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The Great Desprawling Experiment

Can Tyson Corner show the country how to fix its suburbs?

“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 or the Gap. But it’s not the kind of place you would want to live—unless you happen to be a car, in which case it’s a paradise on earth. In this town of slightly less than 1,700 acres there are 900 acres of parking, with the remaining land given over to drab, isolated office parks and too-wide suburban roads without a sidewalk in sight. Little wonder that while 120,000 people work in Tyson’s Corner, only 18,000 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. But Fairfax County is close to finalizing a radical multibillion-dollar plan to “desprawl” Tysons by tearing up large swaths of the existing town and planning a series of urban villages with buildings up to 25 stories high. The idea, developed by local and county leaders over the last few years, is to bring 100,000 new residents to town and pack them together, transporting the texture and energy of city life to the exurbs.

Livability experts are understandably fascinated with the plan. “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 leading 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.”

What will likely allow them to have it is the $5.5 billion Silver Line, a project to extend the D.C. Metro 23 miles west to Dulles Airport, passing straight through Tysons Corner. The four stations planned for the town will each anchor one of the new urban villages, each with a distinctive feel—one will be a ritzy shopping district; another an arts district dominated by lofts and performance spaces. In all cases, housing will be packed in with retail and office space, offering new-fangled possibilities like swinging by the food market and a bookstore on your walk home from work. The distinctly un-suburban scenarios will unfold on a new street grid of tight urban blocks conducive to strolling and a diverse range of local businesses. Ten percent of the town will be turned into parks and public spaces. Residents and local business leaders hope that in years ahead Tysons will emerge as a place of national prominence, a “second city” of the D.C. region.

But it would become more than that, of course. Tysons Corner would stand as proof that poorly planned exurbs can be saved. The ambition evokes, in some sense, the old alchemical dream of making something ordinary into something extraordinary—and like turning lead into gold, the idea of desprawling a sprawly place seems almost to defy natural law. But with the Metro extension now slated for completion in 2016 and a variety of funding mechanisms in place for the redevelopment (including capital from land developers, highway tolls, federal grants, and possibly a small local sales tax), Tysons seems an ideal candidate to test the limits of the possible—and perhaps inspire other suburbs to do the same.

The official plan for Tysons Corner, now on its third draft and in the later stages of the public approval process, has been scaled back a bit in recent months. County leaders worried that the new Tysons might be too urban and create too much traffic, so they decided to slap down a few more freeway lanes and interchanges. But the larger goals of the effort remain intact. Expect a few urbanism nerds to be on hand next summer cheering “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.

Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch.

This article first appeared in GOOD Issue 19: The Neighborhoods Issue. You can read more from the issue here, or find out what it's all about by reading the introduction.

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