Today’s Washington Post has an extensive Business section article on the history and planning for the revitalization of Tysons Corner Center in Fairfax County, Virginia. The article explains that Tysons blossomed from the confluence of several trends: regional retail magnets, booming government contracting businesses, and a lack of zoning that permitted the car to remain king.
From the beginnings of the White Flint Sector Plan in 2006, many of us involved in the planning process for White Flint looked to Tysons for lessons, both good and bad. The report of the Montgomery County Planning Board’s White Flint Advisory Group was expressly modeled on a similar report from a similar citizens’ group looking at Tysons’ plans for renovation.
Many of the same concepts appear in both Plans: mixed-use developments; transit-centered planning and a reduction in the role of the automobile; sustainability; and more attention to pedestrian safety and convenience. Both Plans want to retain the retail engine that drives the local economy while building new communities. Some of the same faces are behind both Plans, notably the Lerner Corporation, which launched Tysons Corner Center in the 1960’s and is helping to drive the White Flint Plan today.
And there are major differences between the two: Tysons is much bigger. Tysons features new Metro lines, a massive investment designed to help remedy a woeful dependence on the automobile. White Flint expressly integrates the surrounding communities.
But perhaps one major difference can explain a lot: Tysons does not have the unified group of major landowners that White Flint does. As a result, White Flint is built on a new “skeleton” of roads and infrastructure, essentially remaking the area. Tysons, despite having new Metro assets, still fights with developers about breaking up the “superblocks” that are the main impediment to pedestrian safety and convenience. As a result, White Flint is much more pedestrian-friendly, much more likely to ease traffic congestion, and perhaps much more likely to gain the spark of spontaneous combustion to generate the feeling of a new town.
So it will be interesting to see what happens as Tysons spends a lot of its energy on internal friction, where White Flint can be more nimble. It’s an old story: big inertia providing the impetus to power through obstacles vs the smaller, but more flexible competitor. Apple vs IBM, anyone?