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.


I don't know how you can even begin to compare Tysons Corner to Arlington.

there's no point in building out the metro lines to Tysons Corner if it's just going to be people driving to park at metro stations like they do on the Orange line past Ballston (EFC, WFC ,etc.) It's just going to make the rush hour commute on the metro even worse.

I realize Tyler rarely answers questions from the comments, but I'd be curious what he thinks would emerge if Fairfax County abolished all zoning laws.

Let property holders build anything from a ranch house to a skyscraper to a factory on any property, right up to the property line. Abolish regulations that mandate parking spots. What emerges and why? How much could Fairfax shape what emerged with different commitments to expand transportation -- say, more highways vs. a new subway system tied to the existing Metro?

I think David Sucher makes a good point. Densely populated areas become that way because they have something to offer people. Zoning laws can prevent the population from becoming dense, but I do not think zoning laws can force urbanization. There needs to be a draw to the area, a benefit to be had by being near to a place or group of people.

I do not know about others, but I feel much less apprehensive about local laws and market intervention by local governments. Votes are not so diluted, and the voting population is closer to the effects of the exercise of power.

so what is the draw about Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, VA Square? Proximity to D.C. is my guess. Lots of easily accessible restaurants, bars, nightlife within a few blocks from the concentration of apartments and housing. centralized along wilson/clarendon blvd (the orange line).

Look at how East Falls Church and West Falls Church are. Nothing around them, just lots of houses.

Crystal City is perking up. A new Metro might be put in between RR National and Braddock Road, and lots of new condos are going in that neighborhood between Crystal City and the Target mall down the road. And Pentagon City mall is pleasant.

I don't see why Tysons needs to be developed . . . they've got the mall and some businesses out there, why not just leave it at that? Why the heck would anyone want to walk around Tysons? You might as well take a walk around the tarmac at Dulles, your chances of getting hit are about the same. If you want more development, do it around East Falls Church. That used to be developed, before I-66 went in. Why not put some condos and businesses in around EFC? Right now it's 100% residential, which is insane. There's a plan to put in an office building in the parking lot, but that's just a start.

frankly without larger appeal and distracting

Cancel your damn subscription and demand a FULL refund!

Re: ALB, I was about to say "But what about the Crystal City Safeway?" but I see that closed back in 2005. Huh. That *does* make it pretty inconvenient -- one would have to go to the Harris Teeter in Pentagon City or order Peapod or something. Have they replaced Safeway with another tenant yet? The news reports from 2005 suggested they were looking for another grocery.

For those mentioning Rosslyn, note that Tyler expressly left
it aside. And for good reason. While it does have a metro
stop, it is more like Tyson's than the rest of Arlington.


Heck, it is Gustav VON Schmoller, so you do not have to
worry about being compared to him. You are no "von" or
"de," hack cough. (And, hey, history is bunk, if not
entirely the German Historical School.)

farmer - that's probably why he put it under the fold. And because it's longish.

Comments for this post are closed