Is Tysons Beyond Redemption?

Is Tysons Corner beyond salvaging? Has Fairfax County missed the window of opportunity to create functional human settlement patterns there? Or is Virginia’s largest business district doomed to a slow, lingering death by entropy?

I haven’t studied the issue closely enough to pretend to know the answer. But I do worry that the opportunity to transform Tysons Corner into something more economically sustainable has passed us by. What’s different now than 10 years ago? For one, energy costs are higher, and about 98 percent of the people who work in Tysons commute there from somewhere else. For another, construction costs have escalated markedly. The cost of tearing down and rebuilding the business district in a more functional grid pattern — not to mention providing the connective transportation tissue to the rest of the region — has become impossibly expensive.

There may be enough wealth-generation potential in the businesses congregated there that those impossibly high costs might yet be borne. The business base is overwhelmingly geared toward knowledge-intensive companies that pay high salaries and can afford high rents. But there are limits to how much companies will be willing to pay, especially with competing business centers like Reston/Herndon and Rosslyn/Ballston all too eager to whisk them away.

Such are the thoughts I have as I catch up on the activities of the Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force, which has been meeting monthly since June 2005. The task force is supposed to submit recommendations for transforming the region, which by all accounts is crippled by limited ingress and egress from the rest of the Washington metropolitan region and terrible transportation circulation within.

I have been goaded into thinking about this topic by a document submitted by a blogger who goes by the pseudonym Too Many Taxes. TMT passed along a press release from the Greater Tysons Citizens Coalition (GTCC) and has been stimulating some interesting dialog in the comments section of this blog. After many distractions, I am turning my attention to his correspondence.

Let me lay the groundwork by stating that the Tysons Corner Land Use Task Force has a noble goal: laying out a vision for transforming the business district over the next 30 to 50 years into something far more hospitable and functional than exists now. The task force is saying all the right things. Development needs to be more compact. It needs to allow mixed uses. It needs to create gridded, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. It needs to allow for non-automotive transportation options, from bicycles to mass transit.

The impetus for the task force is the expectation that the commonwealth of Virginia will somehow find the $5 billion or more required to extend a heavy rail spur from the existing Metro rail system to Dulles airport, passing through Tysons Corner on the way. In theory, the rail line will provide much of the transportation capacity needed to serve the region, and the combination of Metro stations and higher building densities bestowed by Fairfax County will provide property owners the financial inducement to re-develop their land in line with this new vision.

But there are problems that just won’t go away. Higher densities are fine — as long as Fairfax County and the commonwealth of Virginia can find the means to pay for the correspondingly high levels of roads, utilities and other public services required to support such a population. Higher densities are not OK if they fail to generate revenues streams to pay for the additional infrastructure required.

That brings us to the GTCC press release, which points out that Tysons Corner as currently developed has 45 million square feet of commercial, retail, hotel and governmental/institutional space and some 7,900 residential units. Those numbers pale in comparison to some of the scenarios being discussed. Says the press release:

At the last public outreach meetings in February 2008, citizens were asked to comment on two prototypes with stated density levels of 96 and 127 million square feet. Since the February meetings, County staff has analyzed the 127 million figure to result in an “Intensity Potential” of 146 million square feet. In comparison, the Task Force is considering a recommendation that would have an intensity potential of 220 million square feet.

In other words, different density scenarios under discussion call for anywhere between three and five times the current density. We’re talking mid-town Manhattan, if I’m not mistaken.

In 2000, the area supported 65,500 jobs, according to the Bureau of Census. Presumably, tripling density would increase the number of jobs by a like amount — to close to 200,000 people. Quintipling density would put the number over 300,000. If transportation is bottlenecked now, what would it be like if five times the number of people were commuting in and out of the area? Such a vast number would swamp the capacity of a single rail line and four above-ground Metro stations to serve the district. In other words, to paraphrase Ed Risse, the prospects for achieving a balance of population and transportation capacity seem remote.

In theory, allowing developers to build more residential housing would help alleviate transportation congestion. According to a 2007 market analysis, 17,500 residential units would be added under the “moderate” growth scenario, 25,000 under the “strong” scenario. While some of those residents undoubtedly would work in Tysons Corner, most of them would not. According to the 2000 Census, only a third of the 11,300 residents in Tysons worked locally. If that ratio stayed constant, the added residential units would take only 3,000 to 8,000 commuters off the roads. Mixed use is part of the solution for Tysons, but only a small part.

One more point: The task force is counting on higher densities to provide property owners the incentives to re-develop along the lines laid out by the proposed comprehensive plan. But the business district has a track record between 1994 and 2006 of absorbing 600,000 of office space per year on average. To fill the tens of millions of square feet contemplated would take decades. Property owners cannot generate a competitive return on capital if they have to wait that long for a payback.

In an April letter to the task force, property owner Dan Clemente touched upon the desnity problem. “As it exists today, throughout this quadrant, all of the property is currently developed with sound business uses; the densities being proposed in this plan are not high enough to justify the economic costs involved with disrupting these going concerns. That being the case, this design will frustrate if not make impossible the planning staff’s goals of consolidated development.”

