“That strip mall just got rezoned for high rise buildings.” “These auto dealerships are going to disappear.”
Those aren’t words you hear very often in suburbia, but if you’re hanging out in Tysons Corner, Virginia, you’d better get used to it. This office enclave, which sits dead center between Washington, DC and Dulles International Airport, is experiencing a rare and dramatic transformation – from traffic-choked “edge city” to walkable urban center.
Fifty years ago this area was dairy farms. But fueled by employment at the headquarters of several major defense contractors, Tysons is now the 12th biggest business district in the country, and the single biggest outside a major city. Even during the recession, office vacancy has stayed comparatively low at 14 percent.
Tysons is also a retail heavyweight, with the fifth biggest shopping mall in the U.S. And no wonder – it sits in Fairfax County, consistently ranked one of the wealthiest in the country.
But even with all these jobs and shopping opportunities, it lacks people. There are 105,000 jobs in Tysons but only 17,000 residents. Nobody lives there.
Almost four years ago, Time gave Tysons this back-handed compliment: “That it is also a strip-malled, traffic-clogged mess does not take away from the fact that it is one of the great economic success stories of our time.”
All of this presents a unique opportunity for planners. How do you take an existing business district — dysfunctional but also thriving in its own way — and re-fashion it into a real urban center? And how do you get community support for a project that’s going to mean decades of disruptive construction and the uprooting of much existing infrastructure?
Fairfax County planner Tracy Strunk admits that re-planning something this big is incredibly ambitious. While they looked to development along the much-lauded Rosslyn-Ballston metro corridor for inspiration, “You get a few blocks from Rosslyn station and you’re in single-family detached. This isn’t going to be single-family detached.”