the traffic. The other thing would be to add local and through lanes to the beltway so back ups at the exits don’t stall traffic all the way into Maryland.

John Thacker September 17, 2009 at 12:09 pm

As a DC resident I’m super happy to find out that the expansion of Metro is going to be built to an area that has no interest in building the density needed to make the Metro worth the investment

Well, they pretended they did until they secured the backing and funding. Suckers! But this stuff always happens. It’s happening in Seattle in the Roosevelt neighborhood; after light rail funding was approved and there’s no turning back, the residents started fighting all the zoning changes and blocking them.

Seward September 17, 2009 at 4:17 pm

More on Tyson’s Corner here: http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=1843#more-1843

John Thacker September 17, 2009 at 4:26 pm

John Dewey says cars give “freedom to the population” and rail requires “$billions in subsidies,” somehow ignoring that roads for cars require even more billions in subsidies.

Not true at the state and federal level combined, and especially not true at the federal level. Drivers on net subsidize mass transit users at the federal level. Mass transit is subsidized by more total billions than roads at the federal plus state level.

Only at the local level are roads subsidized so much. Just like zoning is a local problem.

To the extent that you have a problem with suburbia, it’s a local problem with local laws passed by the people who live there.

Seward September 17, 2009 at 4:40 pm

John Thacker,

Right; the usage tax that was meant to be used for interstate roads in their construction and maintenance has been significantly siphoned off for mass transit.

David C September 17, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Tom B, the ride from DC to Tyson’s or Dulles is going to be brutal. Close to an hour. I doubt there will be many people who make the trip. The real advantage of Metro for commuters is that it relieves you from having to find parking in the city. If you live in the city you have parking so why haul yourself out to Tyson’s on a train that stops ever mile? There are not that many reverse commuters and that won’t change. It will still be faster to take the 5A bus from L’Enfant than take the train.

Joe Strummer September 18, 2009 at 8:53 am

Something like 80% of all travel is done by a personal vehicle in Europe; the figure is around 85% in the U.S. That should tell us something about what consumers like.

Why does this tell us what “consumers like” rather than what subsidies encourage consumers to like?

David Sucher September 18, 2009 at 11:57 am

Folks, no one is trying to steal your car, nor will the key have to taken from your cold, dead body. Even people who like cars (moi) recognize that we need alternative means of getting around.

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