While the planning staff could solve Clemente’s problem by increasing his density, it could not do so politically without increasing the density of other property owners as well. But to do that would create a massive overhang of development rights that would allow developers to build far more office space than the district could possibly absorb in an economically justifiable length of time.

From my vantage point, it looks like Tysons Corner is locked into its dysfunctional human settlement patterns. The cost to transform the district into something more inviting and sustainable is so high that it cannot be economically justified. If Tysons cannot be transformed, it will enter into a long, slow decline relative to other business districts with better urban design.

I hope I’m wrong. In a sense, Tysons is “too big to fail.” Northern Virginia, and by extension all of Virginia, has too much riding on the success of the business district as a cent
er of economic activity. But I hold out little hope for its long-term future.

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38 responses to “Is Tysons Beyond Redemption?”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Is Tysons Corner SO unique that no where else in the US has there ever been an urbanized area that underwent a transformation like Tysons appears to be in the midst of?

    If this is true – then what are the unique elements that doom Tysons from becoming another “Manhattan”?

    At some time .. in the past.. did Manhattan look like Tysons does now – perhaps characterized as that “awkward” adolescent stage?

    The only thing I can see that is obviously different is the lack of grid streets….

    Can it be shown that some places like Tysons ended up as crippled urban enclaves whereas others went on to density “success” merely because one had grid streets and the other did not?

    surely other relevant – and unique – factors distinguish Tysons such that it can be validly argued that Tysons lacks important things that other urbanized areas did have – that ensured their success.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Well, for one thing, Manhattan is a major seaport, and Tysons is a former pasture.

    I’d put my money on HR first.

    Besides that, the grid street concept is nonsense: all it will do is maximize the number of congestion inducing intersections. The idea is traffic calming (read as traffic banishment) in disguse.
    There is no basis for stating that a new grid system will unambiguously reduce car travel or reduce congestion if it doesn’t.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    “…the densities being proposed in this plan are not high enough to justify the economic costs involved with disrupting these going concerns.”

    Well, tht pretty much settles it then.

    Densities high enough to justify disrupting the status quo for the existing businesses will disrupt the status quo for every thing else. Such a density has too many costs that are externalized (TMT’s Argument) Therefore, you have made your bed, now lie in it. Where is it written in the cose that a proposed new density has to be high enough to pay its own way, including the costs of dismantling whatever was there first?

    Usually the “do nothing” option is included inan analysis such as this, and in this case it might be the best options.

    The best option might be to tear down something that is failing and put in a new farm or forest. Now THAT would reduce traffic.


  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    JB cites stats about how many folks live near their jobs in Tysons and then extrapolating that percentage in a higher density scenario and concludes that it does “not work”.

    How many folks live AND work in other urbanized areas like Manhattan, Chicago, LA, Houston, etc?

    My first thought when I see the dozens/hundreds of skyscrapers, monster traffic, subways, commuter rail, etc.. is I’d like to know what the “good” benchmark is.

    Pick some existing urbanized areas that are thought to be successes – and rank them according to what percentage of the workforce commutes to external places and does not live within the urbanized area?

    That’s the big problem that I have with any dialogue about places like Tyson as to what is wrong and what is right and what needs to be done….

    we treat Tysons as if it were a separate and unique situation that can only be analyzed as a stand-alone entity.

    and then.. we conclude that there is no easy way for Tyson’s to “transform” itself to higher form of urbanization … while we have dozens/hundreds examples of other urbanized areas that more than likely evolved not that differently from Tysons…

    .. or at least.. in my perception… until someone is able to clearly show that those other places were/are fundamentally different from Tysons and it’s really an apple to orange comparison…

    … and if that is true, then let’s see a list of places that are more like Tysons .. and those places also.. are doomed… because they share with Tysons some of the same fatal flaws.

    I’ll admit that there seems to be one very fundamental difference and that is the difference between an urban core that expands – and as it expands, it replicates the core infrastructure – grid streets, subways, etc. and a place like Tysons which has no urban core and whose roots is primarily suburban in it’s infancy.

  5. Groveton Avatar

    Larry Gross is right. Cities change and then change again. Manhattan has been re-made several times. Chicago burned to the ground only to be built as a bigger and better city. Washington, DC put a substantial focus on rebuilding New York Avenue and turned that run down road into a business district.

    Of course Tyson’s can be expanded. Of course Tyson’s can be improved.

    It will be as big as Richmond by the time all is said and done. This naturally upsets the Richmonders who harbor hopes that Richmond will become a major American metropolis (it won’t). Maybe in the 2024 election the VP nominee will have as his or her best credential the fact that he or she was the Mayor of Tyson’s Corner.

    However, this will not happen under the present governance structure. Illinois understood that Chicago was its economic engine. New York State saw the potential in Manhattan. Virginia needs to start understanding that NoVA is its future. All of Fairfax County should be chartered as a city under the Virginia Constitution – with its own city charter. And this charter needs to grant planning and execution autonomy to the city council for Fairfax.

