» 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.