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An Iconic 'Super Suburb' Seeks an Urban Makeover

Can Tysons Corner break with its auto-choked past?

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Tysons, if you don't know it, is Washington, D.C.'s super-suburb--the place with the biggest shopping malls, the most office parks and the least soul. My time in Tysons was business, not pleasure. In fact, as I fought my way through congestion and left-turn lanes to get to my first interview, I realized that even though I live less than 10 miles from Tysons, I had not found a reason to go there in more than a dozen years.

Tysons is about to go through a massive transformation, and I wanted to learn about it because what's happening there may speak to the future of all so-called "edge cities." Washington's Metrorail system is expanding to Tysons, with four stops coming by 2013. To prepare, planners are plotting a more urban and walkable look for Tysons. Near the transit stations, developers will be allowed to build at much higher densities, in exchange for creating the grid of streets, parks and affordable housing that Tysons never had. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the plan sometime next year.

As I talked with planners and developers, it became clear that one of the problems they were trying to address was me. Tysons was completely off my radar for so long because I associated it with two things: traffic and hassle. The ritz of the shopping malls, the gold that plated Tysons' image for decades, did nothing for me or most people I know. Office developers were hearing the same thing from their tenants. "They're not able to attract the entry-level employee," one developer with a lot of Tysons holdings told me. "People just out of college don't come to Tysons Corner. They can't get here. It's too expensive to drive here. And there's no place to live that's affordable. We're seeing that hurt us."

Not that you'll notice any of this driving around Tysons. Even in the recession, shoppers still are going to the malls and the parking lots of government contractors are full. But in the longer sweep of things, Tysons is losing market share to the more walkable parts of the Washington area. "The auto-access model has essentially run its course at Tysons," says G.B. Arrington, a planner with PB Placemaking, whom Fairfax County hired to help with the planning process. "To look at Tysons and say that it's working is like saying General Motors continues to be economically viable because it still sells cars."

Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.
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