    I look forward to the September release of the Tyson’s Land USe Task Force recommendations.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim, you have pretty well figured out Tysons Corner. Unfortunately, for just about everyone who doesn’t own a parcel of land within Tysons Corner, the Task Force simply hasn’t done any real planning. Its leadership has simply gone around the room and asked landowners how much density would they like.

    There has been no study of the impacts of massive density on infrastructure. Every time the consultants or staff have raised the issue, they have been shouted down.

    The Task Force could have taken the existing plan and tried to improve upon it. But the silly fools who worked on the last Task Force were crazy enough to try to match development with needed public facilities. The current Task Force has not even written any draft language for inclusion in the Comp Plan. It’s just decided that Tysons can grow to as big as 220 M square feet, without explaining how that doesn’t just crush Fairfax County and its residents.

    Some developers I know well fearful that, if this plan is approved, the next step will be to begin to limit their ability to develop their properties that just happen to be located outside Tysons.

    What should have been done with the existing plan, wasn’t. What could have been done to improve Tysons, won’t.

    The best hope is that the staff and the consultants, along with VDOT through its 527 process, will trash the plan and enough supervisors will vote to reject it.

    When it is all said and done, the current Tysons Corner Task Force’s efforts will make General Ambrose Burnside’s attacks at Fredericksburg seem comparable to those of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville or Sherman’s March to the Sea.


  7. Groveton Avatar


    If you have a moment perhaps you can post a comment describing what was done vs. what should have been done. I get the impression that you just don’t want any more development in Tyson’s Corner so you are predisposed to dislike whatever the Tyson’s Corner Land Use Task Force decided. Maybe that’s not the case. For example, how did the last task force match development with needed public facilities while this task force did not? And, isn’t this omission patently obvious to all concerned? I saw the video of the BoS meeting you sent me and Foust seemed genuinely concerned. So did one other supervisor. However, the rest were pretty much OK with the plan. Why? Are they all really “on the take” from the development community? Or, do they honestly agree with Gerry Connelly that this report is only a first step.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Not that many live in Manhattan compared to those that work there, but Chicago actually has pretty good living accomodations and a farily high ratio of non-commuters, as I understand it.

    Then of course there is Houston. Where is Houston, anyway? I just don’t see a lot of people living and working in Tysons, or if they do, there will be a mad rush out on Friday.

    WaPo today said the push was on to get something done before Connolly goes out of office.


  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry and Groveton raise similar points, which can be summarized most pithily by quoting Groveton: “Cities change and then change again. Manhattan has been re-made several times. Chicago burned to the ground only to be built as a bigger and better city.”

    That statement, of course, is true. The examples of places like Manhattan and Chicago — and other cities not mentioned — fuel the the hope that Tysons Corner can be reinvented as well.

    I haven’t written off Tysons Corner. I’m just pessimistic.

    Tysons is trying to reinvent itself in an era in which the price of oil will exceed $100 per barrel, probably forever, and in which developing nations like China and India are building so much infrastructure that they have pushed up the cost of construction raw materials to unprecedented levels. The economics of re-development have shifted. It is much more expensive now replicate in Tysons Corner the redevelopment of Manhattan and Chicago in decades (or centuries) past.

    Adding to the challenge is the fact that the central cities never had to contend with obliterating and rebuilding so much of its transportation infrastructure. Tysons Corner wants to reinvent itself with grid street patterns. Manhattan had grid street patterns to start with. Developers could tear down a building or two and rebuild a skyscraper without the necessity of rebuilding the streets all around it.

    Tysons Corner is trying to do something that has never been done before: Redevelop an “edge city” into a viable urban area.

    I’m not saying the job can’t be done. But I am saying that handing out higher densities like candy to big property owners may not do the trick. For each new increment of density you add, you create new jobs and/or housing that must be provided with new infrastructure, utilities and services. If Fairfax County has not identified the resources to “fix” Tysons Corner at current population levels, how will identify the resources to fix it with triple the density and population?

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    The main challenege with Tysons Corner is you have Route 7 and Route 123 which are MAJOR Roads running straight through it.

    The reason The orange line corridor works is because there are no major arties runnign through. Instead you have alternates 50, 29, and I-66.

    For Tysons to work it is my opinion that you would need a Tysons Bypass for 123. The Dulles Toll Road works as an alternate for 7 somewhat but you still get lots of mall traffic that will have to use 7.

    If you think the jams are bad now just wait when the HOT lanes come on and you have twice as many dumping points into the area.

    Finally, almost all of the experts agree that this level of development will generate more traffic and more car trips. Without adding significant road capacity (beyond the grid setup) its a recipie for disaster


  11. charlie Avatar

    The idea of Tysons leading Virginia is a welcome antidote to the narrow Richmond perspective we saw yesterday on this site.

    To throw out a datapoint If you look at Miami you can see concentrated development is still possible in the world of $100+ oil and accelerated construction costs. Yes, the Miami condo market broke. But there are more cranes in Miami than anywhere else in the world besides Shanghai and Dubai.

    But what I don’t get is why Tysons is important at all. There is no **value** in Tysons. The local industry is completely white collar. Tysons is not so prestigious that you can demand outrageous prices as you would, say, for 57th in NYC.

