Over the past month many residents and commuters have noted the construction site along Westwood Center Drive, currently dwarfed by the massive overhaul of the Route 7 median. This isn’t construction on a new auto dealership, it’s the first of the long anticipated transit oriented developments projected for the new Urban Design guided Tysons Corner. In addition to being the first urban concept Wal-Mart in the region, Tysons West, most importantly, will serve to be the first test on the tense, though potentially symbiotic, relationship between Fairfax, Tysons Corner, and developers.
Since the announcement of a new Wal-Mart in Tysons Corner there has been a lot of cynicism over the “new direction” Tysons will experience with a retailer who for decades has typified areas of suburban sprawl in America. The renderings and design plans submitted in 2011 showed that this Wal-Mart will not look anything like the typical image that comes to mind. Parking has been drastically reduced and accommodated within an existing, to be retrofitted, parking garage. Unlike other Wal-Mart projects, this development will be in assemblage with a 24-hour health club, located above the Wal-Mart, mid-rise and high-rise residential development, and street level retail. The vision for the 16 acre total site is a walkable, convenient, and enjoyable community. The 440 unit Sheraton hotel will be renovated with upgraded rooms and updated common areas. The project will incorporate a new network of roads for the property and extensive improvements on pedestrian access both internally and along the frontage with Route 7. Phase I, currently under construction does not include residential, however the next phase is anticipated to include 300 to 350 residential apartments within mid-rise development as well as a new office and residential high rise tower currently under rezoning consideration.
Jay Klug, Principal at JBGR and member of the Tysons task force in charge of the Urban Design Guidelines document which gained Fairfax sponsorship this past week, is very interested in seeing Tysons Corner grow from its current commercial office environment to an well rounded city where residents can live, work and play. He was gracious enough to provide some time to us in an interview which showed his passion towards taking, what right now may be unsustainable, and creating an environment which thrives for more than commercial real estate. When asked about the commitment of JBGR to creating an accessible non-vehicular environment Mr. Klug noted “We [JBGR] really do share the County’s vision for common areas and enticing streets” which will improve retail viability. This is demonstrated through the planned Tysons West pedestrian improvements along Route 7 which will take the current asphalt trail which does not provide an inviting pedestrian environment and creating a true urban nature to this frontage. “Pedestrian connectivity is important to us, we want walkability, and to create the most open and inviting sidewalk system to walk to the Sheraton Convention Center and new retail and to connect residence in an enhanced system.” JBGR is very excited about being the only metro accessible grocery store for the new Tysons Corner, which will provide residence and commuters this convenience only a few steps from the Tysons West metro station.
“Fundamentally the question remains, the design will involve cars versus people. All of the work being performed for traffic studies is really a car focused way of looking at the world. More capacity by widening a road is fundamentally at odds with pedestrian accessibility.” Mr. Klug continued noting “Currently the County is struggling with addressing both. Transportation planners need to think about the old models of delays and levels of service, and understand that template can not be applied to Tysons Corner, or else the roads will become oversized.”When questioned on the lack of residential units being provided this year Mr. Klug noted that they were very interested in including a residential element as well given current market conditions however all rezoning plans have currently hit a log jam both with Fairfax County, but more importantly with VDOT. Typically a new project would be required to determine its traffic impact for the direct vicinity including any intersections along the frontage of the development. However due to the ongoing VDOT analysis of Route 7 with regard to anticipated growth, all projects are now currently in review within the overall city model under design by VDOT. These studies require understanding the entire region as a whole and it is unclear how long projects that are currently ready for rezoning and are adhering to the new rules of the comprehensive plan are going to remain in limbo before VDOT accepts their approval. This is very frustrating as these studies are currently looking into the needs for further road widenings, something that the County, residents, and even developers are now against. Additionally, the studies themselves are delaying improvements to the city’s road grid which many developments, including Tysons West will be providing within their project limits.
We found JBGR’s attitude towards development to be surprisingly progressive, and not at all the stereotypical short-term profit model many have accused Tysons Corner’s elite developers of being. More so than possibly the County itself, JBGR is noting that providing the best design for the public has the economic benefit of encouraging retail sustainability and creates an attractive residential destination. JBGR has also made an effort of giving back to the community through the donation of several trees to the locality and Reston Community Association in the goal of promoting sustainable design. Perhaps moving forward the involved parties should consider ending the adversarial confrontation typical of the development process given the mutually beneficial future that proper design and guidance in correlation with investment and private interest can create for Tysons Corner. Given the new advantageous atmosphere surrounding the county and developers this decade for Tysons Corner is gearing up to be an era of smart growth and changes that have long been needed.