The Great Desprawling Experiment

article image
Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch /

“A textbook case of suburban sprawl”–that’s what local officials call the northern Virginia town of Tysons Corner, a place best known for its gargantuan shopping mall.

Situated on the outer edge of the Washington, D.C., Beltway in Fairfax County, Tysons is the kind of place that’s good for gassing up, grabbing a Cinnabon, and maybe browsing the wares at dime-a-dozen chains like Kay Jewelers and the Gap. But it’s not the kind of place where you would want to live–unless you happen to be a car, in which case it’s paradise. Of the town’s nearly 1,700 acres, nearly half are set aside for parking and wide suburban roads without sidewalks. The remaining land is occupied by drab, isolated office parks and shopping centers.

Little wonder that while 105,000 people work in Tysons Corner, only 17,000 choose to live there.

It’s hard to conceive of a less likely poster child for the livable-communities movement, which prizes dense urban-style neighborhoods where residents can live without cars. Yet developers and county leaders in Fairfax County are close to finalizing a radical multibillion-dollar plan to “desprawl” Tysons. The proposal, aimed at attracting a total of 100,000 with the texture and energy of city life, involves tearing up large swaths of the existing town and constructing a series of urban villages, with buildings up to 25 stories high.

 “Tysons Corner is a leading example of a suburb trying to transform itself into something else,” says Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a top thinker on the future of America’s suburbs. “The people there see walkable urban areas and say, ‘We want that here.’ They want that kind of urban excitement.”

By 2016, a $5.5 billion project will ex-tend the D.C. Metro 23 miles west to Dulles International Airport, passing straight through Tysons Corner. The four stations planned for the town will anchor new urban villages, each with a distinctive feel: a ritzy shopping district, for example, and an arts district dominated by lofts and performance spaces. Housing will be packed in with retail and office space, giving townspeople the chance to visit a food market or a bookstore on their walk home from work. Ten percent of the town will be turned into parks and public spaces.

The official plan for Tysons Corner is now on its third draft and in the later stages of public approval. County leaders have expressed concern that if Tysons becomes too urban it will create surplus traffic, so they’ve decided to construct a few more freeway lanes and interchanges. Still, the larger goals of the effort remain intact.

Come next summer, expect a few urbanism nerds to be on hand to cheer “Death to parking lots!” as the jackhammers hit the pavement and construction begins on the first 28 acres of America’s big, bold desprawling experiment.

Excerpted from GOOD (Spring 2010), a magazine produced by writers, editors, and activists for “people who give a damn.”
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.