    The NOVA job machine and prosperity is being created by office workers — not real estate development. Yes, the developers who own Tysons stand to make a lot of money — but they are not the ones driving the Virginia economy. Having 50,000 1+ million condos is Tysons may not even help Fairfax county –it is just moving rich people into one zip code.

    Letting Tysons rot into a stinking, traffic laden mess would be a shame, but the overall impact to to regional economy would be small. There are enough substitutes.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Groveton – “how did the last task force match development with needed public facilities while this task force did not”?

    To fully address your question, I’d need to do several hours of research. But here’s a little bit of an answer.

    From page 26 of the existing Comp Plan for Tysons.

    The Plan’s development potential for Tysons Corner is based on an analysis of future planned infrastructure and environmental constraints. The capacity of the planned transportation system (which includes rapid rail transit serving the Dulles Corridor and 18 additional lanes of roadway serving the area) is the major influence in establishing the area’s maximum development potential. By optimizing the capacity of the planned transportation system, Tysons Corner’s development potential was determined to be almost twice the area’s current (1993) development level. (See Figure 6 below for comparisons of the area’s 1993 existing development and 1993 zoning potential to the Plan’s maximum potential without and with rail transit through the core of Tysons Corner.)”

    Admittedly, this is largely focused on transportation, but there are other references to different types of public facilities needs. For example, on page 35, “For any of the above alternative land uses, adequate vehicular access and circulation should be provided for the proposed alternative use. The use or uses should provide a circulation pattern that can efficiently serve the area and will not result in adverse impacts to the surrounding area. If residential development is under consideration, the analysis of access and circulation should examine how the residential community will be provided access to mass transit, public transportation, schools, parks and recreation facilities, and other community services. In addition, noise and light produced by a proposed alternative use must also be examined to determine that it does not adversely impact adjacent residential or non-residential uses.” Not exactly a complete plan, but the issues were recognized.

    To the very best of my knowledge, no similar text has been written for the latest proposal. I don’t believe that the current Task Force has even addressed how it gets to the 18 additional lanes of roads (less what’s been built already) in order to get to build to the so-called “base case.”

    Essentially, the current Task Force has asked landowners “just tell us how much density you want” and then strung together a bunch of buzz phrases and words, including walkable, non-auto-centric, TOD, urban design” to justify the result.

    The county staff and consultants have simply been shouted down whenever they raise real issues. Keep in mind that Gerry Connolly works for SAIC that will stand to make mega-millions if this all goes through.

    Tysons could be redeveloped into a more dense, urban community. But for that to really work, it would require a plan that addresses not just how much density does Mr. Clemente want, but also what infrastructure is needed to support his added density and how will it be funded. Outside some more strung-together words purporting to answer the questions, those issues have not even been addressed.

    Jim Bacon has it cold. It would probably be too expensive for anyone to fund the public facilities necessary to remake Tysons Corner into the type of urban center that the landowners would like to see — for whatever reason.

    If we cannot afford to build the necessary public facilities to support a mega-Tysons, why are we still talking about building a mega-Tysons? Only because well-connected campaign contributors want it.


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “It would probably be too expensive for anyone to fund the public facilities necessary to remake Tysons Corner into the type of urban center that the landowners would like to see — for whatever reason.”

    I agree. Now, what happened to all that efficiency that is supposed to come with urban development?

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I don’t have much of a dog in this hunt other than to try to understand.

    and .. it appears to me that we have on one hand – a vision for the future for Tysons – flawed for sure and on the other hand – we have forces that don’t want change to happen – or to be fair – I’ve not seen an alternate vision.. a competitive alternative put forth.

    And .. in most cases where there is opposition and little more.. they usually lose because in the longer run -change is going to happen.. the only argument is how.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry – there is no vision beyond massive increases in density coming from the Task Force. A vision requires a road map – a plan, as well as an end point.

    For Tysons to be successful at 78 M square feet (the so-called “Base Case”), 97 M square feet or even at 220 M square feet, there needs to be a plan to construct the public facilities that are needed to support those densities. Parks, sewer, police, schools, etc. A plan is more than: Gee, we’ll need a couple of grade schools, a library, fifteen miles of grid streets, two new Beltway ramps, etc. Where will those facilities be located? How will they be funded?

    None of these issues are being addressed. Why, because they cannot be addressed in any rational manner. No one can afford the infrastructure that would be needed to build 220 M square feet.

    So build less. But then people like Dan Clemente say, the lower targets don’t give me the financial incentive to build. So we face a situation where the fundamental questions have not been answered. We cannot afford the public facilities needed to give landowners the densities that they say that they need. At the very same time, they say that they won’t build to levels that can be supported by what we can afford.

    Tough questions that aren’t being answered. The Task Force is simply putting down massive density and ignoring the infrastructure issues.

    If the density gets on the books, it becomes as of right development and can be built without regard to the infrastructure deficit. So let’s all multiply today’s traffic gridlock by a factor of what?

    This is not a vision. This is not land use planning. This is simply setting up Fairfax County for disaster.


  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I admit to not knowing as much as is probably needed to have a valid opinion.

    Why is Fairfax targeting Tysons for this rather than other parts of Fairfax?

