Board of Supervisors Pass New Rules on Tysons, but Questions Remain

During its regularly scheduled June 22nd meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a significant Comprehensive Plan Amendment designed to spur the redevelopment of Tysons Corner. I voted for the plan, and while I am an optimist, I expressed my significant concern that it was too cautious and timid, and did not support the broad economic development objectives of the Tysons Task Force.

Why Tysons?
The redevelopment of Tysons Corner is critical to the future of Fairfax County for a number of reasons. Primary among them is the fact that we need a new wave of commercial development. Commercial development, especially in the technology sector, brings good jobs to Fairfax. Businesses also bring tax revenue as they pay more in county taxes than they consume in county services. During the last thirty years our commercial tax base has played an important role in funding the great schools, police and fire, parks and libraries that Fairfax residents have come to enjoy.

In addition to more commercial development, the vision for Tysons proposes roughly 40,000 new residential units to handle 80,000 new residents over the next 40 years. Why build new housing? Demographers tell us that 250,000 people will move to Fairfax County over the next 30 to 50 years, whether we like it or not. The idea of Tysons is to concentrate many of them near jobs and near transit, to minimize the transportation impacts. If we don’t concentrate residential development, those people will move all over Northern Virginia and then drive to jobs in Tysons, creating gridlock exponentially worse than we see today.

The fact is there is only one way to stop people from moving here - make it a bad place to live. We certainly don’t want that. As long as Fairfax is a great place to live, people will want to come here, and we need to prepare for them in the most advantageous way.

The Task Force Plan
Tysons Corner is currently a gridlocked sea of asphalt, concrete and low-rise suburban office buildings. In 2005, the Board of Supervisors established a citizens committee, known as the Tysons Task Force, and charged it with creating a future vision for Tysons and developing a land use plan to support it. People from literally all over the world have been watching, as this effort marks the first time a community has tried to convert a suburban sprawl mall into an urban center.

The Task Force delivered a bold plan that called for extensive growth, residential development not just for the rich but for those at various income levels, environmental protection and public facilities such as parks and schools. It also called for developing an inviting, city-like atmosphere with a grid of streets for shops and walking. This atmosphere would attract the young professionals planners predict may choose to live in the new Tysons. The grid of streets would also spread out traffic on a number of smaller streets, instead of concentrating it on a few large boulevards.

The genius of the Task Force approach was that it did not ask for people to choose between economic development and environmental protection, or between private development and public facilities. By offering adequate density, that is, by permitting large buildings, they created a scenario where the private sector could underwrite significant costs, but remain profitable.

Staff and Planning Commission Plan
The Task Force proposal went to County staff and the Planning Commission, where, unfortunately, many of the bold development opportunities were taken away, but the expensive environmental and public facilities requirements remained. The Staff and Planning Commission Plan, which the Board adopted, permits large development to occur within ¼ mile of the four new Tysons Metro stops. In other areas, however, there are tighter restrictions on the level of density that can be built, even though the costly requirements remain. The question left unanswered, but so critical to the complete redevelopment of Tysons, is whether developers will choose to build beyond the ¼ mile radius under the recently passed plan amendment.

The newly adopted plan does not supersede current zoning, so developers have the right to reject the new rules and build smaller buildings under the old rules (called “By Right” development). If they view the new rules as too costly, without sufficient incentives such as greater densities, they will build “By Right” and we will just see more of the same low building, horizontal sprawl in Tysons. Several businesses and business groups testified that they believe that is exactly what will happen under the Board plan. I tried to build a coalition on the Board to permit significantly more development out to ½ mile from a metro stop, but the Board did not agree. Time will tell whether the newly passed plan will encourage, or strangle, the economic growth we need.

For More Information
Though the Braddock District may not be physically impacted by the proposed redevelopment, we will still feel the impact. Tysons is Fairfax’s downtown, and many Braddock residents work there. We will all benefit if economic growth accelerates.

It is important to note, however, that the transformation of Tysons Corner from a suburban office park to an urban center will occur slowly over the course of many years. The Tysons Task Force presented an over-arching vision with a long time horizon. The plan adopted by the Board covers just the first 20 year increment.

During this initial stage, development for office space is capped at 45 million square feet. Currently, about 33 million square feet are already built or planned for. However, this cap does not apply to retail, hotels and other uses that generate a low number peak-hour travel trips. The purpose of a cap is to ensure that the redevelopment of Tysons does not outpace the building of infrastructure, such as the grid of streets.

Much more of the focus in the first 20 years is placed on the construction of residential properties. As we look to develop a better resident-to-job ratio and create a livable community that will help take some pressure off of our transportation system, this residential building will be essential. In fact, within 1/4 mile of Metro stations, there will be no density cap on residential, retail, hotel or certain other uses. Between 1/4 and 1/3 mile from the stations, there will be ceilings on density, becoming more restrictive between 1/3 and 1/2 mile. Seventy-five percent of all new density at Tysons will be within 1/2 mile of the stations, a distance that most studies indicate pedestrians are willing to walk on a daily basis.

While the densities allowed in Tysons are higher than elsewhere in the County, to build under the new plan for Tysons, developers will be required to meet a number of new, more stringent and more urban standards. LEED Silver environmental standards will be required for commercial development and 20 percent of residential units built must be “affordable” (meaning designed for those making under $120,000 per year). Currently, that requirement is 12 percent “affordable” countywide.

Finally, in Tysons, the land area and/or building space for public facilities - the schools, the parks, the police and fire stations - are expected to be provided by developers at no cost to the County. The private sector will also be responsible for paying for the grid of streets, perhaps the piece most necessary if we wish to construct an urban center that is truly livable. The County estimates that the grid of streets will cost approximately $444 million dollars over the next 20 years. The development community will also be asked to pay for some portion of the Tysons-wide road projects the County has identified, items like widening roads within Tysons or creating ramps on and off of the Dulles Toll Road. If that cost is too high, or the incentives not great enough, Tysons could fail, but if the Board found the right mix, as we hope, then we will begin a new era of economic development and the creation of an urban, transit and pedestrian-focused community.

Stay tuned to future issues of the Beacon for information on the infrastructure projects and their cost. In the meantime, I will continue to push for more development near transit and for new transportation initiatives to meet our growing needs.

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