Monday, August 21, 2006

We are not alone...

Bethesda seems to get some people around here riled up.

It's not really the town itself, but rather the the idea of it and the possibility that our Town Center would come to look like it. Sure, Bethesda's got traffic and tall buildings, the former almost no one likes and the latter is more debatable. But it's also a nice place to walk around and it has good (and plenty) restaurants.

Compared to other town centers in the Washington metro region, Bethesda's not all the bad. It certainly ranks above Tysons Corner, a suburban, parking lot oasis that, like Columbia's Town Center, is poised for some big changes. In advance of those changes, however, a debate, also like ours, is raging.

Is Fairfax County's hope of turning Tysons from a car-clogged, outsize office park into a vibrant, walkable downtown for Northern Virginia achievable?
While the idea of a subway extension to Columbia is discussed in future terms, in Tysons it's a looming reality. The concern there is not whether trains will run through town, but how.

The debate over whether to build a tunnel or an elevated track is partly tied to this vision and whether trying to achieve it is worth risking the extension of rail service to Washington Dulles International Airport.

The main argument for building the $4 billion rail line underground for its four-mile Tysons stretch is that it would enhance Fairfax's efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly downtown, similar to what Arlington has achieved along a Metro line in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Tunnel proponents say that this, combined with less disruption during construction, justifies the extra cost, which they estimate at $200 million, in addition to a year's delay.

...More broadly, the tunnel's critics express doubts that Tysons is capable of the metamorphosis Fairfax leaders seek. Skeptics say Tysons might be too far from the District and too well-established as a suburban commercial center to duplicate Arlington's success.

...There are reasons for skepticism. To become a true downtown, both supporters and detractors of a tunnel say, Tysons would need a grid of streets to replace the winding office park loops that congest traffic -- no easy task with two large malls, Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria, sitting in the middle of the area and the Capital Beltway slicing across it. To be more urban, the area would need thousands more residents to support more after-hours activity (about 17,000 people live there, compared with about 100,000 who work there).

And it would need to become much more developed, particularly around the four proposed Metro stations, to put more destinations within walking distance of a larger population. With 17,000 acres, Tysons is as large as downtown Boston, but much of it is parking lots and swaths of scrub and trees.

Though the scale of Tysons is much larger than Town Center, many of the fundamental issues being debated -- namely, density and people/car movement -- are the same in both places. Interestingly, one of the critics of increased density in Tysons is a developer.
Among those doubtful of an urban transformation is John T. "Til" Hazel, the veteran developer and land-use lawyer credited with helping transform Tysons from a rural crossroads into one of the largest business districts in the country. Hazel said he favors a tunnel in principle but questions predictions of growth.

"What needs to be done is to have a serious review of the argument that you can densify Tysons because you have a train," he said. "I don't share this theory that Tysons is suddenly going to become a new Manhattan Island because you put rail on Route 7."

The article lacks specifics about how many more residential units would be part of the redevelopment, but it does say that the "county's plans call for allowing about 65 percent higher building density, mostly around stations, after the rail's arrival, but that would still leave Tysons less dense than much of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and far less dense than many downtown areas."

If I had to take a side after reading just this story, I would tend to agree with Hazel, but primarily because of Tysons' size.

At less than 600 acres, Columbia's downtown is compact and centered, with well-defined borders, and yet creating a comprehensive, realistic plan for its future development has proved more difficult than we originally thought. Once the plan is approved, however, managing growth will be pretty straightforward, if not entirely smooth (as is to be expected).

Meanwhile, Tysons is 17,000 acres -- larger than all of Columbia itself. To plan for comprehensive redevelopment on this scale is almost unimaginable, especially since you have to work with (or around) complex existing conditions and infrastructure and a plethora of buildings and landowners.

Also, this story illustrates how important it is to integrate future transit plans into Town Center now rather than trying to squeeze it in after more development has taken place.

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