Is the Urban Growth Boom Fading?

Image credit: Brookings Institution

Several years ago Brookings Institution urbanist William H. Frey proclaimed the 2010s as “the decade of the city.” A constellation of forces in the knowledge economy, which puts a premium on dense, mixed-use urban environments with access to mass transit, was pulling Millennials and corporations back into central cities. It was a logic that I subscribed to, although I did raise the warning that there were limits to how much growth cities could absorb, given zoning, regulatory and other growth restrictions that limit the pace of urban redevelopment.

Now, citing new U.S. Census data, Frey has found that big city growth rates have leveled off and suburban growth rates are reviving. He writes:

The new numbers for big cities—those with a population of over a quarter million—are telling. Among these 84 cities, 55 of them either grew at lower rates than the previous year or sustained population losses. This growth fall-off further exacerbates a pattern that was suggested last year. The average population growth of this group from 2016 to 2017 was 0.83 percent—down from well over 1 percent for earlier years of the decade and lower than the average annual growth rate among these cities for the 2000 to 2010 decade.

The Washington metro was an exception to the trend. Population of the “primary city” (which I presume refers to Washington, D.C., although it may include Arlington and Alexandria) grew 1.5% between 2016 and 2017, exceeding the 1.0% rate for the suburbs.

In the Richmond metro, the population of the primary city (presumably the City of Richmond) gained 0.8% over the same period, slightly slower than 1.0% rate for the suburbs.

In the “Virginia Beach” metro, the population of the primary city (I’ve got no idea which localities Frey might be counting) actually declined 0.3% while the “suburbs” grew 0.8%.

Frey does not try to explain why the urban growth spurt has slowed. I stick with my original theory that there is an untapped demand for urbanism but urban areas have limited capacity to absorb new growth. Urban-core localities have little vacant land to develop, and strong NIMBY forces inhibit redevelopment at higher densities. Preservationists want to protect historic buildings. Homeowners fear traffic impact. Property owners want to protect view sheds from tall buildings.

NIMBY forces are at work in outlying jurisdictions, too, but there is a backlog of zoned projects from the 2000s real estate boom, and there are vast areas dedicated to industrial/commercial uses that can be rezoned with only modest impact on adjacent neighborhoods.

Bacon’s bottom line: Core urban jurisdictions can’t grow their populations any faster than they can redevelop — and they can’t redevelop very fast. As urban property values rise, many people have no choice but to locate in suburban localities where land values are cheaper. Perhaps the best opportunities for real estate developers in 2018 are in retrofitting the obsolete economic mono-cultures of shopping centers and office parks into vibrant, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that emulate the urbanity of city centers.

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23 responses to “Is the Urban Growth Boom Fading?”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    Where is Ed Risse when you need him? City: core, confusing word. Washington, DC is 61 sq mi. Richmond is 60 sq mi. Houston is 600 sq mi. Jacksonville is 747 sq mi.

    Reston has a population density of 3,810 per sq mi. Richmond has a density of 3,713 per sq mi. If someone moves from Richmond to Reston have they really moved from a city to a suburb?

    While I believe the thesis is probably correct I question the methodology of proving the thesis. You almost have to go zip code by zip code and look at growth by population density.

    The big issue in the “core cities” (sorry, Ed) is the cost. This seems true throughout the developed world so I have to wonder if it’s really driven by regulations and zoning. Seems more like supply and demand to me.

    People do like walkable places. They just can’t afford to live in those places. It seems to me that a network of small, dense, walkable mini-cities connected to each other via proper transportation would be the right balance of walkability and cost effectiveness. If Fairfax County had 10 Restons those 10 mini-cities would take up 153 sq mi and house 580,000 people. The first avenue for growth would be to increase the densities of the 10 Restons to 4,500 – 5,000 per sq mi. The second avenue would be to charter more Restons.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I agree with Don and Jim –

    We are largely unable to build anything new in this country, absent horrible costs, delay and rejection. What we can build is often the result of crony capitalism. Bechtel’s $350 million fee to supervise enlargement of Dulles being classic example, a job that proved largely unnecessary to build altogether, and has proven to be grossly dysfunctional once built.