    What is it about Tysons that is making it the focus of those who believe that higher densities are appropriate for it – but not necessarily other parts of Fairfax?

  17. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    If the density gets on the books, it becomes as of right development and can be built without regard to the infrastructure deficit. So let’s all multiply today’s traffic gridlock by a factor of what?

    That’s not exactly true. Just because something goes into the Comp Plan does not mean it is zoned. The Comp Plan is simply a tool to guide zoning. But, compliance with the Comp Plan does not guarantee zoning. When individual developers go through zoning, they will have to address their impact on capital facilties through the proffer (cash and non-cash) system or whatever mechanism is in place at that time.

    One of the tools that should be in place is a CDA to capture a portion (at least) of the increase in tax revenue for investment in infrastruture.

  18. Anonymous Avatar


    A couple years ago Fairfax targeted several areas for redevelopment.

    Most of these ideas never got off the ground.

    Tysons is a continuation of this series. The prospect of metro sort or reenergized the process. Connolly has always been a friend to developers and his relatioship with SAIC is a little too close for comfort for some people.

    This should provide some background for you :-p


  19. Groveton Avatar

    Don’t get me wrong – I’ll be the first to say that the Tyson’s Land Use Task Force still has some very serious work to do. However, I am not ready to jettison Tyson’s Corner just yet. Why? Because this is how sprawl happens. Some place is built out and density increases. Then the infrastructure gets stressed by the added density. So, the community has to decide what to do. It’s hard to retrofit already built space so the easy answer is to give up on the current location and find a new place for new construction. And where is that new place? Further from the city center. So, instead of fixing Tyson’s we start casting our gaze west – to Reston or Dulles or, who knows, Front Royal. And we keep pushing mid-density development because it’s cheaper than fixing the existing development. And before long we have …. more sprawl.

    Let’s do some simple math. I’ve heard that NoVA has 25% of the state’s population but pays 41% of the taxes. That’s 16% difference. The state budget is $36B per year. 16% of $36B is $5.76B per year. How many years of $5.76B per year do you think it would take for NoVA to solve it’s problems?

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    Mr. Craddock – you’ve never seen the Fairfax County BoS in action on a zoning request. If it’s in the Comp Plan without any restrictions and sometimes even with caveats, it is all but certain to be approved.

    The proffer system in Fairfax County is a joke unless you are small time builder. The big boys and girls make campaign contributions in lieu of substantial proffers. This is the county that freezes proffer target while increasing fees for kids playing sports.

    I stick by my statement. The goal is to get the density in the Comp Plan. The county will then grant whatever zoning changes necessary to implement the density.


  21. Groveton Avatar


    Based on your comments I have spent some more time looking at the Tyson’s Land Use Task Force. In fact, I just spent 1:08 watching the following video (which I think every participant on this blog should watch as background information before making pronouncements about Tyson’s):

    I agree that more work needs to be done but question your conclusion that Tyson’s is hopeless. While the presentations in this video are clearly rah! rah! for increasing Tyson’s density they make some good points. Grid streets, wastewater, FARs and other topics are addressed. It seems to me that these people are moving in the right direction even if the overall question of whether to expand Tyson’s remains open.

    I particularly like the last presentation in the sequence. The rehabilitation of Silver Spring is real. I worked in Silver Spring long enough to get a full understanding of the “before picture”. It is refreshing to see that the area is now revitalized and prosperous. Of course, Montgomery County, MD does not have its state robbing it blind to prop up economic dead zones which cannot be rehabilitated.

  22. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock


    Be sure that you consider the cash and non-cash compenents of the proffer system. Henrico County, for example, generally does not extract cash, but they do seem to have a good handle on infrastruture. Also, your larger point was how to pay for the infrastruture needed to support a denser Tysons; don’t forget the CDA tool that every locality has.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    Groveton, et al. — Fixing Tysons from its dysfunctional state today to something better may well be possible, at least at some high price. I think that, when contrasted to many other areas, Bethesda, Rosslyn-Ballston, Silver Spring, Tysons' challenges are larger. It is penned by the Beltway and the DTR, as well as sliced by two major thru routes — 7 & 123.

    But I would concede that progress is possible and that progress might well mean additional density.

    But the goal of the Task Force is not fixing Tysons, but rather, to obtain massive increases in density without regard to their impact on anyone else except the landowners. Now, this is not to say that no landowner is interested in building something useful and functional at Tysons Corner. But many landowners, especially REITs, are simply interested in obtaining huge increases in their FARs in order to sell their land at some point for a whole lot more than its worth today simply because of land use decisions and not because of what they build.

    This is no different than the creative folks who brought us the packaging of subprime mortgage loans, dot.coms valued on the number of hits to its webpage, and oil speculation. Something for nothing.

    There is no real land use plan for Tysons Corner that will come from the Task Force and will include a road map to, and a price tag for, the associated public facilities needed to support a more dense Tysons Corner.

    Go through the associated documents. There are no costs associated with any facilities or definite plans to fund them. Yet, without those details, how can Tysons succeed? There is no rewritten text for the amended Comp Plan. The last Task Force spent months writing text. It truly tried to plan for an urban Tysons. This group has simply wrapped mega-density with sound-good words.

