By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
TYSONS CORNER, Va. - Down the street they stretch, their banners cracking in the wind, the roll call of signs evoking distant Saturdays of kicking tires and clasping new keys: Koons Chevrolet, Cherner Lincoln Mercury, Moore Cadillac.
For generations of area residents, buying a car has often meant a trip to a mile-long strip of Leesburg Pike in Tysons Corner, home to more than a dozen dealerships sprawling over 80 acres of blacktop. The dealers, as much a part of Tysons Corner's landscape as its malls, have been hugely successful; Koons Toyota, to name just one, is among Toyota's top-selling dealers nationwide.
But in five years, an elevated Metro line is scheduled to slice through the middle of Leesburg Pike, a prospect that brings with it the question already rumbling on showroom floors: Is there room for acres of car lots in a Tysons transformed by transit?
Probably not, say many Fairfax County officials and developers and even some dealers. At a time when Fairfax wants to focus growth around Metro -- especially the new stations at Tysons -- many see huge swaths of asphalt covered with empty cars so close to the train as a wasted opportunity.
Already, the planned arrival of rail is making the land so valuable that it's becoming tempting for owners to cash out -- or redevelop the properties into multistory, urban-style dealerships topped with offices and apartments, a far cry from the low-slung lots that characterize the strip.
"We'd like to protect the flag here as long as we can . . . but it's reached the point where the real estate has become so expensive that we have to take a second look," said Jacques J. Moore Sr., in the office of the Cadillac dealership he opened 28 years ago. "Metro changes all the dynamics."
Dealers aren't the only ones in Tysons Corner bracing for one of the Washington area's most sweeping transformations in recent history. Fairfax officials envision turning Tysons' entire charmless mix of office buildings and shopping-strip retail into a thriving downtown for Northern Virginia, with high-rise housing, big city blocks and a vibrant night life.
But few will probably be as affected as the auto dealers. There is the symbolism; one of the goals of bringing rail through Tysons to Dulles International Airport is to reduce reliance on vehicles. A row of auto dealerships doesn't exactly fit with the new ethos of a transit- and pedestrian-friendly Tysons liberated from the car culture.
By virtue of their size, the dealers occupy much of the land closest to two of the four stations planned for Tysons. It's a juxtaposition no one would have imagined when dealers started moving onto the strip from the District three decades ago, helping stake out the area as a commercial hub on the suburban fringes.
Now, as the suburbs have spread out much farther, with Metro following in their wake, the dealerships are at risk of being labeled out of place in the very place they helped create.
"It's funny: Tysons was the middle of nowhere when these dealerships were established, and now it's ground zero," said Art Walsh, a land use lawyer representing the family that owns the land beneath Koons Chevrolet at Route 123 and Leesburg Pike. "The change in location has been dramatic."
The transformation is told in the land values. Last year, a four-acre site with a storage building squeezed between several dealerships at the west end of Leesburg Pike sold for $10.4 million. The assessed value of the 14 acres beneath Koons Chevrolet has jumped by more than half in five years, to $27.8 million.
Those values will probably shoot higher once the rail extension through Tysons gets its expected final approval this year. That will trigger higher allowed building densities for many of the dealerships, because they will officially be considered near Metro stations. And the county is considering revisions in its master plan for Tysons that include even higher densities near stations, to encourage more high-rise development -- which would make the land more valuable.
Such high land values don't necessarily mean that everyone on the strip is rushing for the exits. Several of the properties are owned by families or investment groups, not the dealers, and selling out would mean breaking long-term leases with the dealerships, several of which recently invested in costly renovations.
As for the dealers who own their land, the prospect of selling out prompts an immediate follow-up: What then?
They could take their millions and retire. But many say that selling cars is in their blood and that they feel obligations to their customers, their employees and the family members whom they are grooming to take over the businesses.
They could sell cars somewhere else, but that's easier said than done, considering the difficulty of finding available and affordable land in a strategic area that's not already part of another dealer's territory.
For Moore, all of this adds up to the decision to sit tight, at least for now, and even invest in an ongoing renovation of his family's dealership at Tysons. Like several other area dealers, the family has a branch in Chantilly it could fall back on, but Moore, 78, feels obligations to customers who don't want to drive that far for repairs. Then there's his 25-year-old grandson who he hopes will inherit the business one day.
For others, the solution is to start thinking about ways to keep selling cars at Tysons while taking advantage of the proximity of Metro and the official push for higher density. The family that owns the land under Koons Chevrolet, the Sherwoods, held a contest recently for redevelopment ideas. It selected one that calls for a mixed-use, high-rise building with showrooms on the lower levels, with new streets cutting across the rest of the existing dealership to open up a whole new urban grid south of Leesburg Pike.
The winning architect, Doug Carter, said that such a mixed-use dealership, with most of its inventory stored at a site outside Tysons, is new to this area but has been proven to work in cities around the world. It's even possible to include repair shops below ground so their noise and fumes don't disturb tenants up above.
"If you go to any major city -- New York, Paris, London, Rome -- you've got car dealerships right at street level. You can walk up the Champs-Elysees and find any car you want as long as it's upmarket," he said. "It has been done before, and done successfully."
The Ourisman dealership chain is considering a similar approach for redeveloping the storage site it bought last year. Plans call for a gleaming glass building rising nine stories over a showroom; with new density caps, it could go twice as high, said David Cooper, the architect.
The first place car buyers could see the transformation to the high-rise model is at Tysons Dodge Jeep, which has submitted plans for a new building that will hold as many as 800 cars in seven stories above the showroom floor. The dealership is squeezed into four acres between two large office buildings, so the urban model has become a necessity, said Coley Dize, its general manager.
"We're going to build a dealership that fits right into the Metro style they're going to have here," he said.
Amid the sense of opportunity, however, there is also anxiety. Some dealers worry that county officials, in their quest to transform Tysons, will come up with a master plan that cramps dealers before they're ready to leave by, for example, condemning land to create the street grid that is often mentioned as a planning goal. Similar constraints, dealers say, helped push car lots out of Arlington during the overhaul of its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.
If Tysons dealerships start to vanish from Leesburg Pike, the Peacock family, whose Buick dealership closed last month, might be seen as the first in the shift. Michael Peacock, 39, who had worked his way up from washing cars in the lot to running the dealership, emphasizes that it shut mainly because of Buick's nationwide troubles, not because of development pressures.
But he's already in talks with builders about redeveloping the four acres into a mixed-use, high-rise building where, he says, "I could see apartments, Starbucks, a grocery store."
While moving out of the building last week, a few balloons still drifting on the empty showroom floor and the dealership sign outside draped in a blue tarp, Peacock predicted that similar development will spread down the pike. And when it does, he said, the dealers might just be missed.
"Even though the dealerships are ugly and [everyone] envisions pretty things here, car dealers are a service like everything else," he said. "You may not like us, but you do need us."