Macerich Co. plans to expand the 38-year-old Tysons Corner Center by wrapping it with buildings as tall as 30 stories. (Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
McLEAN, Va. - Fairfax County officials are considering approving a major expansion of the Tysons Corner Center mall even as the county is in the middle of a much-touted effort to draft a new master plan for future development of the area.
This month, a consulting firm on a $1 million taxpayer-funded contract will start working with a county task force to draw up a plan for Tysons's future. Meanwhile, though, county officials are on the verge of approving the mall expansion, which would reshape the heart of Tysons with a ring of towers including a hotel, offices and more than 1,000 apartments.
The mall designs have generally been well received. But some residents question why the county is considering the proposal now, with officials still in the middle of the effort to rethink Tysons. Why spend so much time and money on planning, they ask, if the future of such pivotal parcels as Tysons Corner Center is already settled?
"They're wasting their time and our money, is the bottom line," said John Foust, a member of the McLean Citizens Association who testified last month in favor of deferring the mall proposal until after the new master plan is done.
Underlying the debate is the question of how to proceed with the overhaul of Tysons, which Fairfax leaders want to transform from an outsized, traffic-clogged office park into a vibrant, walkable downtown, aided by the expected arrival of Metrorail in 2012.
To guide this transformation, the Board of Supervisors appointed a 35-member task force last year to produce a new "comprehensive plan" for Tysons. Due next year, it is expected to include calls for an urban-style street grid and more high-rise construction around the four proposed Metro stations.
The task force is meeting regularly and getting considerable outside help: The county has set aside more than $600,000 for two consulting firms to collect public comments and create traffic models, and it awarded a $1 million contract last month for urban design consulting to PB Placemaking, a unit of construction giant Parsons Brinckerhoff.
But the transformation of Tysons is well underway, particularly in the center of the area, around the site of the proposed Metro station on Route 123 between Tysons Corner Center and the Tysons Galleria mall. In 2003, the county approved a proposal from Lerner Enterprises for eight high-rise office towers at Tysons II, even though the plans go against the county's preference for more residential space at Tysons.
Now comes Macerich Co., the California-based owner of Tysons Corner Center, with its plans to expand the 38-year-old mall by wrapping it with buildings as tall as 30 stories. The plans call for adding 3.5 million square feet to the 78-acre property over the next decade, a 150 percent increase. But rather than wait for the new master plan and whatever increase in density it will allow, Macerich is submitting its proposal under the existing 1994 plan, which it says allows for the expansion it is seeking.
Some residents argue that the proposal should not be approved under the existing plan because the project doesn't include the road upgrades required by the current master plan for a major increase in density. Macerich is offering to widen Routes 123 and 7 and expand the Westpark Drive bridge over Route 123, but critics say it should also build two grade-separated interchanges on International Drive or should have to wait for the new master plan.
"What happens at Tysons now is really historic stuff, and rather than doing one chunk in one way and another in another way, we argue that it be part of a broader comprehensive vision," said Will Elliott, a spokesman for the Vienna-based activist group FairGrowth.
Macerich officials say that the company's road offers are more than adequate and note that they applied months before the task force was formed. "We are clearly outside the purview" of the task force, said the company's attorney, Antonio Calabrese. "There's some serious posturing going on here."
In addition, he said, the mall proposal is in tune with the Tysons vision being discussed by the task force. The proposal includes a greater share of residential space than the Lerner one has, with 1,350 apartments, and a higher proportion of affordable units; it encourages mass transit use by limiting parking and keeping the mall open after stores close so commuters can walk through it to and from the station; and it features such public spaces as a large plaza with an ice rink.
The proposal, which was strongly endorsed by the county staff, is scheduled to be voted on by the Planning Commission next month, after which it will go before supervisors. If it is approved, future development on nearly 200 acres in the middle of the 1,700-acre Tysons area will be settled in advance of the new master plan.
Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), who represents Tysons, acknowledged that the timing was not ideal but said it is possible that the new consultants could be granted a quick review of the mall's plans or that Macerich could be asked to leave open the chance of later revisions to reflect the findings of the task force.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) rejected the notion that the proposal diminished the task force's relevance, saying there is still plenty to work on, including development at the other three Metro stations, a street grid and improving pedestrian connections.
Amy Tozzi, a task force member from McLean, isn't so sure. It would be better, she said, if Macerich held off so there could be coordination among county officials and landowners about who would pay for which infrastructure upgrades called for by the task force.
"For developers to be trying to rush in and get under the wire is not in keeping" with the planning effort, she said. "We certainly would rather have the whole package."