Can Tysons Corner become a real city?

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Tysons Corner, located just outside the Beltway in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, is the largest commercial district in Virginia and the 15th largest in the nation. It is one of the great American economic success stories of the postwar era, and is typical of the “Edge Cities” (or “technoburbs,” or–to be entirely prosaic about it–“suburban business districts“) where most job growth in the U.S. has taken place in recent decades.

It’s also really unpleasant. As Joel Garreau wrote in his wonderful 1991 book Edge Cities: The Soul of the New Frontier:

For some who recognize the future when they see it, but always rather hoped it might look like Paris in the 1920s, the sprawl and apparent chaos of Edge City makes it seem a wild, raw, and alien place. For my sins I once spent a fair chunk of a Christmas season in Tysons Corner, Virginia, stopping people as they hurried about their holiday tasks, asking them what they thought of their brave new world. The words I recorded were searing. They described the area as plastic, a hodgepodge, Disneyland (used as a pejorative), and sterile. They said it lacked livability, civilization, community, neighborhood, and even a soul.

Garreau’s hopeful message was just give it some time. “There’s always a second building frenzy that’s quite different from the first one, with a whole new set of mistakes,” he told me last year. “About the seventh time you go through this boom and bust cycle, you end up with Paris or London.”

Well, now Tysons Corner’s second building frenzy may be about to begin. As the Washington Post reports today:

Fairfax County leaders and landowners are unveiling sweeping proposals to build densely packed high-rises, miles of new streets, and enough parks, schools, police stations and firehouses to serve an entirely new place. …

Getting it right has been a 3 1/2-year undertaking for the Tysons Land Use Task Force, an unwieldy collection of neighborhood representatives, business leaders and developers that is preparing to release a 200-page recommendation on how to remake Tysons. Appointed in 2004 by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the task force has studied every aspect of redeveloping Tysons Corner: parking management, traffic patterns, a “circulator” bus line, affordable housing, sewers, storm water. …

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Tysons is cost. To pay for new infrastructure, the task force is looking at special taxing districts or a development authority with borrowing power. But the real arrow in the quiver … is density. Allowing developers to build 10-, 20- or even 30-story buildings, one next to the other and without such conventional suburban requirements as parking and distance from the next property, is the key to exacting money from them to rebuild Tysons. …

It isn’t just Tysons going through this, of course. Edge Cities all over the country–including the archetypical one, Los Angeles–are getting denser and taller. I’ve never heard of the transformation being done on this kind of grand scale, though. It will be fascinating to watch. But I’m kinda glad I don’t live anywhere near it.

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