A conceptual view of The Commons, one of many transit-oriented developments being planned for Tysons. Flickr/Fairfax County/WDG Architecture

There's not much riding on the Silver Line except the future of the American suburb as we know it. 

TYSONS, Va.—On a blustery Saturday evening in April, the gates of the Spring Hill Station on Leesburg Pike are locked, their bars freshly painted, and the steel of the dormant escalators just beyond them impossibly shiny. Even the benches and bike racks are shrouded in transparent plastic wrap, as if to warn would-be sitters or bike-lockers that these amenities are experimental and completely untested. As the sun sinks, they fall into the shadow of the elevated rail rising three stories above what used to be the median strip in the center of Leesburg's Pike usually-choked eight lanes of traffic.

The development near Spring Hill Station is the most visible sign yet of Tysons' public pledge to remake itself as a more transit-accessible, walkable, appealing urban center. Amputating "corner" from the Tysons name is an attempt to revise its history as an archipelago of office towers and chain stores surrounded by vast oceans of parking lots — "44 million square feet of unmitigated traffic hell," as Christopher Leinberger, an urban development scholar at the Brookings Institution and George Washington University, puts it. Spring Hill is one of five new Silver Line stops that have been under construction since 2009 and that the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority hopes will open this summer — four of them right in Tysons.

What makes Tysons' 40-year urbanization plan of national interest is the area's sheer size and car-centric character. This 2,100-acre section of prosperous Fairfax County is one of the largest employment centers in the United States. A half-dozen Fortune 500 companies are based there. The area is rife with high-end hotels, restaurants, and department stores; there's even a Tesla dealership coming in. But grocery stores never arrived in any substantial numbers, nor did churches or parks or any of the other sorts of services that could help make a place feel like home for the roughly 19,000 people who live here now. Jerry Gordon, head of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, says that until a CVS opened on Leesburg Pike just outside the Beltway this year, "You couldn't buy a Band-Aid in Tysons. Or a pencil."

"Tysons is not just an edge city; it's the edge city," says Leinberger, using the phrase popularized by Joel Garreau's 1991 book, Edge City. When that book came out, Tysons "was the go-to location, and downtown Washington and Arlington [Virginia] were at the bottom of that list. Now they've switched spots. Downtown and Arlington get the highest office rents; twice as much as Tysons," he says. "That's where the market wants to be: in these walkable, urban locations."

The Silver Line's Spring Hill Station is scheduled to open later this summer. (Chris Klimek)

The wheels are already turning — and, for once, not all of them are bolted to a car. The current plan for Tysons, adopted in 2010, envisions 100,000 residents and twice as many daytime workers by 2050. In mid-May, the county's Board of Supervisors approved a proposal by Capital One, which already has a 26-acre campus in Tysons, to build a new 470-foot-tall office tower. When finished, it will be the second-highest occupied structure in the region, after the Washington Monument. More critically, it will be close to the McLean Silver Line stop. Fairfax County has said it wants at least three-quarters of new development planned for Tysons to occur within a half-mile of one of its four Silver Line stations. Another 45 million square feet of construction is planned for the coming decades, one of the largest construction projects on the East Coast.

In other words, the 40-year plan is less a facelift than a full-body transplant. "Nothing is quite like Tysons, in terms of trying to re-envision what it's going to look like in the future," says Alan Ehrenhalt, author of 2012's The Great Inversion, about the recent role reversal of American cities and suburbs in terms of development and demographics. Even the most optimistic observers acknowledge that it will take nearly as long as to remake Tysons as it took to make it what it is now.

•       •       •       •       •

At the dawn of the Space Race, Tysons Corner was two intersecting roads and one gas station, surrounded by farmland. The arrival of CIA headquarters in nearby Langley, and a wild inflation of defense spending, flooded the region with government contractors seeking office space. Dulles Airport, which is scheduled to get rail service when "Phase Two" of the Silver Line arrives in 2018, opened in 1962. In 1968, developer (and future Washington Nationals owner) Theodore Lerner opened Tysons Corner Center, a state-of-the-commerce shopping mall that flaunted its prestigious list of tenants and its enclosed, air-conditioned comfort. Tysons became famous for its chain retail stores — many of them long vanished, like Hecht's and Woolworth's — before it became infamous for its far-apart "superblocks" of congested roads.

Now Tysons wants to be a collection of neighborhoods within walking distance of the Metro — like Arlington, it's smaller, closer-in neighbor to the east, just across the Potomac from Washington.

A conceptual drawing of development around Spring Hill Station in Tysons. (Fairfax County / WDG Architecture)

Getting this dramatic rebrand to take hold in the public consciousness is the job of Michael Caplin. For two years, Caplin has served as executive director of the Tysons Partnership, a nonprofit formed to promote development in the region. He's been a federal prosecutor, a public defender, a Smithsonian Institution program director, and arts producer. But get him talking about the outdoor events cropping up in Tysons and he sounds more like a proud, small-town mayor.

"We had pedestrians all over Tysons!" he says of the first day of a weekly farmer's market that opened in May and will run into November. "That's new." The first annual Great Tastes of Tysons food and wine festival followed two weeks later. That event coincided with the ribbon-cutting ceremony for its host site, Lerner Town Square, next to the Tysons II shopping mall. The second annual Tour de Tysons — a daylong series of 10 bicycle races in which 300 cyclists will compete while families cheer them on and buy tacos and pho from food trucks — is set for June 29. (A local blog, The Tysons Corner, publicizes many events in the area.*)

The new attractions aren't just for weekends. Because the permanent green spaces that Tysons has planned will take time to create, the Meridian Group — a Bethesda, Maryland-based firm that intends to redevelop a 15-acre complex it acquired last year — will be installing a "pop-up pocket park" in an asphalt lot called Greensboro Green, says Caplin. "Meridian is spending a lot of private money to make this parking lot green and beautiful and pedestrian friendly," says Caplin. They're bringing in potted trees and sod and artificial turf, even painting asphalt green to give workers in the office towers that ring the site a place to convene outdoors and enjoy the wares of the food trucks parked there this summer. The pop-up park is on track for the end of June.