    This is simply not land use planning, but one more scheme to get rich on someone else's dime. Show me a real plan for an urban Tysons Corner that has an affordable pathway to adequate supporting public facilities & I'll probably support it.


  24. Anonymous Avatar

    Tyler – Fairfax County often gouges smaller builders, while letting big ones get by with murder whether its proffers in cash or in kind.

    For example, for many years, the schools would accept tracts for schools that were clearly too small and/or unbuildable. The schools had a huge inventory of basically useless land when they generally needed cash. This is not to say that donation of a usable, buildable tract for a school would not be very valuable in the right case. Builders often get nicked for cash donations to this or that thing that usually results in a photo op for a supervisor, rather than something needed.

    Then, the county also lacks a workable system for tracking proffers and compliance with zoning conditions.

    That’s one reason why I don’t blame the General Assembly as much as others do. Fairfax County officials have much more power over land use than they are willing to exercise, except over small guys and gals.

    I’m sure that there are tools that would work, such as tax increment financing and CDAs, but there needs to be an intent to use these in ways that benefit the public as well as the landowners. It’s easier for our elected officials — at least most of them — to say “walkable community and transit oriented development” than to use the tools they have to achieve results similar to those in other parts of Virginia. We may be smart, have fabulous educations and great jobs, but the typical resident of Fairfax County is pretty clueless in the ways of local and state government.


  25. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim Bacon said:

    “I am saying that handing out higher densities like candy to big property owners may not do the trick. For each new increment of density you add, you create new jobs and/or housing that must be provided with new infrastructure, utilities and services. If Fairfax County has not identified the resources to “fix” Tysons Corner at current population levels, how will identify the resources to fix it with triple the density and population?”

    Mr. Bacon’s questions have been asked by many in Fairfax, not just in regards to Tysons, but MetroWest at Vienna, Hunter Mill, and many other locations.

    Most of those who ask this question are not opponents of growth or change. But the Board routinely mischaracterizes their questions as meaning that they “don’t want to change a thing,” as Gerry Connolly falsely charged in today’s Wash. Post –

    The Board and its moutpieces label people who ask questions like Mr. Bacon’s as “Nimbys” – welcome to the ranks of the Nimbys, Mr. Bacon! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I would refer readers to an entry from 2006 which suggests that people Follow The Money.

    Mr. Connelly’s campaigns are not the only things financed by the developers and landowners of Tysons; his mysterious personal paycheck, the one which he famously told the Post is “none of your business” also comes from the same source. See

    How will Fairfax identify the resources to handle higher density, Mr. Bacon? It doesn’t care to, because Connelly is selling the county to the highest bidder in order to further his ambitions. And if you don’t like it, you’re just a Nimby. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  26. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    there are few examples of localities using tax dollars to plan and build infrastructure in advance of anticipated growth.

    In virtually every case, the growth proceeds… a mess ensues … and then a game of catch up …

    In some cases, there is actual planning – where the prospective land-use is used in scenario planning to determine what scope and scale of infrastructure will be needed to serve different levels and intensities of various land uses.

    I think this is at least part of what is going on with the Tysons deal – give them some credit – they ARE trying to look ahead.

    There IS a public dialogue. There IS some level of public participation and there is obvious debate – as opposed to a non-public administrative process – which is not unusual in many parts of Virginia.

    In fact, piecemeal rezonings are often more common where a single developer makes a single proposal and then the county tries to see if “enough” infrastructure can be provided to make that proposal acceptable.

    In fact, some county governments believe/state that they are not the appropriate entity to proactively plan land-uses but rather they should strive to keep their rules and regs lose enough to attract entrepreneurial proposals.

    In my own locality, it has been less than a decade where they have actually required a proposal to demonstrate via a professional analysis it’s likely traffic impacts as part of the proposal to be considered.

    Prior to that, the developer would provide a back-of-the-envelope estimate …

    so a question to those opposed to the Tysons Plan.

    Does the study show a before and after status of the area roads in terms of LOS or other metrics?

    Down here.. a proposal has to show that – and if the degradation is significant – approval will not be given until there is a plan to mitigate.

    What is the approach with Tysons?

    Is there a plan to mitigate?

  27. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry – you are basically wrong on the public participation issue. While there have been public outreach meetings, the results of those meetings — limit the size of development to something no larger than 90 M square feet or thereabouts and don’t build bigger unless the traffic congestion is addressed at the same time — have generally been ignored by the Task Force. Also, with only a couple of limited exceptions, no member of the public is permitted to speak at a Task Force meeting. One can attend, but generally only watch. Written submissions from the public have also been rejected by the county on occasion.

    As to your question about traffic studies, I understand that studies internal to Tysons are ongoing, but may or may not be completed before the Task Force’s recommendation is presented. I’d bet that they will not be complted in time for the presentation to the supervisors.

    And the traffic studies for areas outside, but near to, and affected by, development at Tysons will NOT be completed until probably several months after the final recommendation is made to the supervisors.

    We have also not seen any specific plan to mitigate traffic. Lots of words and slogans, but no specific plan.