    One element that Jim’s article and Don’s post misses is that Crony Capitalism acerbates the dysfunction and wastage aspect of the building problem in this country. Here recall Obama’s nearly $Trillion Dollars “infrastructure bill” that he promised would be spent to build “shovel ready projects” but that in fact built hardly any shovel ready projects at all.

    Instead Obama’s $Trillion Dollar infrastructure bill was largely a fraud, mostly graft and bribe monies paid out to gain political influence and collect IOUs. Of course no shovel ready projects were “ready to be built” under Obama anywhere. Trump is working hard to fix this. I predict that we’ll see a building boom in this country, that this article and these Brookings findings may well be reversed over the next decade. America is coming back.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    More density equals more motor vehicle traffic. Yes, indeed, some people take transit and walk in denser areas. But as Tysons is proving the additional growth and density is resulting in horrendous increases in traffic congestion that overwhelms existing roads and is creating massive cut-through traffic that, in turn, is degrading the quality of life in communities near Tysons.

    What’s causing the problem? It’s not the standards. Table 5 to the Tysons Comp Plan includes some pretty good trip reduction requirements. But, as with so many things in Fairfax County, enforcement is — well — a big joke. Landowners and their commercial tenants located in the TOD areas, who carry strong trip reduction requirements, get to self measure and self report compliance and, sometimes, as infrequently as every other year. Think about it. If your company, a tenant in a new TOD-located building, asks you how you got to work for a TDM compliance survey, what will you say? And since Fairfax County is not enforcing TDM, it’s just a little white lie to say you took the Silver Line or came in a car pool on measurement day, when, in fact, you drove solo like you do every single day.

    You cannot develop/redevelop a major urban area like Tysons based on a single rail line that is a spur line. And the price tag for the Silver Line shows we cannot afford to build more rail lines into Tysons.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Density creates problems then it solves problems. TMT, by your logic Manhattan doesn’t exist. But it does exist. The ratio of streets to people in Manhattan is much lower than in Tysons. Yet everyday millions and millions of people come in and out of Manhattan and move around Manhattan. It wasn’t always that way. Old pictures of New York City show fields and farms.

      Tysons is like an adolescent kid. Lots of problems. However, growth and maturity will solve those problems.

      The answer to Tysons is more density, more growth. There’s still way too much empty space. It’s also too small and too indistinct. In a normal state Tysons would be incorporated as a city within Fairfax County at perhaps 15 – 20 sq mi. Once the density gets up above 5,000 – 6,000 per sq mi more land would be annexed into the city. Tysons would effectively become the “capital” of Fairfax County – an area with a higher population than 8 states and the District of Columbia. Fairfax would have to show the discipline to create sufficient incentives to encourage more and more development in Tysons. Meanwhile, Tysons would have to have a tax base to sufficiently expand transportation capability and choice.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        I agree, Don. Most importantly it needs to drastically change its mix and proportion of uses. Recall, for example, that high rise affluent residential spins off public wealth at an astounding rate, income over cost.

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Gentlemen – if we had active enforcement of the TOD requirements, instead of “we will close our eyes to this because you folks make campaign contributions,” I’d be less concerned. Despite the promises and hocus-pocus reports from government officials, traffic volumes are up. People cannot get out of their neighborhoods near Tysons in the later afternoon and early evening because of cut-through traffic. You need to look at what is occurring on the ground, not just say “NYC works so Tysons will too.” If NYC had the same proportion of SOVs as Tysons does, it would fail.

