By Orrin Konheim
Tyson’s Corner has long held a reputation as Northern Virginia’s most vibrant commercial and job hub while lagging behind in residential growth. A 2010 initiative for mixed-use growth from the Fairfax Office of Community Revitalization (OCR), however, is finally starting to come to fruition and changing the face of Tyson’s Corner.
Since 2010, 27 major rezoning applications have been approved under the plan covering nearly 3.6 million square feet and 3,239 domestic units. This is part of the Comprehensive Plan Amendment adopted by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 2010 in anticipation of the Metro Silver Line’s 2014 opening.
“We wanted to add density in support of rail, but we wanted it to be more of a mixed-use environment,” said Fairfax OCR Director Barbara Byron.
As of July 2016, the Fairfax OCR estimated that Tyson’s has the capacity to support 21,000 and up to 88,000 employees. By 2030, OCR projects the population to increase to 44,000, employment capacity to increase by 59 percent from 2010’s estimates. The plan is intended to oversee progress until the year 2050.
In 1961, when the plans for Tyson’s Corner Mall were first submitted, the area was a rural crossroads (of Routes 7 and 123) marked by an ESSO gas station and peach orchards. Since Tyson’s Corner was built in 1968 and the traffic along those roads became augmented through the completion of the Capital Beltway in 1964, the neighborhood’s rapid growth gained national attention.
In 1991, Joel Garreau’s seminal urban policy book “Edge City” posited Tyson’s Corner as a new type of city with traditionally suburban roots driven by retail and office space. Garreau claimed that if Tyson’s Corner were a city, it would be one of the biggest in the nation in terms of office capacity. Additionally, the Washington Post reported in 2011 that Tyson’s had more office space than the metropolitan areas of San Antonio and Jacksonville, Florida (America’s 7th and 11th largest cities respectively).
“Literally a rural intersection as recently as mid 20th century, today’s near incomprehensible assembly of autonomous shopping centers and office parks (and recent demand for housing) represents in gross amount of built space the 13th largest commercial center in the nation,“ read the syllabus to a 2006 Harvard University Graduate School of Design course focused exclusively on Tyson’s Corner.
One of Garreau’s qualifiers for his definition of the “edge city” was having a bigger population during daytime than at night, which has long been an apt description for Tyson’s Corner which boasts five Fortune 500 Companies and attracts shoppers from all over the Mid-Atlantic.
At the same time, the high-density development hasn’t left a lot of room for the ingredients that fuel residential growth including cultural amenities, nightlife, convenience stores, supermarkets and walkability.
“There’s a lot of world class office space that’s there, it’s very accessible for urban means whether via I-66 or the Beltway or the Metro,” said Dr. Mark White who serves as Deputy Director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. “But at night, if they want to sit and work where they live, they tend to want the amenities in an urban environment that’s walkable. The mall may have attractions but sometimes they want more than that.”
Realtor Mimi Edmy Salazar of DiMaVi Homes agrees: ”In terms of millennials, a combination of the northern price point, congestion and there not being an abundance of fun activities will probably be factors they would deem not appealing in considering calling Tyson’s Corner home. But that could be changing.”
If the experience of the newest residential towers are anything to go by, the potential for change has already arrived and looks promising.
Alexandra Hartman, assistant community manager of The Adaire luxury apartments has reported astronomical growth. Her building, which opened in July of 2016 was budgeted with expectations to reach 95 percent occupancy within 18 months and they are on track to beat that with an average pace of 31 move-ins per month.
On the other side of Spring Hill Road, the Ascent Luxury Apartments, which opened in April 2014, is at 91 percent capacity for its 412 units.
Dr. White describes the dynamic between developing commercial or residential spaces first as a “chicken and egg” scenario where it’s difficult to say whether the amenities create the residential allure or vice-versa. Either way, he predicts the region in changing more ways than one.
“If you have more residents moving there, presumably, they’re going to be demanding more services and as a result, there will presumably be more people there at night. You’ll get more retail broadly, then you’ll get some of your restaurants and bars and some of that sort that are likely to attract people,” said White.
The area’s main obstacle appears to be traffic and walkability. The intersection of highways that made Tyson’s a logical point for a commercial hub 50 years ago has also made it undesirable as a residential hub because the roads are overloaded and the voluminous traffic makes pedestrian movement difficult.
“While logistically appealing, the price point of the area may not justify the traffic hassles that come along with its proximity to the Beltway. The target demographic is more inclined to spend less on a house with more expansive property and live 20 minutes further from the congestion,” said Salazar.
According to Byron, road improvements and pedestrian byways are created partially through development. When builders get zoning approval, they commit to a one-time contribution per square foot. And although the residential development is booming, Byron advises that it will take a while for the region to transform fully.
“I was walking down King Street in Alexandria the other day and realizing ‘this is a transformation that took 30 or 40 years,’” said Byron. “This [work that’s being done in Tyson’s Corner] is the biggest transformation in the country and it takes time.”