    I have heard that the Section 527 review process conducted by VDOT has some within the Task Force worried. I’ve even been told that Gerry Connolly and others have lobbied Kaine and Homer to weaken the 527 review process for Tysons. I don’t suspect that the State will pull back. But that is not yet certain.

    Sorry to rain on your parade. It’s just a very ugly pig with lipstick.


  28. Groveton Avatar

    I agree with Larry. I’ve read documents, watched videotaped presentations, seen BoS meetings where the Tyson’s Land Use Task Force recommendations have been discussed. I think there are still a lot of open questions but there has been public discussion. I watched Dranseville Supervisor John Foust personally challenge fellow Democrat Gerry Connelly over the size of the proposed expansion. There was nothing hidden or secret about that disagreement – it was out in the open and very public. This is not a typically parochial debate either. Democrats are not lined up against Republicans and visa-versa. Different opinions are being discussed and publicly aired.

    TMT – you seem frustrated by the direction the Tyson’s Land Use Task Force is headed. You say that the public has not been able to voice their concerns. What would you do differently? Certainly your Supervisor is voicing his concerns. I assume that you agree he is speaking on behalf of his constituents – rather than on behalf of the developers. If this is such a bad idea why isn’t Supervsior Foust out holding town hall meetings rallying opposition to the plan? Why isn’t he lobbying other supervisors to see things his way? Why isn’t he in the media presenting the Cons to this? Heck, I’d imagine that Jim Bacon would give him a guest column on this site to express his views.

    From what I see, the environmentalists want more density in Tyson’s, the business community wants more density in Tyson’s, the BoS wants more density in Tyson’s. Who is the opposition and whay are they so ineffective in voicing their concerns?

  29. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I can relate to a process that is more closed to public participation than it ought to be…

    down here.. we have school committees that are said to include members of the public but when you look a little closer you find out that they are basically “plants” so I’m not too surprised that there is tight control of the process.

    but Groveton is right also.

    there seems to be LOTS of info available… and an obvious ability to make this a campaign issue…

    One would think if this plan or process is so bad that there would be a tremendous outcry…. after all, we are seeing BOS tossed out of office in other areas over much lesser issues…

    Just last year, Chesterfield and Loudoun tossed several pro-growth incumbents…

  30. Groveton Avatar

    John Foust was the replacement for Joan DuBois – the pro-growth Republican supervisor who lost the election to John Foust – her “smart growth” Democratic opponent. I guess I expect Foust to “cry bloody murder” over this. He made some good points in the BoS meeting but he’s far from livid in public. Maybe he’s waiting for the final recommendation from the Tyson’s Land Use Task Force (due in September) before going ballistic. Or maybe he’s cowed by the Democratic Party of Virginia who wants only good news surrounding their nominee to the US House of Representatives – Gerry Connelly.

  31. Anonymous Avatar

    Couple things for context again

    Connolly rules the BoS

    Basically he says jump and they say how high

    A major traffic study is being undertaken but it is not complete yet.

    “But critics say Tyler and the task force are ignoring staff members and private consultants by contemplating much higher density limits than the infrastructure can handle. They also say the task force is moving too fast, before a final traffic analysis is complete and before George Mason University completes a study of how much the Tysons market is predicted to grow during the next 40 years.”

    Connolly and the chair of the taskforce are trying to railroad through the higher density plan before the results come back.

    I am usually all for development but the fundamental question for me is this. Until I see plans to improve AND FUND work on Route 7 and 123 this is a disaster waiting to happen.


    TMT sounds more and more like Charlie Hall every day though I am pretty sure its not him. TMT do you agree with Charlie Hall?


  32. Anonymous Avatar

    NMM – I’ve known Charlie Hall for a number of years. I regard him as a friend, even thought I don’t agree with him on every issue.

    Charlie used to be a reporter for the Post, covering Arlington. He spent a lot of time covering the development of Rosslyn-Ballston. He’s told me that things were done very differently in Arlington. There was lots of real citizen participation and issues were addressed, not glossed over. Yet, the RB corridor seems to have worked. Developers seem to be able to build at a profit.

    I know a number of others who were involved in RB development. They’ve all advised that people in Fairfax County need to be ready to fight what’s going on at Tysons. They all see it as giveaway to developers and a prescription for failure.

    NMM, I also think that your observations are spot on.


  33. Anonymous Avatar

    The environmentalists consider Tyson’s a loss. What they really want is less density in their own back yards, so Tyson’s makes as godd a dump as any. What they would reallylike is a lot of densiity in Tyson’s and then a natural disater to wipe it out so we’d have fewer people using less resources.

    The business community that owns Tysons wants more density, and everyone else is afraid they won’t get any as Tyson’s gets overpromoted.

    The BOS want’s whatever gets them the most and biggest contributions.

    The people who don’t want more density in Tysons want what they want for nothing.

    Rail to Dulles is really rail to Tysons.

    Nothing about this will increase livieability, or reduce traffic, congestion or pollution.

    The whole issue is being misrepresented from every side, and there is no truth to be seen.


  34. Anonymous Avatar

    Re Ray’s latest observation — the following text was taken verbatim from an email message forwarded to me. Since a copy was sent to newspapers, I’m not going to delete the identity of the author.

