01 December 2006

Visual Preference

Thumbing through the Washington Post this morning, I came across Steven Pearlstein’s business column, “Suburban Soul.” The column compares and contrasts Tysons Corner and Reston Town Center. Obviously, there is plenty to like and dislike about both areas.


Walking around Reston, you can't help but marvel at how well it's been done: The quality and variety of the architecture, the careful attention to creating public spaces and inviting streetscapes, the clever ways in which cars and roadways are integrated into the project, the density that's been achieved without sacrificing human scale.
And yet you can't shake the feeling that this is really a Potemkin village.

It's just too neat, too homogenized. The stores are all outlets of national chains. There are no churches, no schools, no liquor stores, no bums or graffiti. Reston Town Center lacks what architect and urban planner Alan Ward, who was involved in the center's planning, calls the "messy vitality of older towns and cities that grew over time like natural phenomena."

This is not a criticism so much as a statement of the obvious.

After all, what else would you expect from a "downtown" created out of nothing in less than 20 years?

Tysons Corner:

Suddenly, the suburban experience epitomized by Tysons had fallen out of favor -- not just with urban snobs who never liked office parks and enclosed malls but even with high-priced consultants and government contracting executives who, only years before, had boasted of the star chef at the Ritz-Carlton, the number of dot-com millionaires who could be found lunching at the Palm and the new Hermes store in Fairfax Square. At conferences and community meetings, Tysons was Exhibit A for everything that was wrong with the suburbs -- a traffic nightmare, aesthetically and environmentally offensive, a mistake to be rectified, a problem to be solved.


You can't help but feel, as you drive from Reston down the Dulles Toll Road and turn onto lovely Route 7 in Tysons Corner, that you've arrived at a place that is bigger, more dynamic, more real. Sure, Tysons is one traffic jam after another -- but when was the last time you tried to get across Midtown Manhattan? It's ugly, but so are some of the hippest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Like people in Chicago, people in Tysons don't amble or poke along -- they've got things to do.

And everywhere there is variety, ordered chaos and an urban-like intensity that puts you on edge.

In the end, Mr. Pearlstein wraps up with:

My point is that when talking about creating an "urban" experience in the suburbs or the exurbs, there is more to it than road grids, streetscapes and walkability. By those criteria, Tysons will never become a city in the way we think of Baltimore or Boston, even with a subway line running through it. To think otherwise is fantasy.

But that doesn't mean Tysons can't have the density and variety and energy normally associated with cities, or that its next incarnation can't include attractive and inviting neighborhoods that do a better job of mixing housing, retail space, offices and public amenities.

The challenge will be to find a way for people to get from one of these neighborhoods to another without a car. Some sort of circulator bus or trolley seems inevitable.

And, just as importantly, Fairfax County will have to become more aggressive in securing choice parcels of land in Tysons for public uses -- schools, parks, theaters, museums, churches. Landowners, developers and private-property vigilantes will howl, and the cost will be high. But these will represent better uses of public money (or money extracted from developers) than spending hundreds of millions of dollars to put the Metro underground.

Tysons vs. Reston? In the long run, there's no reason both can't succeed. But for the
real urban experience, I'll put my money on Tysons.

I believe that neither city is directly attributable to Columbia. That is, what was done in either case does not have a direct influence on what changes come to downtown Columbia. But there are some lessons to be learned here.

I strongly encourage comment on this article, but not so much on what was written. If you pick up the print edition of the Washington Post, there are two photos on page 1 of the Business section: one of Tysons Corner and one of Reston Town Center (I cannot find the Reston Town Center photos on the Washington Post website). Take a look at these two photos, and tell me which you think is a friendly, vibrant downtown.


Steve Fine said...

Actually, traffic in Manhattan usually runs a lot smoother than the Beltway. The grid system and great mass transit make this possible. True, terrible traffic jam appear instantly out of nowhere and also true that driving in Manhattan is not for the fainthearted, due to the breakneck pace and New Yorkers' intolerance for the slightest inefficiency.

Hayduke said...

The picture of Tyson's is available along side the column, and you can see what I think is the Reston picture here.

B. Santos said...


As far as I can tell, that is the Reston picture I was referencing.


Anonymous said...

The cost of parking/keeping a car in Manhattan? Priceless. So, who cares about grid or no grid.

Manhattan does have a subway. To put one under Tyson's is going to cost $4B for 4 miles. It ain't cheap and you and I pay.

"The challenge will be to find a way for people to get from one of these neighborhoods to another without a car. Some sort of circulator bus or trolley seems inevitable."