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What kind of TOD can occur around Dulles Metro?

» Washington’s Silver Line opened to acclaim. It is already being hailed as the pedestrian-oriented transformer for the suburban Tysons business district, but the project may not create walkable, urban neighborhoods.

After years of talk, the Washington Metro was expanded by more than 11 miles last month, finally connecting it to Tysons, a suburban, auto-oriented business district in the heart of Fairfax County, Virginia. The new Silver Line that will make the connection via the existing Orange and Blue Line trunk through downtown Washington is expected to serve 25,000 daily boardings at five new stations, providing service every six minutes at rush hours and 12 to 15 minutes off peak. A second phase of the more than $5 billion project will add another 11.5 miles and extend into Loudoun County, via Dulles Airport, in 2018.

This first phase is very significant from the perspective of expanded rapid transit service; it is the second-lengthiest single line opening in the history of the Washington Metro, and it will dramatically speed the commute of people using transit to travel to and through the western suburbs.

It is also, in theory, going to produce a revolution in the physical environment of Tysons, turning it into a new, walkable “downtown.” As Robert Puentes has said, the line “is the catalyst for the transformation of Tysons from an exclusively auto-oriented ‘edge city’ to [a] modern and vibrant live/work community.” That’s certainly the vision to which the local business partnership and Fairfax County itself have committed. The goal is to quintuple the area’s population to 100,000.

What is true is that the project is producing major new real estate projects near the four stations planned for the business district. The availability of excellent transit service will undoubtedly increase the number of people taking the train to and from work. Yet the manner in which the rail line was constructed — elevated, in the median of large roads — and the existing built environment should put into question whether Tysons will ever become the sort of “livable” downtown for which new urbanists articulate the need.

The difficulty of making Tysons look like a traditional urban environment isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though! With careful thinking, the neighborhood could become a model for a different kind of urbanism, one that recognizes the monumental scale of the existing roadways and the new transit system, which has added an infrastructure of significant proportions to the neighborhood (just take in the scale of the station and associated track structure pictured at the top of this article). Combined with pedestrian-focused islands pulled away from the road and transit system, Tysons could adapt to its new transit accessibility not by becoming another downtown in style but by adapting its existing suburban environment into a unique new place. If successful, it could provide a model for suburban business districts across the country.

Current plans for the district’s renovation

Like many suburban, car-dominated business districts, Tysons is reliant on few, widely interspersed arterials that are overwhelmed by traffic at peak hours and incredibly hostile to pedestrians. These are roads that are simply inconducive to the livability principles that have become the standard lexicon of the planning profession because they make small-scale retail, mixes of uses, and walking nearly impossible. Unfortunately, these arterials are also the roadways chosen for the placement of the Silver Line and its stations; Metro trains enter Tysons from the east along the eight-lane Virginia Route 123, run southwest before turning northwest along the eight-lane Virginia Route 7.*

Fairfax County planners have prioritized the radical reconstruction of the district’s road network, moving it from a neighborhood of a few arterials (on the left in the image below) to a hierarchy of streets on a much more complex grid (on the right below). This hierarchy would incorporate the major arterials (now referred to as “boulevards”) but also bring in smaller streets identified as “avenues,” “local streets,” and “service streets.”

The smaller streets would provide the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that is at the core of the idea of transforming Tysons into a “downtown.” By “downtown,” we’re clearly meant to envision a tight, walkable grid of mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and either apartments or offices above.

Certain major projects underway in the district will include new, small streets, but it will take decades of transformations to make the neighborhood into a full grid. What we’re likely to get in the meantime, given the fact that Tysons is huge and development is hardly coordinated, are tiny areas of gridded streets, surrounded by auto-oriented parking lots and the same old arterials the area is known for.

Downtowns rely on a grid of streets that connects to the broader city’s grid of streets, creating walkable districts that allow people to live and work in places without a car. Where the gridded areas are created in Tysons, most people will continue to rely on their automobiles to get elsewhere in the area.

More problematically, the Metro entrances themselves will all be located on the “boulevards,” which sound nicer than they actually are. The state’s Department of Transportation, like many similar agencies around the country, tends to favor cars in its designs, and it will continue to run the boulevards. Certain of them have actually been widened in association with the construction of the Metro extension. It’s no wonder that the right side of the diagram above shows such as much space devoted to “boulevards” in the future (those big white voids) as the existing situation on the left.

Progressive planning suggests that the area that must be pedestrian-oriented, more than anywhere else, should be the areas right next to the rapid transit stations. These are the areas that need road diets, because they’re the areas where people do not need to be driving. But in Tysons, those areas are handicapped by wide roads that are unlikely to be shrunk anytime soon. The hostility of those roads is clear enough to Metro planners, who have built pedestrian overpasses on both sides of most stations to ensure that riders do not have to make the mistake of actually trying to cross the “boulevard,” as shown below.

