Repositioning America’s Edge Cities: Virginia’s Tysons Corner

 

From an edge city to a vibrant urban center. Is Tysons Corner wishful thinking? Photo by VaDOT.

From an edge city to a vibrant urban center. Is Tysons Corner wishful thinking? Photo by VaDOT.

How do you reposition a typical suburban office development – an office park, a group of office buildings and an intersection of highways – into a vibrant urban center?

If you know of Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, you likely associate this office development 13 miles from Washington, DC with traffic jams, big box stores, and office parks—think: “Office Space.” Every day 100,000 people commute to Tysons Corner for work, while only 20,000 people actually live there.

Recognizing that a suburban office development is not the recipe for success and happiness (!), Northern Virginia officials, businesses, and inhabitants have decided to move away from this ugly pattern and reposition Tysons as an urban center designed for people. What’s their plan? What key principles can other suburban office developments follow?

The problem(s)

Tysons Corner is a suburban office development built for the car, not for people. With nine times as many parking spaces as inhabitants, there is no shortage of place to park your car or your truck. Unless you are willing to risk your safety, walk for long stretches on the side of large asphalt roads and take complex detours to reach your destination, your only way to get around is by car. Even if you are taking the bus or metro, their stations are impractical, located far away from main stores and even further away from office buildings. This layout is simply unsustainable for those going to work every day. Tyson’s land use has been directed towards office buildings and retail; few people live in Tysons Corner, and day workers leave streets empty after hours.

What’s being done about it?

Tysons Corner’s different stakeholders have developed a shared vision, agreeing on a physical and economic plan, and an implementation document for conducting the urban repositioning. The plan has been positively received by all parties – in large part due to their involvement in the creation of the plan from the get-go – and real estate developers have proposed multiple redevelopment plans. The proposals cover 240 acres, 15% of the land in Tysons Corner. They will help grow Tysons’ residential population fivefold by 2050, to roughly 100,000 while the number of people who work there will double, to 200,000.

What are the guiding principles for the new Tysons that other edge cities can use as a template for urban repositioning?

4 guiding principles to reposition a suburban office development

Principle #1: Public transportation plus walking and biking will get you to work and back home

Increased public transportation opportunities, stations closer to buildings, less parking space for cars, and more space for pedestrians and bikes reduces dependence on cars. You can live where you work and spend less time, energy, money in your commute.

Principle #2: Sustainability by design

Choosing building shapes and orientations that increase light for occupants and reduce the energy needed to heat or cool a building will reduce financial and environmental costs. Creating buildings that handle extreme weather events better, through permeable pavers, infiltration basins, rooftop gardens, vegetated buffer strips.

Principle #3: Mixed Usage

Mix commercial and residential housing, form new neighborhoods with different age groups and family groups and different price points for apartments and other properties. Incorporate ground level convenience retail.

Principle #4: Create open public spaces

Open spaces for people so that they can express themselves through art, through community meetings, you name it. Bring local water streams back into the open air, or restore pedestrian pathways. Bring art and education facilities and community services to neighborhoods.

 

Creating diversity, mixed usage, and efficient transportation options is the recipe Tysons Corner has chosen. Share with us your thoughts on the project, and your ideas to turn edge cities into vibrant urban centers. Use the comments section below or find us on Facebook.

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