    Similarly, the landowners are fighting the requirements to locate parks, recreational fields and open space in Tysons. A study showed that a fully developed Tysons will need at least 75 sports fields. The Plan calls for 20. And these are being fought. So that means, to recreate in Tysons many people will need to get in their cars and drive to other parts of the County. Tell me how well Manhattan would work without its parks, fields, recreation buildings and open space, which constitute a full 25% of the land space of the Borough. You need to look at what is happening, not just theory.

    According to Google Maps, I live about 3.5 miles from the Hyatt Regency in Tysons. A couple weeks ago I went to a workshop there. Traffic on 123 was normal; no accidents or bad whether. It took me 35 minutes to drive there. Tysons traffic is going to limit Tysons’ potential.

    And to reach its maximum growth of c. 116 msf, the Orange Line needs to be extended to at least Centreville and two other heavy rail lines must also be built. Does anyone really think the County will not approve re-zonings and final development plans unless and until these multi-billion dollar projects are completed? And if so, why?

    And, finally, Reed, I’ve asked the Supervisors when they think growth in Tysons will enable the County to increase its spending without requiring residential tax increases. The County has no idea if and when that will occur. Ergo, the wealth being generated simply stays with the landowners and construction companies.

    Tysons could work but it requires Fairfax County officials to enforce the compromise agreement that enabled the Comp Plan to be amended in June 2010.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      If NYC had the same proportion of SOVs as Tysons does, it would fail.

      Once upon a time I’m sure it did. Then the congestion and traffic jams got so bad that people started using public transportation or shared ride services (taxis and buses at first). I was doing work for a very large company in New York City. Its CEO was at their headquarters in Mid-Town. He had a meeting with an analyst on Wall Street. They had their meeting and it ran late. The analyst asked if he could have his office contact the CEO driver to let him know that the pickup would be delayed. The analyst was aghast to hear that the CEO took the subway to the meeting. Everybody who knows their ass from a hole in the ground in New York City takes the subway. In reality, it’s the only way to predictably arrive on time.

      Sure, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors could screw things up. All the more reason Tysons should be an independent city. A city council composed of members required to live in the city will make better decisions that a county board with members who would just as soon see Tysons dry up and blow away.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      TNT –

      You describe Fairfax County and Tyson’s Corner very well:

      “I live about 3.5 miles from the Hyatt Regency in Tysons. A couple weeks ago . . . It took me 35 minutes to drive there.”

      The traffic in NYC likely moves more slowly. The difference is that in NYC you are passing by, block by block, the most vibrant city in the world. In Fairfax you are creeping through a dystopia of dysfunction and greed.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Still – places like NYC were once like Tysons… right?

    How did suburban NYC become urban NYC?

    Ditto – for Houston, Atlanta, LA, Seattle, Chicago, etc.

    It’s sorta like a road that gets expanded and busier and the residential that was once there – get converted to commercial and then multi-story commercial because of land costs.

    Measuring the growth of “core” cities verses the growth of MSAs…

    The automobile – and the beltway fundamentally changed the way that core cities “developed”. When roads were smaller and there was no easy way to
    get “around” a core – development happened very differently and it actually did encourage core development. Beltways, on the other hand, encourage ring road development. Totally unlike how cities developed prior to beltways when most had what is known as hub and spoke road (and rail) systems.

    I too miss Ed Risse… but was always a skeptic of some of his thinking… which felt relied too much on draconian govt rules to enforce the “proper” settlement patterns and was less accepting of free markets – though I totally admit that most urban areas are rule-laden and have to be to keep people from reverting to base instincts.

    Agglomeration is a word that describes contemporary urban regions…these days… and I think we might actually be moving away from city cores in some places… especially since many modern-day companies are more prone to build their complexes outside of city cores. Amazon and others typically do not want to be in city cores, right?

    1. Still – places like NYC were once like Tysons… right?

      No, NYC was never developed as an auto-centric suburb.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        So that’s a pretty significant observation. Some folks seem to think Tysons will, some day, become a “core” or an adjunct adding to the Washington DC core.

        Tysons is a different animal. It looks like leap-frog growth.