Developers (above, a rendering of Greensboro Park Place) are trying to make car-centric Tysons more pedestrian friendly. (Fairfax County / WDG Architecture)

The coming of the Silver Line has sparked transit improvements, too. Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, says his agency has made alterations to 47 percent of all Fairfax Connector bus routes for when the Silver Line opens. They're hiring about 35 new drivers, which will allow them to expand service to neighborhoods they haven't reached before. They've added more mid-day, late-night, and weekend service. A separate circulator bus will make a loop of the four Tysons Metro stations once they're open, making it easier for people arriving by Metro to reach destinations beyond convenient walking range of the stations.

Over time, a street grid will take shape, relieving pressure on the two main arteries that formed the "corner" in what used to be Tysons Corner: Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road. The grid surrounding Spring Hill Station is already underway, says Biesiadny, part of a residential development preparing to open there. The Capitol One tower due to begin construction near the McLean station will also include partial construction of a street grid. The plan is for developers to pay for much of the new grid, and after that the county will assess were gaps remain.

"It's not something that's going to appear overnight," says Biesiadny.

•       •       •       •       •

Tysons isn't the first place to attempt the transformation from suburban edge to walkable city. Both Leinberger and Ehrenhalt reach for the same example of a national success story: the Belmar development in Lakewood, Colorado, where developer Mark Falcone knocked down a failing shopping mall and turned the space into a mixed-use development with housing, retail, and modest green space. "It's a stunning revitalization," says Leinberger.

When I visited Belmar in mid-May, it somehow felt like everything I've been told it would be, and less. I saw townhomes and apartments, none more than a five-minute stroll from a grid of national chain stores and restaurants. Lights hung from wires strung between poles on either side of the street, giving the place a more festive appearance than traditional, freestanding streetlamps might. There's a 16-screen movie theater and a Target and a Whole Foods. There's a small central park with trees and benches; not big enough to exercise in, but perfectly adequate to sit outside with your lunch or a book on a nice day. A free shuttle bus waited to ferry riders to the Lakewood-Wadsworth Light Rail station, about 3.5 miles to the north, with hourly departures between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. More residential units were under construction.

The Belmar area of Lakewood, Colorado, has been hailed as a national success story of a suburban edge transforming into a walkable city. (Chris Klimek)

Belmar doesn't look at all like Tysons. (Actually, it looks a lot like Reston Town Center, a 24-year-old mixed-used development not far from where Phase One of the Silver Line will terminate.) But it does look like something that several different patches of Tysons might individually become, huddled around each of those four new Metro stops like campfires. Closer to home, Tysons hopes to emulate redevelopment in the Ballston and Clarendon sections of Arlington County (anchored to Metro stops, on the Orange Line in this case), which boast a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly combination of residential buildings, restaurants, and retail shops.

Ehrenhalt is quick to point out that Tysons is not like Lakewood. In fact, he says, it's not like a lot of suburban areas attempting to urbanize — in part because the plans don't center around a failed mall that can be hollowed out into a new town grid.

"Tysons, economically, is fairly healthy, even though physically it's a disaster," he says. "So it's more difficult. There's no obvious land on which to create an urban center." Ehrenhalt is skeptical that Tysons can create a grid without tearing down a lot of existing cul-de-sacs.

"I have my doubts they can do it, but at least they've started."

Measuring success might take a while. Caplin says that slightly more than half of the 80,000 workers who commute to Tysons come not from D.C. and its close suburbs like Arlington, but from Loudoun County, Virginia, and points west. The Silver Line won't do that population any good until Phase Two stations open, which won’t be for another four years (if it arrives on schedule). "Phase One will be driven by our ability to recruit employees to the east," says Caplin. "People will start to hear you can get out to Tysons easily without a car. There are lots of good quality jobs out here to be had."

Tens of thousands of new apartments are coming to Tysons, but that's also going to take time. At least one new residential building, The Ascent, near Spring Hill Station, has already opened its leasing office; its website trumpets the 26-floor tower's rooftop fitness center, among other amenities. "The rate at which those rent is going to be exciting data," says Caplin. "That will be the first indicator of the impact of Metro on residency here."

Clearly Tysons is its own beast, with its own unique set of headaches. It isn't a dilapidated old mall whose Sam Goody and Orange Julius chains have long abated. Still, it can learn from Belmar and Arlington, and it is. And other places, in turn, will learn from its growing pains. Caplin says that in the last 10 months delegations from several metropolises ringed by edge cities — Atlanta, Berlin, even Beijing — have visited Tysons to inform their own urbanization efforts.

"The place is rife with lessons," Leinberger says. "Tysons is getting there first, before most of suburban America urbanizes." The conversion underway in Tysons, from a "driveable suburban" development to a "walkable urban" one, he says, is the same type that will recur throughout the United States for decades to come.  And almost by necessity, change will come more easily in those other places than it will here.

"If they can pull off the urbanization of Tysons — which I think they will — then you can do this anywhere in the world."

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that The Tysons Corner blog was maintained by the Tysons Partnership; the blog is actually run by a separate group.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  2. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  3. Equity

    The Problem With a Coronavirus Rent Strike

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  4. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  5. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.