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Breaking the Density Deadlock

A local government that denounced density in blunt terms just six years ago is embracing it now.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Tysons Corner isn't much to look at. I don't mean simply that it's unattractive -- although it is -- but that when you pass through it, along the main commercial strip of Route 7, in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, you don't even get the feeling that anything substantial is there. You see a long, loose string of office buildings built in the 1970s and '80s, scattered over a stretch of two or three miles, few of them close together or in any way congruent with each other. You pass two huge regional shopping malls, both tucked behind vast parking lots and barely visible from the highway. You don't know for sure when you've reached the place, and there's no way to tell when you've left.

The utter placelessness of Tysons Corner is one important truth about it. But there's an even more important one: It is the 12th-largest business district in the United States. More than 100,000 people work there. Every morning and every evening, 40,000 cars inch down Route 7 and Route 123, overwhelmed arterial roads that lack the capacity to handle the traffic at anything more than a glacial pace.

In the four decades since the modern history of Tysons began, Fairfax County and its leaders have passed through several stages in trying to come to terms with what it is and what it means. First, there was sheer novelty -- the presence of glass towers and upscale shopping on what had been farmland only a few years before. Then, in the 1980s, came an attitude of somewhat jaded acceptance: It's an eyesore, but it's a money machine, and besides, there's nothing we can do to change it now. Only with the start of the new century did planners and a few politicians dare to express a radical idea: A region that can produce the 12th-biggest business center in the country ought to be able to change it and civilize it.

It was five years ago, in the summer of 2001, that the New Urbanist architect Andres Duany came to Fairfax with slides of San Francisco and Paris, and told an audience of suburbanites that he could build something equally appealing for them right there in the Virginia suburbs. Genuine urbanism was within their grasp -- if they were willing to go for it. "This is a fantastic opportunity," he exulted, "to create a truly wonderful place." It was like Pinocchio being told that if he shaped up, he might eventually become a real live boy.

But when Duany presented his dream of urbanizing Tysons, he wasn't simply talking about trees or parks or fashionable boulevards. He was talking about a dozen residential towers, tall enough to accommodate 12,000 people, big crowds on the streets, and heavy-duty public transportation. He was talking about density. He admitted it. "High density is not a punishment if it is built in true urbanism," Duany insisted that day. "High density is a true delight."

The audience was not swept away. "What Duany wants to do is put a city here," one resident complained. "We don't want a city here." One of the elected county supervisors, Gerald Connolly, was even more blunt. "I think he is being arrogant," Connolly said, "and frankly, ignorant. Any proposal that intense is dead on arrival." And Connolly was right: Duany's idea never went anywhere. Touchy as they might have been about the reputation of Tysons Corner, the citizens of Fairfax were not ready for density in 2001.

The question is, are they ready for it now?

If you work in local government anywhere, the odds are you have heard the joke that there are two things Americans can't stand: sprawl and density. I refer to it as a joke, but in fact it comes close to being a literal truth. Millions of Americans who live in places like Fairfax County visit places such as Boston and San Francisco and wish they could recreate some of that urbanity and elegance for themselves. But faced with the reality of what true urban sophistication requires -- height, big crowds, and strangers from the city flocking in on trains, they back off. That's the deadlock of density.

It's quite plausible to argue that the deadlock will not be broken in our lifetimes: that if the price of containing sprawl is to turn suburbs into cities, it is a price American suburbanites simply will not pay.

But it is also plausible to argue that slowly and almost imperceptibly, the deadlock of density is being replaced by a willingness to take a few risks. It is even plausible to make that case in Fairfax County.

Fairfax didn't welcome Duany, but in the past year, the county board has given its approval to a stunning amount of dense high-rise development -- more than Duany ever proposed. Two months ago, the board voted for a plan that will surround the original 1968 shopping mall with eight towers, some as tall as 30 stories, containing 1,350 condos and apartments, four office buildings and a 300-room hotel. And that's just on one side of the road. Across Route 7, where the second big mall is located, construction will begin this year on a cluster of eight more towers, most of them designed for offices.