        I’m sure at one part far in the past that NYC was a much smaller core than it is now and it basically expanded and added to the original core.

        Tysons is not that way.

      2. djrippert Avatar

        Ahhh … cities and suburbs. More core confusing words. Parts of New York City sure as hell did develop as auto-centric bedroom communities designed to house the people who worked in Manhattan.

        Here’s a traffic jam on the Lower East Side from 1923 -

        The difference between New York City and anywhere in Virginia is that New York City is a real city and Virginia has no real cities. Virginia’s most populous “city” (Virginia Beach) is a county pretending to be a city. Norfolk, at almost 100 sq mi, is big enough to be a real city but with under 250,000 people it’s more of a large town than a city.

        The path to functioning urban areas is through density and the ability to grow the size of the city. This is routinely achieved in a city / county construct – the approach taken in every state except Virginia. Meanwhile, annexations have been put on hold indefinitely by the legislature. Look at the city-county merger that happened in Louisville in 2003 to see what a bold plan to build a real city looks like.

        Virginia is structurally incapable of building a city like Louisville, Charlotte or Nashville. And just forget about the possibility of an Atlanta. Your hoped-for utopia of walkable, high density, urban living will never happen in Virginia beyond neighborhood scale. Why? Because strong cities threaten weak minded state legislatures and Virginia has the weakest minded state legislature of them all.

        Virginia is a mis-managed backwater state which belongs in a grouping with Alabama and Mississippi. Both Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia are miles ahead – even without the flood of federal money that Virginia gets.

        1. DJ captures it quite well. I’ll support DJ for governor. I’m not sure how much headway he can make with the Tommy Norments of the “Imperial Clown Show” but at least he’ll speak truth to clowns.

          To the extent that Virginia succeeds, it seems to increasingly do it despite itself. The anti-annexation and other barriers to the development of modern urban cores that are driving economic growth (Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Nashville, Austin, Santa Monica. . . ) is not structurally possible here. The moderately dense suburbs that had their heyday in the 1970s-90s in Virginia are not generating economic energy. Sure, there is some new energy in Richmond, but it was leapfrogged decades ago and has lots of catch up to do.

          The economic power of Virginia has largely stemmed from federal government for NoVa and to a lesser extent the military expenditure in Hampton Roads. Both need to transform into “what’s next”, and that will require higher density.

          1. djrippert Avatar

            It’s hard to see why our elected officials don’t get this. My Dad used to say, “When you have to decide between incompetence and conspiracy it’s almost always incompetence.” I know a number of our General Assembly members and they seem bright but when they all gather in Richmond I guess they undergo some kind of virtual lobotomy during the session. I guess what will finally wake up our politicians is the election of a president like Bernie Sanders who will the cut the living hell out of all government except entitlements (which will explode). The resulting cut in government spending will cripple Virginia economically and force everybody to confront the absurdity of the governance structure and approach we have adopted.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Speaking of settlement patterns and people. We are currently making our way from Northern California National Parks to Southern California and I can report without hesitation that despite TMT derision of California – it’s totally overrun with people and their cars… to an obscene extent – and Californians show no appetite for leaving. They love their state and it’s economy and all it’s world class parks as much as they hate each others cars mired in perpetual traffic.

    The only way around it is to take the mountain roads and that’s no better to be honest… what you gain is slightly fewer cars is tortuous winding roads and folks with highly maneuverable little cars…

    At any rate – keep in mind that California is about 8th in the world as an economy when compared to other nations and it seems to be thriving…as most all of it’s urban areas are more agglomerations than cores…save for a few like San Francisco…

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry – have you seen this and other articles about discontent in California? Housing prices, taxes and traffic are having a toll on many Golden State residents. Not all, for sure, but many. Meanwhile the flow of illegal immigrants continues into California.

      Fairfax County is seeing the same thing. There has been net outward domestic migration for years. The demographics are much more stratified now than a decade or so ago. Fairfax is moving in the direction of bubbles on the curve at the high and lowest ends of the income curve.

