Arlington vs. Tysons Corner

As I had expected, I could do the whole walk on little more than one street, Clarendon Blvd. (it is called Wilson going the other way), with but a bend at Fairfax Drive.  I never had to cross a major road, run across a road, come near a major highway, or circumnavigate a major shopping center.  The main artery was straight enough to be followed by a single line Metro line throughout.  I was never more than seven or eight minutes from a Metro stop, if that.  And if I had done this walk thirty years ago, while the buildings and shops would have been very different, and many fewer, the physical geography of the walk would have been the same.

In contrast look at Tysons Corner (you have to type in "Tysons Corner" yourself).  The whole area is carved up by major roads, including three significant highways, one of which could be called massive.  Try crossing Rt. 123 at Tysons Corner or try crossing Rt.7.  Even some of the "small" roads on this map are harder to cross than is the main Clarendon/Wilson thruway in Arlington.  It's not just the roads and the overpasses; crossing or circumventing either major shopping center is a daunting experience.  Furthermore very little is laid out in a line and thus the presence of Metro stops (right now there aren't any) would not cover the area nearly as well as they do in central Arlington.  Tysons is more like a large box with distant extremities protruding, all laid on top of some multi-level and impassable thick bones.  Overall there is plenty of this, except it's usually much busier.  There's also plenty of this.  Making Tysons denser in residential terms, whatever its virtues, won't eliminate those barriers and in some ways the current plan will make them worse.

In contrast here's what Google images pulls up on Clarendon Boulevard.

Now let's turn to the debate.  When Ryan Avent writes: "Tyler seems to approve of the fact that a local planning board will dictate the size of buildings which can be built [at Tysons]" I would offer a different narrative of what I believe, also citing my comment on Matt's blog.

"We made past mistakes, we won't institute congestion pricing or other congestion ameliorations, local government is a cesspool of rent-seekers and homeowners, and so we're stuck for the foreseeable future, on top of which the public choice critique means that even apparently sensible deregulatory pro-density plans will in practice be turned into additional subsidies for suburban growth, the latter observation in fact being derived from a broader point frequently offered up by Matt Yglesias in a variety of other contexts.

Believing the above paragraph is not well described as "favoring regulation and subsidy."  I think it is also a deeper understanding than:

"Let us build more densely in the most congested areas and it will work out for the better, even though road policy is terrible and lobbyists will de facto control all plans."

For many years privatizers and deregulators have been criticized for moving too quickly, before the right conditions for reform are in place.  China has been praised over Russia, etc.  Some privatization and deregulations have indeed backfired and maybe this one would too, unless it is done properly and that means done in conjunction with good roads policies.

That all said, I do in fact favor denser development at Tysons, even without road reform, though not without limits.  In the big proposed plan, I'm most of all opposed to broader roads (I'll explain why this is a coherent position some other time but the "average cost equalization" property of transport equilibria can generate such apparently counterintuitive recommendations.)

Random points: Crystal City tried residential density and it didn't work nearly as well as Arlington.  It's a dead zone.  The earlier attempted dense development of Skyline Drive also stalled and was beaten out by Tysons.  Or look at the new (and failing?) complexes on Rt.29 and Gallows Rd. and Strawberry.  In 1989 I moved into a tall apartment building, right at Tysons, which had stores on the ground floor so residents would not have to drive to shop.  I was delighted but within six months all those shops had closed for lack of interest.  At the risk of sounding like Gustav Schmoller, each case really is different, just as Tysons is different from Arlington.

Matt Yglesias wrote:

…why on earth isn’t the libertarian take on this that we should permit high density construction and let the market decide what happens?

When it comes to the current Tysons plan, it is not "the market deciding."  It is a mega-plan with road widening, the bane of progressive pro-environment, pro-urban advocates, and also massive subsidies for growth and not just density of growth.  More generally, when road policy is so politicized, it is never the market deciding in any case. 

Call me odd, but I'm not opposed to urban (or suburban) planning and in fact anyone who recognizes the ongoing existence of public roads has to end up in the same place.  I might add that postwar Germany did a good job of such planning.  Tysons Corner is not, right now, doing a good job of it.  You can believe that whether or not you're a libertarian.

Addendum: In closing, let me toss out a random, radical idea.  How about putting up some high-density housing in the vastly underused, nearby residential section of Pimmit Hills and putting in shops and office buildings and the like as well?  Why obsess over reforming Tysons per se?  Might the answer be to, in some way, work around the Tysons mess and along some margins outcompete it?  After all, that's what they ended up doing with Seven Corners.

I may soon consider a few other of my favorite parts of NoVa.

Addendum: Here is a reply from Ryan Avent.


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