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With Future of Entire Region at Stake, Tysons

COALITION FOR SMARTER Growth’s director of planning, Jessica Millman, spoke to the F.C. Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. (News-Press photo)Next Tuesday in the cafeteria at Falls Church’s George Mason High School, the Coalition for Smarter Growth will host a public seminar entitled, “Tysons Transformed: Design and Transportation Essentials for a Vibrant Community.”

The organization, whose planning director spoke to the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, is aiming to have a major impact on the unfolding plans for the burgeoning new growth anticipated in Tysons as a result of the extension of the Metro rail line through it.

 “With the right design and transportation plan, Tysons Corner will integrate Metro rail and new growth to become a truly great place,” a coalition statement reads. The group sees Tuesday’s forum as an opportunity to help the public participate effectively in upcoming Fairfax County workshops on development in Tysons that will commence in mid-July.

Residents throughout the region, including the 100,000 in the five zip codes that constitute Falls Church and the City of Falls Church, have a vital stake in how the growth of Tysons will occur. With a massive influx of new residences to the area, which already constitutes among the nation’s top dozen concentrations of office space, smart strategies could help to diminish the traffic impact dramatically.

Right now, Route 7 which runs the length of greater Falls Church from Skyline and Bailey’s Crossroads to Pimmit Hills and the outskirts of Tysons, is being choked with over 40,000 vehicle trips a day, many of which are involved in doing business related to Tysons.

Much of this is due to the fact that, of the 150,000 people work in Tysons daily only 17,000 live anywhere near where they work. The road trips that people who work and shop at Tysons is causing the traffic.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which partners with environmental organizations on a number of projects, sees the ability to cut down the number of automobile trips and miles as the key to resource conservation and environmentally-friendly growth. That means, for them, finding ways to put where people live and send their kids to school a lot closer to where they work, and to assist that with transit options.

Jessica Millman, planning director for the organization, told the Falls Church Chamber at its monthly luncheon Tuesday, that the growth of traffic in Northern Virginia during the last 25 years is distinctly not due to population growth.

The data shows, she said, that since 1982, the population has grown by 22%, yet the amount of driving has grown by 70% and the delays in driving by a whopping 225%.

In examining the causes of the increase in driving time, researchers found that only 13% of it was due to pure population growth. On the other hand, 35% was due to increased length of trips, 18% was due to increased number of trips and 17% due to decreased vehicle occupancy.

In other words, people are driving farther to get from home to work to school and back, and more often since these components of their lives have become farther apart.

Therefore, the conservationist’s best solution is counterintuitive to the commonly-held opposition to greater height and density in building construction. If taller buildings mean that more aspects of one’s life can be fit into a tighter space, then that saves the pollution, waste and congestion caused on roadways.

This was precisely the perspective offered by Millman to the Falls Church Chamber, which turned into a ringing endorsement (although not in so many words) for Falls Church’s current City Center redevelopment plans and for the City Center development efforts now underway in Merrifield.

Millman spoke positively about Merrifield’s efforts, saying that her main concern was that the means to link the center, slated for construction on land now occupied by the Lee Highway Multiplex movie theatre structure, to the Dunn Loring Metro station to the north be sufficiently user-friendly.

Building design, not height, is key to how well they fit into an environment that encourages pedestrian activity, she said. Trees, wide sidewalks and on-street parking help make otherwise dense, urban-like development feel safe for pedestrians, with benches, pocket parks, outside café dining and hidden parking also being key elements. In that context, what matters is not how tall a building is, but how it looks from the street.

She cited examples of creative building design that make one large structure look like multiple ones, with varying heights and setbacks. She said that the Gallery Place area of downtown Washington, D.C. is a prime example of “smarter growth.” In the area that began redevelopment with the construction of the Verizon Center there, residential, office and retail growth has been confined to a 13-acre area. Under current trends, the same kind of density in the suburban development model would require 1,300 acres.

She said that the “demographics are on our side” for this kind of development, because only 23% of households now are made up of married couples with kids looking for the traditional single detached home. “Empty-nesters, single-person households and the ‘rise of the creative class,’ especially among recent college graduates, are better served by the kind of dense condo and rentals that can be contained within a small area,” she said.

She said that the meandering and cul-de-sac-style roads in suburbia must also give way to more efficient road grids that create more options and more ways to come and go. Too much of suburban roads allow only one way in and one way out, which presents potential security problems and also traffic bottlenecks.

“Smarter growth” is a matter of “place-making” that is defined by people and not cars, she said.

In another assertion running counter to popular thinking, she said that tall buildings “shield” neighborhoods behind them from more intense, on-street activity, rather than representing a negative impact on residential areas.

Tuesday’s meeting at George Mason High School begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. It will be held in the school cafeteria.