      Will some good come from Tysons? Yes. But it was always about enriching some people in the name of “smart growth.” If you go back to the December 2004 Final EIS for Dulles Rail, you will see that the expenditure of billions of dollars would not produce much, if anything, in the way of reductions in traffic congestion. More than 10 years ago, I asked a VDOT engineer to explain. She replied that “Yes” the arrival of the Silver Line would reduce traffic congestion but all that and some more would be undone by the amount of development allowed by Fairfax County. What’s in it for the average resident of Fairfax County especially those living in the northern part of the county?

      Are people riding the Silver Line? Yes but many of them have merely transferred from the Orange Line. Indeed, that is why WMATA is looking into the potential mixed use development at the West Falls Church Metro Station. WMATA is looking for ways to increase ridership on the Orange Line, including building density at a rail station.

      I’m not against urbanism at all. I think it adds choices for housing and the location of businesses. It also makes good sense to add density at rail stations but only if buildings in those areas have extremely strict TDM requirements that are enforced.

      BTW, a number of months ago, a local McLean church on Route 7 proposed renting space to a small private school and closing its daycare operations. The net result was more car traffic. Neighbors were concerned but the applicants and the Church were able to negotiate an agreement that supported the school but with conditions, including monthly monitoring and reporting on car pools. That’s a tougher standard than that which has been imposed on Tysons landowners at the rail stations.

      The Tysons landowners either take an annual vehicle count or conduct a survey. None of the results are available to the public nor has any county audit been conducted to the best of my knowledge. According to the last annual report “To date, most developments in Tysons that have submitted TDM Annual Reports have met or exceeded their trip reduction goals.” Is this good and open government?

      To date, I don’t see the urbanization of Tysons delivering much in concrete value to Fairfax County residents but causing a further degradation of the quality of life for those of us who are Tysons’ neighbors. And much of the problem comes from local government’s closing its eyes to the added traffic congestion being caused by redevelopment.

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    TMT –

    That’s a good article you mention – – about how “Housing prices, taxes and traffic are having a toll on many Golden State residents. Not all, for sure, but many.”

    I agree with you that the same is happening in and around DC, particularly as regards Fairfax County, including Tysons Corner. Inadequate transport systems, and incompatible or highly inefficient zoning and land use patterns, working together, drive housing prices sky high.

    This horror is often man made, and it was done intentionally in Tyson’s Corner. The entire business strategy and tactics of the landowners in Tyson’s corner was to build a city there that was designed and built to export the costs of that city to its neighbors while the city’s landowners kept for themselves the profits. The results of this greed quickly spread a virulent chronic dysfunction throughout the entire DC region, leaving desolation everywhere in Fairfax.

  8. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Jim says in the above article that:

    “Several years ago Brookings Institution urbanest William H. Frey proclaimed the 2010s as “the decade of the city” … Now, citing new U.S. Census data, Frey has found that big city growth rates have leveled off and suburban growth rates are reviving.”

    I agree with Mr. Frey when he predicts a more balanced approach to growth. That future growth most likely will be vigorously played out in big cities, suburbs, and rural areas, given emergent technologies that shrink distances, allow free and easy information exchange and communication, and more affordable, quicker transport within and between places and everywhere.

    But I suggest that, more than ever before, if growth is to be healthy and vigorous, and bring long lasting benefit, that growth will have to be properly planned and managed and integrated by leaders within those local places. And those local places must enjoy strong and adaptable and healthy cultures and institutions.

    Today, unfortunately, the failing cultures and rotting societies and institutions within far too many places are major obstacles to strong and enduring growth in America. This is a rising problem of shocking proportion in some places like Charlottesville, for example, but this is not a new problem, nor is it a confined problem. It’s been long term and wide spread since the late 1960s.

