Urban Sleight: Tysons Corner wants to reinvent itself as a living city. What does that mean for D.C.?
To the urban soul, Tysons Corner—the barren moonscape of highways and office buildings located roughly halfway between here and Dulles International Airport—is a nightmare. There’s nothing human in the expanses of concrete, no reason to spend any time outside between your car and Tysons’ two malls.
In 20 years, all that is supposed to change. Under a far-reaching blueprint approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last week, residential and commercial buildings will mushroom around four new stations of the Silver Line Metrorail extension currently under construction. They’ll be knit together with a network of bicycle and walking trails, filled in with parks and green space. To hear the boosters talk, it’ll be Portland, Ore., on the Beltway.
Tysons’ new romance with walkability has the feel of a shotgun marriage: Coalition for Smarter Growth president Stewart Schwartz says the “office park on steroids” was neither cheap enough nor nice enough to keep attracting investment. “I don’t think Tysons Corner had a choice,” says Schwartz. “It was choking on its own traffic, being out-competed in two directions...Tysons had to reinvent itself to compete.” White Flint, another Metro-served shopping district north of Bethesda, approved a similar U-turn in March.
Objectively, these are victories for urbanism, glittering visions of sustainability theory in the flesh. But what does it mean for the place that already lures residents and businesses based on that model—Washington, D.C.?
Since its creation as a federal entity, the District has suffered from a structural handicap. The blessing of playing host to the national government is also a curse, since federal land isn’t taxable, placing the city’s biggest business beyond the reach of the city budget. Some 70 percent of those who work in the city commute back out to the suburbs, where D.C. can’t tax their income. A 2003 Government Accountability Office study valued this inherent deficit at between $470 million and $1.1 billion. Periodic attempts at commuter taxes and residency requirements have died before Congress could kill them. And another equalizer—the kind of regional tax base sharing practiced in Minnesota’s Twin Cities—has never even been proposed.
The District has been making headway against those odds for the last decade, clawing its way back from the early 1990s when the city hit a population low point. The congressionally mandated Financial Control Board put D.C. back on its feet fiscally, and as crime fell, the city went through a development renaissance.
That renaissance, though, had only so much to do with improved city services. There has also been a broader cultural shift in favor of density, walkability, and transit—all the things Tysons now wants to copy. “People companies have to hire, they want young people, cool people, people who are tech savvy, and they want to live in the cool neighborhoods,” says Steve Moore, director of the Washington DC Economic Partnership. “It almost replaces incentives.”
Without that competitive advantage, D.C. could have a tough time competing on its other merits. The housing market has famously skyrocketed—a byproduct, in part, of the height restrictions that render Washington a human-scale city. Office rents are now far above surrounding jurisdictions, even though much of the city’s new commercial space lies empty. Heavy regulations and high taxes have made the District literally the worst place to do business in the country, according to some indices; Virginia consistently ranks among the best. So the city needs to bank on the fact that top talent wants to live in a synthetic cosmopolitan environment.
Tysons, for the first time, is going after the same demographic. Its plan calls for boosting residential population from 18,000 to 100,000 while upping the employment base from 112,000 to 200,000—a large proportion of the projected new jobs for the entire region. Tysons isn’t going to develop “cool neighborhoods” overnight. But, fundamentally, that’s the goal: attracting people to live, work and play without necessarily getting in a car.
In doing so, Tysons is following the example of the perhaps the U.S.’s most successful experiment in non-urban urbanism: Arlington County. Back in the 1960s and 70s, when the area had its last population boom, Arlington planners made a conscious decision to start thinking beyond the car-dependent development vogue. At a time when D.C. had a distinctly bad reputation, the county was able to capture residents who perhaps wanted more than just another sterile suburb.
“We’ve actually moved quite seamlessly from a bedroom community to a well-planned and designed city that doesn’t bring the kinds of problems that people associate with cities,” says Jay Fisette, an Arlington County board member, in a documentary about Arlington’s smart growth evolution. “They think of cities of having crime and bad schools. Our city has fabulous schools. Our city has great parks. Our city has top services. We have safe communities.”
Major law firms, banks, and defense contractors already have their eye on new space in Tysons. It could also be attractive to universities for satellite campuses, and non-profits priced out of the District. But is that a threat? Christopher Leinberger, a land-use strategist at the Brookings Institution, thinks the different metropolitan nodes aren’t necessarily competitors. He likens them to infielders on a baseball team, with D.C. as the pitcher, Silver Spring on first base, and Tysons as the short stop.
“They all have a role to play, they all have a different skill set,” Leinberger says. “There’s overlap, and they might be competition to get that ball. But generally speaking, they will go after discrete market segments that aren’t being served.”
Stephen Fuller, the George Mason University regional planning guru who has studied Tysons growth, projects that there’s enough investment headed toward the greater Washington area that everyone can get their share. The District, he says, just needs to confine its spending and avoid driving people out with “nuisance taxes” on things like parking, recreation, and commercial goods.
“The District is dependent on the suburban markets,” Fuller says. “You want them to come and spend money. You don’t want to make it so that it’s so complicated to get a parking spot.”
From D.C.’s perspective, it’s better to have smart growth communities tied to the city by Metro—rather than far off in Prince William County’s Gainesville, accessible only by highway—so that their new residents will come shop and eat in the District. In fact, there’s no other way for Leinberger’s vision of complementary talents to work.
But if the District simply plays to its strengths—the arts, sports teams, hotels and conventions—would that bring in enough money to strengthen the parts of Wards 7 and 8 where unemployment approaches 40 percent? The case of Northrop Grumman, in which D.C., Maryland, and Virginia offered competing incentive packages, illustrates an inherent tension. “We ought to be as a region glad that the tax revenue is coming to the region no matter where it comes,” says John McClain, Fuller’s partner at George Mason’s Center for Regional Analysis. “But we compete against each other, because they want the tax revenue.”
In losing its monopoly on walkable urbanism, the District is going to have to figure out some new ways to face that competition. But luckily for District planners, they have 20 years to think about it.
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