Northern Va. Tries New Model To Battle Sprawl Over the next 30 years, Fairfax County in Virginia is planning a makeover for Tysons Corner, one of the biggest concentrations of retail, office and hotels in the suburbs in the country. The changes — to make it a more walkable city — could create a model for similar places across the country.
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Northern Va. Tries New Model To Battle Sprawl

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Northern Va. Tries New Model To Battle Sprawl

Northern Va. Tries New Model To Battle Sprawl

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From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. And now, a plan to make a real city out of an edge city. That's what we used to call places that cropped up in the outer suburbs, places to shop or work but not to live. To get there, you'd drive, and a couple of weeks ago, I drove out to one such place that's slated for an extreme makeover, and it gets a real alternative to driving. The Washington, D.C., metro rail system is coming to Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia.

Mr. CHRIS LEINBERGER (Urban Land Strategist and Developer): It's been most studied of any of these edge cities.

SIEGEL: I drove there with Chris Leinberger. He's a developer turned academic and urbanist. He's now at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. LEINBERGER: This is your classic drivable suburban place that is anchored by a regional mall, so it's just like Perimeter Center in Atlanta, King of Prussia Mall outside of Philadelphia, Schaumburg to the west of Chicago, Newport Beach and the Costa Mesa Mall south of Los Angeles. And this is, however, one of the biggest - if not the biggest - concentration of retail, office and hotels in the suburbs, in the country.

SIEGEL: There's a plan to change Tysons, and it could be a model for change at those other drivable suburban places. Tysons was started in the 1960s on farmland. It's a city for cars, two huge shopping malls, tens of thousands of shoppers a day, 167,000 parking spaces. The streets are broad and at the intersections, what should be right angles at the corners are cut with curved turning lanes so drivers don't have to slow down. It was built 13 miles from Washington near two interstate highways, halfway to Dulles International Airport. It was the far edge of the D.C. metropolitan area.

Mr. LEINBERGER: Edge cities, unfortunately, was a name that was picked up but very quickly lost its relevance because this is no hunker on the edge. The edge pushed out another 30 miles. And so Tysons Corner is now what's referred to in real estate as infill, even though it's only been up for 30, 40 years.

SIEGEL: And in common parlance, it's referred to as a monstrosity. Exhibit A, I was driving us to an appointment at the Tower Club.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. LEINBERGER: You can get in right here.

SIEGEL: Oh, I'm going to... nope, nope, nope, nope.

Mr. LEINBERGER: Yup, you want to go in there, you're now going to Tyson's Mall.

SIEGEL: I missed the turn off of Route 7 and made the next turn. It was all of 20 yards farther down the road into the first Tyson's Mall.

(Soundbite of conversation)

SIEGEL: Can I get out or do I have to - I mean is this...

Mr. LEINBERGER: You're going to have to make a U-turn and go back out.

SIEGEL: We're looking straight ahead at the building I'm trying to get to.

Mr. LEINBERGER: You can't get there from here.

SIEGEL: I can't get there from here.

Mr. LEINBERGER: And you can't walk there.

SIEGEL: We were 250 yards away as the crow flies, but Tysons Corner wasn't built for crows any more than it was built for people. So I made a U-turn in the parking lot, a right on to Route 7 and another U-turn.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. LEINBERGER: We've followed the advice of traffic engineers. You're in traffic engineer hell right now.

SIEGEL: Uh-huh.

SIEGEL: And to get out of it, I made a left at the next light into a residential subdivision, a loop through the subdivision and then another U-turn.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. LEINBERGER: Now it doesn't let you go back.

SIEGEL: Well, but what if I make a right turn here, I think we can…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Logically, we should be able to get back. I didn't do this on purpose, Chris, I swear.

SIEGEL: And about a quarter of an hour later, I turned right at our destination on to Tower Crescent Road.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. LEINBERGER: So, there's no signs to say where do you park.

SIEGEL: I know. Where do I park?

SIEGEL: I'll spare you that adventure. Chris Leinberger says this unwalkable, car-dominated city is the product of policies and subsidies that favored drivable suburban development.

Mr. LEINBERGER: We wanted it. I mean, this is something that we, the people, wanted very badly. What we didn't know is that as you built more of it, you decrease the quality of life.