    “Those who oppose a walkable, sustainable, transit-oriented, non-polluting Tysons are championing perpetuation of living the car-oriented, profligate, life-style of yesterday.

    “Americans are experiencing the consequences of buying big cars and having to drive everywhere to do anything – gasoline is $4.00 a gallon, two-thirds of us are overweight, our kids are suffering Nature-Deficit Disorder; we are depleting our natural resources and our fossil fuels, and we are causing drastic changes in our climate. And, yes, our streets and roads are congested. People are now realizing the wrongness of this folly.

    “Congestion is caused because we have NOT build places like a transit-oriented Tyson. If we let the growth that would be absorbed by a transit-oriented Tysons spree itself out all over Fairfax County, and beyond, it would aggravate the need to drive everywhere to do everything; and it is inevitable that congestion would get even worse โ€“ confirming the obvious โ€“ that sprawl is the villain, that transit-oriented development is the salvation.

    “People that live throughout Fairfax County should lobby for a transit-oriented Tysons – not just because it will take development pressure off their neighborhoods, but because it will be a model for creating a life-sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. We cannot deny them a livable future due to misguided selfishness.

    “John Byrne
    Chair, National Parks Committee
    Sierra Club”

    I don’t believe that Mr. Byrne has spoken with the Fairfax County staff.

    I also wonder whether the Sierra Club would support a Tysons-style development in an outlying county. We could put the 220 M square feet in Fauquier County on 2.66 square miles and and then let Tysons Corner revert back to nature. Or, perhaps, only the people of Fairfax County need put up with urban density without adequate public facilities.


  35. Anonymous Avatar

    I don’t beleive there is a word in Mr. Byrnes letter that is supportable by fact or observation.

    Four Metro stops won’t make a transit oriented Tysons corner, or do anything for congestion in the rest of the area. We have 30 years worth of Metro for proof.

    Our kids are suffering from nature deficit disorder, and the solution is more high density transit oriented living?

    “not just because it will take development pressure off their neighborhoods” ….Who wants to take the development pressure off their neighborhoods? Isn’t development how the landowners make big bucks? Isn’t it the high density areas that are worth the most per square foot? ;-).

    Surely there must be a computer operated phrase generator that spews this stuff out. No thinking person could create this sort of fantasy.

    Backlash anyone?


  36. Anonymous Avatar

    Ray, I agree.

    I don’t wish to pick on Mr. Byrne. I’m sure that he is sincere. But we need to make these type of decisions based on facts and analysis and try to get consensus whenever possible.

    The radical enviros see these issues as articles of religious belief. They are as rigid as those on the extreme right on social issues. Or the clowns at the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce on just about anything related to real estate development.

    Here we are in what purports to be one of the most sophisticated places in the world and we see debate at this level. It is very scary, indeed.

    I’ve been talking with some of my real estate friends. I was told that the office vacancy rate in the Dulles Corridor is now about7.5%. That’s according to an article in the 8/11 WaPo business section. Quite a few tenants are not renewing their leases in Tysons because of Dulles Rail and HOT lanes construction, especially when coupled with the generally higher lease rates in Tysons.

    I was told that the Tysons-specific vacancy rate has now hit 10%. It could grow higher with all of the construction.

    A couple of the more pessimistic suggest that commercial foreclosures may start in and around Fairfax County and the “office REIT stocks should be going off a cliff.”

    What will a mega-jump in FARs at Tysons do?


  37. Anonymous Avatar

    I sure don’t know what the answer is for Tyson’s.

    On the one hand I think the owners ought to be able to renew/refurbish/enhance the place, within reason. Lord knows it needs help.

    If they are going to get Metro handed to them, then the people who pay for Metro better ought get something handed back.

    I think Tysons Metro should be a spur off the line to Dulles, and I think both Centreville and Manassas should have Metro service as well, but there is no way the Orange line can do all that, so you really need a whole new track.
    All of Metro needs a lot more real capacity and not just fewer seats.

    And whether you believe everyone else in the neighborhood benefits or is damaged by all this, then there ought to be some way for them to get their money out. Something this big needs to be a partnership with costs and benefits well defined, and that isn’t happening as far as I can see.

    If this is really going to be something as big as New York, then we need to go back to the drawing board and make that plan from scratch. Some people are thinking way too small on everything but the density.

    Then again, if we were going to build New York all over again from scratch, what would we do differently? Why re-create that mess?

    You are right about you and I living on different planets, and yet the pro and con argument here are exactly the same as there. Surely both sets of arguments cannot be correct for both sets of conditions. Out here 50-acre lots are “too much density”. If that’s the case, then the new Tyson’s plan is out of the question. ;-).

    As for nature deficit disorder, just wait til someone’s kid comes face to face with Mama bear and her three cubs, as I did last week. Or the dogs have her up a tree in the back yard at three in the morning.


  38. Anonymous Avatar

    Correction – the commercial vacancy rate in the Dulles Corridor is about 17.5% and not 7.5%.

    Not sure what’s going quicker, eye sight, typing skills or brain power.


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