    Today, this problem infests far too many cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Growing number of locales today are hobbled by failing cultures. Its an old story that repeats itself. This is what started to happen to NYC with Republican Mayor John Lindsay in late 60’s and early 1970s. This happened to Fairfax County starting in the 1960s and 1970s, long before Obama, and it has continued unabated to this date, for reasons far different from NYC. These old problems have deepened in ever more places since Obama, in inter-cities like Washington, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, and now their outlying suburban areas too, new places that used to thrive, but rapidly became obsolete, due to bad public policies, failing education and transportation systems, and failing cultures. These horrific trends and systems must be fixed or at least substantially ameliorated, if we are to gain balanced long term growth of all sorts in all sorts of places. Only if fixes are found, can intense growth and novel more moderate growth be possible most everywhere – rural lands, suburbs, satellite cities, and inner cities. Technologies will allow this. Economics and geography will force this.

    Plus, and this is important – what is encouraged, what is allowed, and how those new forces at play today are intermixed for good or for ill, will depend, far more than ever before, on good planning, solid common sense, and good practical reality based execution by local leaders. Yes, Americans must return to their roots – common sense, practical know how, and strength based on strong values and strong supportive communities, where people help one another to achieve common goals that benefit entire communities instead of a few privileged individuals within those communities – if we are to find our future, instead to destroying it.

    Armed with this new ethic, Americans in places of particular promise and possibilities will short circuit haphazard growth that heretofore has resulted in negative growth that destroys opportunities rather that setting the stage for future opportunities. And while real estate’s prime location rule will continue strong and often dominate like before, this will less so than before. And some well managed places will overcome that rule altogether to thrive. This will include the bubbles of intense and healthy mixed use growth that Mr. Frey suggests. But here I emphasize healthy growth.

  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    How can the culture of a place, otherwise blessed, squander its opportunities? Here’s an example. Take Fairfax County. The most isolated county close into the city of Washington DC until 1960, Fairfax suddenly became Ground Zero for much of the region around Washington DC., convenient to most everywhere important, when the Capital Beltway’s I-495 opened.

    The change and concurrent shift of power and possibilities were dramatic. All of northwest Washington DC, the beating heart of the Nation’s Capital, and its wealthy Maryland suburbs, were suddenly minutes away from the tiny country hamlet crossroads of Tyson’s Corner, across the American Legion Bridge. So was Dulles International Airport now too, convenient to Tyson’s Corner, and all these wealthy and thriving Maryland and DC areas, and the Palisades areas on the Virginia side as well.

    Suddenly, too, the CIA was nearby too. Plus the drive time to Interstate 95 and Alexandria City on the beltway’s other end in Virginia had been cut in half, to about 20 minutes away. Not least of all, that Capital Beltway I-495 going past Tyson’s Corner’s front door not only encircled the world’s most powerful capital, it also linked America’s northeast metropolis via I-95 and I-270 (both headed north and south) up and down the nation’s east coast, going from Bar Harbor, Maine to Key West, Florida.

    This startlingly new network of roads exploded Fairfax County. Suddenly it became a powerhouse market for generating new commercial office buildings on a revolutionary and historic scale.

    And it worked, spectacularly so, at first. By 1980, Tyson’s Corner had built itself into the linchpin of the Washington DC Region at the center of the Middle Atlantic States. All roads led to Tyson’s Corner, or so it seemed. Its local landowners and builders had made sudden fortunes. Now national builders and tenants began to flood in, to join the frenetic city building action at Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. From a distance, Tyson’s Corner seemed a unique opportunity, a country crossroads amid cheap land minutes away from the world’s most important city and its most affluent neighborhoods, all easy pickings, taken quick and cheap.

    But by now, in the early 1980s, paradoxically, everything at Tyson’s Corner changed yet again. And not for the better. Indeed things began to come apart, as rapidly as they’d come together, and it would only get worse. Why?