There is little chance that this kind of environment can ever be at the heart of a future “downtown,” because it simply isn’t designed for street-level walkability. What kind of message does it send that the areas closest to the stations are the most hostile to pedestrians who want to be at ground level?

Fairfax County, however, addresses this problem not by recognizing the inherent deficiencies of retaining the automobile orientation of the “boulevards,” but rather by optimistically hoping that street-level retail and pedestrians will line up along the edge of these almost-highways, as shown in the following rendering.

Suffice it to say that given the current condition of the “boulevards,” pedestrians won’t exactly be swarming to enjoy the atmosphere along these streets — particularly when there continue to be gaps in the area’s sidewalk and crosswalk networks. The big buildings are likely, since the county has zoned for significantly larger structures, particularly for areas within a quarter mile of stations, and the demand for living in areas near the region’s Metro system are strong.

But a “walkable downtown,” in the traditional sense, this will not be. Even if the sidewalks are improved over time, the large “boulevards” throughout the district will continue to be enough of an obstacle to make the transformation of this area into a place like Ballston, Virginia difficult to imagine.

Potential for an interconnected series of “island” neighborhoods

The fact that Tysons is unlikely to become a “downtown” doesn’t mean that dense development won’t occur. It just means that the type of development around stations will be different. As Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott noted last week:

“The decision to elevate the stations — a far less expensive approach than burying them — may well presage this sleek new world of elevated plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground. A new office building across from the Tysons Corner station is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth. Already, a web of pedestrian bridges — some built by Metro, others by private developers — is emerging, keeping us safely above the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt.”

What Kennicott is describing approximates the modernist urban idea, whose premise was that it was necessary to separate people from automobiles by either placing them on different levels or by dedicating areas for pedestrians only or automobiles only.

On the other hand, much of the premise of the more recent new urbanist and livable streets movements has been that the idea of separating people and automobiles has failed, resulting in urban environments that are unsafe, uninteresting, and generally designed without normal people in mind. Those movements have articulated the importance of mixed-use environments with tightly spaced streets designed for pedestrians but that still accommodate automobiles. This is the type of environment Fairfax County planners hope Tysons will become.

But, as Kennicott notes, the physical facts of the Silver Line’s stations through the area suggest the area’s future will be far more like the the modernist vision of a city than that of the new urbanists. Indeed, some of the major new developments planned for the area, such as Tysons Central 7, propose a series of structures connected to the Metro station pedestrian bridge but also turned inward, away from the “boulevards.” The result is something close to a pedestrian-focused “island” refuge that attempts to ignore the automobility of the surrounding area.

Note that in the following illustration of Tysons Cenral 7, pedestrian life is shown to be almost entirely concentrated around the Metro pedestrian bridge or in the interior of the scheme. On the outside of the project are curb cuts, automobile entrances, and parking.

For Tysons as a whole, this model could produce a new district made up of “island” neighborhoods disconnected from one another by the “boulevards” and the Metro stations but nonetheless quite walkable in their interiors. A more advanced version of this concept would make the interior of this type of development entirely pedestrian-only.

The general approach taught in contemporary planning suggests that the modernist movement “failed” and that replicating its elements — such as pedestrian-only spaces surrounded by car-only spaces — will not function. Yet the design of Tysons’ roadways and Metro stations mean that the primary streets of the district will continue to be principally oriented towards automobiles for decades to come; that’s half your modernist ideal there. The complement to those spaces should not be semi-automobile oriented, as the current Tysons plans envision. Rather, planners and developers should take advantage of this unique transformation to create viable, interesting and pedestrian-only areas in the interior of the “islands.” This approach would truly differentiate the district.

For suburban business districts examining the possibility of retrofitting themselves for transit or for more walkability, Tysons may well become a model. Certain areas may decide to eliminate their big roads entirely, a decision Tysons may have been wise to make many years ago. But others, like Tysons concerned about maintaining the ability of large numbers of drivers to get around, may choose that the alternative — islands of pedestrian orientation surrounded by highways — holds the most promise.

* The name Tysons is a shortening of the former name Tysons Corner, which is the intersection of Route 123 and Route 7.

Top image and site plan from Fairfax County (cc); walksheds from the Tysons Corner; pedestrian bridge from Flickr user Matt’ Johnson (cc).

19 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I think you’re right about the direction Tysons is headed. The problem is that Tysons is heading towards what Rosslyn was in the 1980s after Metro came there. Rosslyn’s design has long been recognized as a failure, the overhead walkways have come down, and Arlington is now hard at work correcting it.