SIEGEL: So here's the challenge to Fairfax County, Virginia, the most populous county in the state. Tysons is a huge source of its revenue, but in today's market, people want walkable, bikable, livable urban environments. That'll be possible here when four rail stations are built as the Metro finally makes its way out to Dulles Airport. So, the county is planning an urban future for Tysons over the next 30 years.

Mr. BILL LECOS (President, Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce): We're looking at sort of what we call the core of Tysons…

SIEGEL: In the Tower Club at Tysons, 17 stories above ground on a wrap-around balcony, Bill Lecos pointed out the vista of sprawl below.

Mr. LECOS: It's a range of telecom, government contracting, professional services, banking. And you've got the retail landscape.

SEIGEL: Lecos runs the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce. Tysons is home to plenty of commerce. What it isn't home to is plenty of people.

Mr. LECOS: Tysons is a place that was designed for cars, not people. About 17,000 people live here and about 117,000 - give or take - come to work here every day. So that incredible imbalance is why you have the absolute commuter nightmare of trying to get 117,000 people in, you know, in one period of time in the morning, and out again at 5 o'clock.

SIEGEL: So a central part of the plan is to build residential housing, a plan for a population of 100,000. That means more than just building apartment houses. Tysons is utterly inhospitable to pedestrians. Clark Tyler chairs the Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force, and he took us for a rare experience. In a city, you would call it a walk.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Mr. CLARK TYLER (Chairman, Tysons Corner Land Use Task force): Now, we are approaching Route 123 at the entrance to Tysons Corner Shopping Center. You will note that there are nine lanes of traffic.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. TYLER: As you approach that, and you will see the little, yellow box there with a red light in it, which says you've got 40 seconds to cross nine lanes of traffic. Now we have come to the end of the sidewalk, another hyphenated section of hyped sidewalk.

SIEGEL: We have to explain this. We just walked down the block on a sidewalk, and it ends. If we were to attempt to get to the opposite corner of this intersection, the diagonally opposite…

Mr. TYLER: Right.

SIEGEL: I don't know how we would do it.

Mr. TYLER: No. You'd have to leap over the median and cross four lanes, five lanes of traffic...

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. TYLER: To get anywhere close to the crosswalk.

SIEGEL: So what will the new Tysons be like?

Mr. TYLER: It will have sidewalks that are not hyphenated. It will have a grid of streets, shorter blocks. It will have a circulation system. 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.

SIEGEL: Buses to get you from the rail stations to the stores - sounds like science fiction, sounds like a city. Developers are coming around to love the idea of green, dense, walkable neighborhoods. After all, the value of the land will go up. But some of Tyson's neighbors are incredulous.

Mayor JANE SEEMAN (Vienna, Virginia) I'm so used to Tysons being what it is now that it's a new idea that we've got to get our minds wrapped around. And it's a little difficult. But you've got to think far enough ahead in the future, I guess, to believe it.

SIEGEL: Mayor Jane Seeman 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?

Mayor SEEMAN: It's the impact it's going to have on our quality of life in Vienna.

SIEGEL: Now, Tysons is a huge revenue earner for the county, so you benefit from Tysons growth.

Mayor SEEMAN: Right.

SIEGEL: Already you do.

Mayor SEEMAN: Right, right. We do. Yes, and you know, there's all sorts of infrastructure problems that have not been addressed. We just want to make sure that we have a voice in the continuing development.

SIEGEL: The 30-year plan for Tysons isn't like a plan to restore an old place. You can't peel away the clumsy construction of the 1970s and then work with the remains of a charming older city somewhere beneath. This place went from zero to 60 like a fast car. And if you say show me, show me a livable, walkable place that's been made from some oversized office park a dozen miles from a big city, well, as Chris Leinberger told our hosts from Fairfax County up on their wrap-around balcony, there isn't any, at least not yet.

Mr. LEINBERGER: You are on the cutting edge. Because of the significance of Tysons Corner, this is going to be the model of how we transform King of Prussia, Perimeter Center, Costa Mesa down in Orange County, California. All of these places are going to be transforming just as you are. But you're going first, which means you get to pay the dumb tax.

SIEGEL: They get to make mistakes that we haven't even thought of. In 30 years, we'll know if they got it right. You can see a bit of Tysons Corner, present and future, at You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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