    In the first phase of its development, starting in 1960, Tyson’s corner had been designed as a commuter city. A city built as quickly as possible for a few people’s massive benefit, all done with a sharp eye for maximum profit to the landowner with minimum infrastructure cost to benefit the public, all built without regard for Tyson’s Corner’s and its citizens’ long term future. So the front end risk was very small for huge reward for those who got in first, took their winnings, and got out quick. But how to play that game?

    Tyson’s Corner first was planned for commuter office buildings and shopping malls that would daily serve an entire region. One whose massive expanse of open air surface parking lots would fill up each morning and empty out each night, with auto traffic also going to a fro all day, every day, but especially weekdays with hordes of office workers and visitors.

    So the place was especially designed to generate huge volumes of daily traffic coming from all over a great region – office workers toiling away by day, office visitors filling office meeting space daily, while at nearby malls and strip centers, the horde of regional shoppers were also driving too and fro, and in and out, and all around, Tyson’s Corner daily, buying consumer goods that ranged from BMWs for sale on open lots to toasters and washers and dryers at Sears. The place was a bee hive of activities – workers and shoppers, going hither and yon, coming in and going many times daily, but no one ever lived there, not really, just worked and shopped there. It was kind of a no where place, frenetic and mindless by day, cold and empty at night. And it was all cheap and easy. All you had to do as a builder of such a empty soulless place was hijack the adjoining Interstate highways that had been built with massive amount of OTHER PEOPLES MONEY TO SERVE THOSE OTHER PEOPLE, INTERSTATE DRIVERS TRYING TO GET AROUND WASHINGTON DC TO GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.

    For about 20 years, this scheme worked well. Tyson’s Corner thrived, making tons of money living off commuter traffic, people living elsewhere. The free brand new interstate highways served Tyson’s Corner’s traffic easily. Plus the large expanses of open cheap paved over parking lots served its high rise office buildings, and its shopping malls, and its strip centers. Tyson’s seemed to have proven itself the perfect place to build an enormous city on the cheap, a city of tens of thousands of people without even the need for sidewalks. Everyone could drive anywhere quick and easy. Or so it seemed at the time. Until 1980, it was a world class crossroads amid acres of what had been open farmland the decade before, all of it easily rezoned (one could make up its zoning up along the way). And success bred success.

    Suddenly the new buildings begot more new buildings in a suddenly declared world class location, now suddenly convenient for a vast and growing array of high quality office tenants who easily and effortlessly arrived on world class Interstate roads and by air, for just as suddenly Tyson’s Corner was now served by a suddenly convenient spanking new International airport. And by an endless supply of wealthy residential housing close by. Houses ranging from the revolutionary planned new town of Reston, Virginia. To new mansion in the historic woodlands atop the Potomac River Gorge at Great Falls Va. where the Kennedy family had lived. To the opulent horse country estates of Potomac Maryland just across the river, where more of the Kennedy family lived, just like at Georgetown, but this time all lived happily and richly together without sidewalks.

    And, during the 60’s and 70’s building boom of this new city built on farmers fields, other peoples money built two more great highways serving Tyson’s Corner – one was an Interstate, the other was a Toll Road highway – and each one crisscrossed the other and the Capital Beltway’s I-495 at right at Tyson’s Corner’s front door.

    Here we are talking about the grand opening up of the Dulles Toll Roads flanking on both sides the Interstate quality Dulles International Airport Access Road to the northwest of Tyson’s corner. Here we are also talking about the brand new Interstate I-66 going into and out of downtown DC on its way to central Virginia’s Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley’s I-81 on the other side of Tyson’s Corner, a companion to nearby I-95 to Richmond.

    All this worked in 1980, using open air surface parking lots. But by then a few folks got greedy. They wanted more an more of just the same. So just as suddenly as success had arrived, things began to slow down, and jam up. But no one wanted to see it, or deal with it. Making money was too easy. Everyone went blind and stupid. Too much easy money always does that.