    • Yes, but there’s a key difference between Rosslyn and Tysons.

      Rosslyn was built with a walkable street network that they tried to retrofit to favor cars. Tysons’ street network was built to favor cars, and they’re trying to retrofit it to allow (even favor) pedestrians.

      That starting point matters. The decisions around Rosslyn were bad, yes – but they could also be reversed and the area could revert to a good-enough, but not great, street grid. This influences everything: the block size, the streets needed for land access, the street network.

      Tysons does not have that option because the land was developed in the era of the car.

      Another reason the Rosslyn auto-centric retrofit failed was not just a misplaced priority, but also the fact that retrofitting anything is hard. There is a ton of path dependence built into urban form. Imposing a radically different shape on the circulation networks that already exist is very different. And because of that, I do think the end result for Tysons will be about building walkability from scratch in the superblocks and trying to layer it on along the existing arterials.

      Nobody is going to mistake it for a great walking city, but it just might function well enough to work.

      • I agree. Rosslyn in the 70s and 80s functioned well enough to work as an office center — plenty of people came by Metro once it opened. But people didn’t like it – in fact, it was the inspiration for Arlington to make Ballston, Courthouse & Clarendon better.

        But what this analogy suggests is that Metro’s main contribution to Tysons may be to make it less unattractive as a workplace. Metro makes it much, much easier to live in DC or Arlington and work in Tysons. In a plausible scenario, the Silver Line attracts more office buildings, but few new residences, to Tysons, and makes residential real estate in Arlington and DC more attractive. We shall see.

        • That’s certainly plausible, but I also think Tysons will have little problem attracting more residents even despite the initially poor walkability. I think there’s a market for it in the region: city-style living with apartments and high rises, etc – but not in an urban location. I also wouldn’t discount the eventual benefits for a reverse commute to Reston along Phase 2 of the Silver Line.

          Tysons will remain a regional retail center; the next step to see if they are serious about residential growth will be to see if any developers can bring in more daytime-serving residential – a grocery store, etc.

          • Dizzy

            Reverse commute to Reston will certainly be one new option, but there are many others that the Silver Line opens up, especially when you start thinking about couples. If one person works in a Metro accessible area but another person works somewhere out in the non-Metro accessible parts of Fairfax or Loudoun, suddenly Tysons looks like a great compromise. One of my coworkers moved to right by the McLean station a few months ago with this very goal in mind – he commutes to Fairfax City by car, his fiancee commutes to Foggy Bottom by train.

  • Cathy Lewis

    Poor research on the author’s part. Freemark clearly doesn’t recognize the impacts that were caused by all the different players in this game. VDOT (who owns and controls ALL of Fairfax County’s roads) and Fairfax County have very different goals, as does MWAA, which is running the transit project and who ultimately went with the above-ground rail line. Virginia is a Dillon rule state. Also, Fairfax County does not control the streets; that’s VDOT. You have to play the hand you are dealt and that’s what the County is doing.

    • Joey

      You’re right about the road widths, though if Fairfax had been serious in wanting to make them true boulevards, they could have tried to negotiate harder against widening or else using the new lanes for transit (or street parking except for the 6-7 hours a day of peak congestion).

      On the other hand, Fairfax absolutely has had the ability to mandate that new projects face the street with activating uses, but clearly they’ve allowed (through zoning) or approved these sort of mini-mall concepts that are islands of life amidst inhospitable wall-facing highways.

    • BruceMcF

      You don’t note where any of that points to Yonah Freemark having done “poor research”. Is “poor research” a sideways way of asserting that Yonah should have written more about the constraints that led to this outcome as opposed to writing about his chosen topic?

  • […] on the Network today: Strong Towns examines the personal impact of one car crash. The Transport Politic considers how to make transit-oriented development work around the Metro stop at DC’s Dulles […]

  • It would be interesting to consider if there are any foreign precedents for this kind of urbanity, where a highway/transit line is a pedestrian barrier like this. Maybe Dubai, or some of the BRT in South America? How do they work?

    • Sascha Claus

      Almost all railway lines through old world cities. Since most towns grew fastest after arrival of the rails, they had to grow around them ended up being sliced by said railways. Like edge cities that grew around roads … Although most people wouldn’t expect any pedestrian experience on the tracks, so the urban fabric usually turned its back to the rails. And most of the existing town and village centers, which became the “urban centers” later on, were bypassed.

  • Jay Corbalis

    I’ve never been but from what I understand of it I’ve always pictured Las Vegas operating on this model. Walkable islands surrounded by wide roads/highways. True?

