Theses Master's

"America's Next Great City": Placemaking and Urban Development in Tysons, Virginia

Subert, Marcell

On the day before Thanksgiving, 2023, the Northern Virginia gentry flocks to western Loudoun County, Virginia, blissfully soaking in an additional day off at one of dozens of local wineries. One such winery, in Bluemont, Va, commands an imposing presence high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, affording its patrons an expansive view of the rolling hills and country estates below. The view of the skyline eastward is relatively flat and featureless as the undulating Appalachian ridges taper out a dozen miles beyond; that is, except for a line of high-rise towers 35 miles away that serve as the only reminder of a civilization beyond. The towers are not that of the building height-restricted Washington, D.C., but of Virginia’s newest edge city: Tysons.

“Tysons” has only existed for about a decade. Most people who have lived in Northern Virginia or the wider D.C. metropolitan region have long known the area as “Tyson’s Corner.” For decades, the largest attraction in this locale was the Tysons Corner Center, a massive shopping mall opened in 1968 and consistently added on to that continues to anchor this growing urban destination. Originally a small, car-dependent exurban shopping mall, Tysons, through zoning changes as well as the construction of a new rapid transit line, has transformed into a large, populous, mixed-use urban center, a true edge city. The changes have not been simply wrought in glass and concrete, but in the construction of a new place. Motorists entering Tysons from many arterial roads are welcomed with a colorful sign in the grassy median strip that proudly declares: “Welcome to Tysons, America’s Next Great City.” While the moniker may be an example of rather bold marketing, the intent behind it; envisioning Tysons as a truly great place to live, shop and work has been a dominant theme in its urban development for decades. Ever since commercial developer Til Hazel first planned for Tysons to be something much more than simply an upscale covered shopping mall in the 1980s, an honor that Tysons shared with many other developments at the time, the area has managed to continue to grow and change at a breakneck pace even while other malls in the region have sunk into a terminal decline.

Tysons has managed to evolve in the suburbs as it has kept pace with changes in how suburbs are built. These changes are a part of the wider study of “post-suburban” development, around which an expansive body of literature exists to describe how the ideals of new urbanism and a growing emphasis on dense, mixed-use and walkable development have changed how new suburban communities are planned and built. Such developments are embodied in Northern Virginia and elsewhere in the creation of “town centers” or local urban anchors amidst traditional suburban sprawl. These town centers are compact, dense and walkable developments, often with an appended parking garage for those traveling there by car, that provide a sanitized urban destination for suburban dwellers to eat, shop and stroll. Many of them are privately owned and policed much in the same way that traditional enclosed shopping malls are, ensuring a uniformity in its population that is usually whiter and more affluent than the actual city center on which its suburbs have traditionally depended economically.

While there are other examples of such developments in Northern Virginia, such as the Mosaic District, Reston Town Center and One Loudoun, Tysons is an example of this mold on a much larger scale. In fact, Tysons can even be said to have mini town centers within its own boundaries, such as The Boro, a small mixed-use development surrounded by office buildings and parking lots. Even so, Tysons, with its four Metro stops and its millions of square feet of commercial and residential space, displays the progression of post-suburban development in all of its stages, from traditional suburban single use construction to the slow evolution of mixed-use urbanism. It is therefore a very useful case study to use for further contributing to the literature on post-suburban development, particularly as the area continues to evolve.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Bou Akar, Hiba
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
May 29, 2024