    1. Great summary, Reed. Especially this sentence:

      All you had to do as a builder of such a empty soulless place was hijack the adjoining Interstate highways that had been built with massive amount of OTHER PEOPLES MONEY TO SERVE THOSE OTHER PEOPLE, INTERSTATE DRIVERS TRYING TO GET AROUND WASHINGTON DC TO GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.

      Too much of real estate development is about hijacking other peoples’ money.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      The missing link in your otherwise excellent set of comments is that Tysons never was a city and still is not a city. It’s an area which has been run by the asshats in Richmond and the con men and women in Fairfax. Both groups were only too happy happy to siphon off all the tax monies being generated in Tysons during the good time to prop up various flights of fancy around the county and around the state.

      Starting with the expansion in the 1960s Tysons should have been incorporated as a city within Fairfax County. It should have had an elected city council composed of citizens of the city who would have controlled development within the city and would have access to a separate tax base for revenues to be spent solely within the city.

      Reston works because Robert E Simon kept it out of the clutches of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond and the Never Ending Con Game in Fairfax. Once the clowns and thieves were pushed out of the picture a competent development plan was allowed to play out. So, how did it play out? Money Magazine named Reston as the best place to live in the state of Virginia.

      Let localities plot their own course forward and you can end up with something good. Let clowns and conmen into the process and you end up with Tysons.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        A problem with Tysons being a city is that its dependent on the surrounding communities. In order to maximize developer profits its being redeveloped without the necessary infrastructure to support itself. There are no schools in Tysons except for Westgate Elementary on the border and only elementary schools planned. Name another city with 100,ooo plus residents without a middle or high school. Kids will need to go to Kilmer, Cooper and Longfellow Middle Schools and McLean and Marshall High Schools, none of which are in Tysons. It will largely rely on the off-site Tysons-Pimmit Library and a small in-Tysons branch.

        There is no police station and none is planned. There is no place of worship planned for Tysons. The planners and landowners didn’t think about it. Parks and open space were purposely under-planned to avoid burdening landowner profits and many landowners are trying to push fields to nearby communities and make parks as small as possible. How many pocket parks makes a real park?

        Developers are tying to avoid building on-site workforce housing and, with the general exception of Macerich, not build any affordable housing.

        Need I write more about traffic congestion and cut-through traffic that it making the quality of life in McLean, Vienna, Falls Church and, even, Great Falls? The GFCA has been complaining vigorously about cut-through traffic.

        Tysons privatizes gains and socializes losses. The Fairfax County way!

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Your whole comment explains why Tysons has to become a city. Who, with any power, thinks of what’s best for Tysons? Or McLean or Great Falls or Vienna? Nobody. The Great Falls Community Association can complain until hell freezes over and nothing will happen. Do you think a Supervisor from Mt Vernon gives a rat’s ass what happens in Tysons, McLean or Great Falls? They’re only too happy to prostitute Tysons to developers (and let the surrounding areas suffer) in return for favors in their districts. Robert E Simon used private ownership and gigantic companies (Gulf Oil and then Exxon once owned big chunks of Reston back in the days when oil companies did real estate development) to stave off the Fairfax County BoBS. Fairfax became an independent city. They’ve managed to build toward something of a real town feel. The Fairfax County Board of Stupidvisors is too amorphous and unaccountable. Governance needs to be more granular and local. I doubt that most adults in Fairfax County can even name their supervisor. How many adults in Richmond know the name of their mayor? I’d guess a lot.

          The best government happens closest to the people being governed. We need more than a McLean / Tysons / Great Falls Co-prosperity sphere. We need a real city with a mayor and city council that lives in the city. I make “McLean Falls” to be about 55 sq mi with 85,000 people with a density of 1,550 people per mile. Once we hit a density of 3,000 per sq mi (through sensible development a la Reston) we’ll have 165,000 people and we’ll annex Sterling and Ashburn (Why not? Cities aren’t in counties in Virginia). That will make McLean Falls bigger than Richmond and an economic and political powerhouse in the state. Start doing things right.

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