  • This is why it’ll be interesting to compare the redevelopment of Tysons to White Flint, another suburban edge city across the Potomac River in Montgomery County that also seeks to become an urban district. The one big difference with White Flint is that Rockville Pike, the state highway that forms that area’s spine, is envisioned to become a walkable, urban boulevard with BRT down the middle. The development community in White Flint pushed for it; Montgomery County fully bought in to the concept (despite some initial resistance from the county’s DOT) and is already studying BRT for the corridor, and the Maryland State Highway Administration generally has as well.

    That plus having an existing, already below-ground Metro station, may give White Flint a headstart when it comes to creating a more urban place.

    • Dan,

      This will definitely be a comparison to watch.

      A couple of interesting differences, right off the bat. While the roadway network in Tysons is a bunch of traffic sewers, they also have to deal with some actual highways that aren’t going away anytime soon.

      Another factor is that there’s a whole lot more full-on redevelopment planned in White Flint. The mall will be demolished, etc. In Tysons, the two malls and many of the existing office buildings aren’t going anywhere in the near future, meaning that a walkable district will have to work around these constraints.

  • Martin

    All of CBD Hong Kong is essentially unwalkable at street level, with all commercial activity, as well as inner city walking done at an elevated level. All major skyscrapers are connected by walkways, and in some parts people would only ever go to the street level (where road-crossings for pedestrians are scarce anyway) to hail a cab.

    It is also an incredible dynamic place, and the walkways even serve as public spaces (easily observed on Sundays when Filipino maids fill upp the space).

  • “Cities Without Ground,” a recent mostly-picture book, goes into great detail about the multi-story (and mostly elevated) walkway systems that have sprouted up around Hong Kong’s (mostly underground) metro stations.

  • Dizzy

    This is definitely one way in which it could go. However, if dense development ends up abutting these streets on all sides, then the feel will be much less inhospitable to pedestrians and much more urban. Pennsylvania Avenue downtown is by no means a narrow street, nor is Independence. But they feel absolutely nothing like the traffic sewers that are Leesburg Pike (Route 7) and Chain Bridge Road (Route 123) in Tysons Corner.

    FWIW, some anecdata: I took the Silver Line for the first time on Tuesday, walking about 15 minutes from the Fairfax Square commercial center to the Tysons Corner station. Right off the bat, there’s no way to go directly to the station because the Tysons Corner Center mall is in the way. During the day, maybe you can just navigate your way through it, but at 9:30 pm this looked to be more challenging. Ok, walk to International Drive, cross Leesburg Pike – so far so good. Far too many curb cuts for my liking, but at least the sidewalk is continuous… until suddenly you hit Tysons One Place.

    Now you have a choice: do you go down this road directly toward the station, which you can see, or do you keep going down International Drive, which you know will intersect with 123 soon but takes you further out of the way? I chose Tysons One. Woops, no more sidewalks after you hit the parking lot entrance. Woops, no way to actually get down to the station, except by walking into, and through, a multistory parking garage, finding the stairs, and taking them down two flights to street level.

    Final judgment: I’ve seen worse/more dangerous pedestrian connections around Metro stations, but this obviously has a loooong way to go. As a first step, let’s kill all the lawyers surface parking lots and try to put some more pedestrian-friendly crossings on the curb cuts. Oh, and – for the love of all that walks on two feet – please stripe all intersections! Crossing 6 lanes in the dark is bad enough – it’s much worse when you’re in what looks like an unmarked intersection, pedestrian signals or not.

  • Arnold Berke

    I took the Silver Line yesterday, got off at the Tysons station, and walked to Tysons Corner Center. The bridge to the shopping center is not yet fully open, but I could see what they’re heading toward, a sort of Minneapolis-ization of Tysons in which sky walks become a major source for pedestrian connectivity, not ground-level streets, at least where barriers like Route 123 present themselves. Which is not surprising, since the huge size of the roads in the area – Routes 123 and 7 plus the Beltway and various boulevards – prevent a complete weaving together of the “lobes” that make up Tysons. Within each sector, a street grid may indeed develop, but overcoming the separation of all the sectors looks like an impossibility. Maybe a series of Big Digs could at least bury some sections of the roads, allowing the separate communities to “marry” at ground level.

  • There’s a great documentary called “Elevating London” about the attempt in London during the 1950s-60s to create a scheme like this. It failed. The network was too patchwork, the pedestrian spaces were too barren and brutalist, access was too inconvenient, plus there was traditional London, one of the world’s great walking cities, surrounding the modernist district. It was no contest.

    Tysons could overcome some of those errors with a lot of work. And it’s got no London right outside its borders as competition. But Tysons already has several large malls that have all the advantages of the island idea, as well as year-round climate control and convenient parking. So the islands would have fewer shops, less visibility, more difficult access unless you’re a Metro rider, and probably less foot traffic. That’s a difficult competitive position.

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