It seems puzzling that a local government body that denounced density in such blunt terms just six years ago would embrace it now. But that's what's happening. The Fairfax County board voted 8-to-2 in favor of the main project at Tysons Corner Center. Gerald Connolly, the denouncer of Duany, is now the board chairman and was an enthusiastic supporter this time.

Connolly insists that he hasn't undergone a conversion -- that the new plan is just better than Duany's. "It's more development on the ground," he says, "but it's mixed use, it's tied to transit, and it has lots of public spaces." He has a point. Even so, it seems clear that thinking in Fairfax has evolved quite a bit since 2001. that the county is buying something it wouldn't have bought in 2001 no matter who proposed it.

The developer of this project, the Macerich Co. of California, is pressing all the right New Urbanist buttons. Its computerized graphics envision spacious plazas, sculpture gardens, skating rinks and performance space. Macerich talks about making the Intersection of Routes 7 and 123 into a new "Central Park," a "100 percent downtown corner."

Most intriguing of all, Macerich is promising to take the blank acres of asphalt that dominate Tysons now and superimpose a grid that would provide 54 additional pedestrian-friendly streets for traffic to move in, generate a huge increase in sidewalk capacity, provide up to 14,000 curbside parking spaces, and in the end create something that doesn't just possess the density of a city but actually looks like a city.

All of this is to be timed to the extension of a Metro transit line, scheduled to reach Tysons Corner in 2012. The Metro station will be right across from the redesigned mixed-use mall; all the residential towers are supposed to be within easy walking distance of the station -- some literally in its shadow.

But there are some excellent reasons to be skeptical. The original transit plan, favored by Macerich as well as by local residents, was to place the subway line underground, leaving all the surface land around the station free for urban amenities. So far, that isn't happening: The U.S. Transportation Department and the Virginia congressional delegation say going underground would cost more money, and they don't want to pay for it. Barring a reversal, rail transit will come to Tysons in 2012 in the form of a 70-foot-high elevated track along Route 123, with disembarking passengers required to go down to the street and then climb back up a bridge to get to the plaza and the towers. It's not exactly the best way to signal the presence of an urban village.

But the really important part -- and the hardest part -- is the grid. Developers know how to build 30-story buildings; they know how to create plazas with skating rinks. But retrofitting 1,700 acres of suburban asphalt with a network of walkable streets will be an enormous challenge, one that will require huge investments of money and determination from both the developer and the government. The plain truth is that nobody has ever done this before -- not on the scale that is being called for at Tysons Corner. And yet if the grid doesn't happen, Tysons may never be a vibrant city or any kind of city at all. It may just be a collection of tall buildings arranged a little more compactly than the ones that are there now.

My guess is that when all of this development is completed, 10 or 15 years from now, Andres Duany's vision won't be close to realization. Nor do I expect that Tysons Corner will much resemble the green pedestrian oasis pictured in the computerized Macerich sketches. But I think it will be quite a bit better than what is there now. I also think it will be a commercial success.

I'm convinced of that because I see all around me a generation of young, mainstream, middle-class adults -- label them any way you want to -- who are looking for some form of mid-level urban experience, not bohemian inner-city adventure but definitely not cul-de-sacs and long commutes. There are more of them coming into the residential market every year. They like the idea of having some space, but they aren't fleeing in terror at the mention of density. They aren't willing to sell their cars, but they appreciate the advantage of having another way to get around. If Tysons Corner is rebuilt on a reasonable human scale and with a modicum of physical appeal, they will go for it, imperfect as it may be.

And then we will begin to see experiments of this sort in suburbs all over the country, launched by developers and local governments that may still be a little nervous about density but will know one thing for sure: If Tysons Corner can be reborn, nothing in the suburbs is beyond hope.If the effort to rebuild Tysons Corner somehow succeeds, it will become a national model for reclaiming suburbia.

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