Tysons White Flint

Tysons White Flint

Today’s Washington Post has a front page story on the Fairfax County Supervisors’ approval of a plan to revise and improve Tyson’s Corner. Tyson’s, headquarters for many huge corporations and home to the regional supermall, is a quintessential “edge city,” built up over decades without plan or limits, into a behemoth wobbling on only three legs — there’s essentially no residential living in Tysons.

The inevitable problem with not having residences in a dense community is that the car becomes king. The guiding logic behind “New Urbanism,” the philosophy behind the White Flint Sector Plan and Montgomery County’s planning shift toward urban density centered around Metro stations, is to reduce dependence on automobiles by putting people near everything they need. Which means having them LIVE near their work, schools, shopping and fun.

The Tysons renovation is designed, in large part, to develop just this sort of complete community:

The proposal permits Tysons to become a city of office and residential towers with sidewalk cafes, boutiques and manicured courtyards. It also calls for energy-efficient buildings, affordable housing, park space and a new street grid to filter local traffic. A planned circulator bus system would ferry riders among future Metrorail stations, offices and shopping malls.

“Tysons is a downtown. While it may not be a municipality, it will be a community,” Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), whose district includes the employment hub, said before the vote. “Tysons is not going to be an auto-oriented environment. It’s going to be walkable for the people who live there and for the economy.”

Sound familiar? It should. The Tysons and White Flint planning processes have been going on in parallel for years. In fact, there has been significant intellectual sharing between the two planning groups. The White Flint Advisory Group — the group of outside advisors to the Planning Board which began its deliberations in 2006 — expressly modeled some of its first plans on the same sort of discussions from Tysons. The final report of the Advisory Group included some of the vision and goals, discussed in several Advisory Group meetings, developed by the similar Tysons group.

So it’s not surprising that the two visions are similar: walkable, transit-oriented, sustainable.

But there are also big differences between the Tysons plan and the White Flint Sector Plan: Tysons is much bigger and much denser than White Flint. Tysons is also much more transit-oriented, planning four new Metro stops on the new “Silver Line.” Ironically, though it includes a similar new “grid” of streets to promote walking, it’s likely that the sheer size of the Tysons community will result in retaining a greater automobile-dependence than White Flint. The new Tysons is built around four new 1/2-mile walking zones, but it’s unclear whether people will take the Metro for a mile or so to change from one “zone” to another. (Tysons will also have a circulator bus system to promote better circulation within the overall community.)

It will be an interesting experiment to see if Tysons can make the New Urbanism model work in such a large and heavily-used area. Some people believe that the New Urbanism model can be too small, as in the new Rockville Town Center; now we’ll see if it can also be too large.

[UPDATE: Thursday’s Washington Post had a front page article on the obstacles to the new Tyson’s proposal. Mentioned just in passing was the need to finance the infrastructure redevelopment; that’s the issue which is currently holding up the White Flint Sector Plan, which was approved by the Montgomery County Council last March. The Post article doesn’t describe any similar political/County Executive staff dawdling on the Tysons financing.]

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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