Design Opportunities Ride on Metrorail Dulles Extension
By Jonathan Moore
Planning is on track with construction of the new Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. This 23-mile $6.2 billion project will extend the Washington, D.C., Metrorail system from East Falls Church to Dulles International Airport and beyond to Ashburn. It’s a high-profile opportunity for architects and planners to implement smart growth concepts along a narrow strip of land in one of metro D.C.’s fastest-growing economically diverse regions.
Hard to imagine Dulles Airport standing virtually alone amidst verdant countryside when architect Eero Saarinen designed this iconic terminal 50 years ago. Dedicated in 1962, the airport stood in stark contrast to pastoral farmland and crossroads communities—its soaring catenary roof and angular columns a futuristic monument to the emerging jet age. Far removed from Washington’s suburbs, the site was chosen as a buffer between residential communities and noise from high-volume aviation traffic. Yet Dulles’ relative isolation was part of its charm, a structural anomaly in an area steeped in historic tradition.
Though Saarinen’s “curtain raising” visual approach to the terminal was facilitated by an exclusive access road, he probably envisioned the airport becoming a fulcrum for future development. This economic growth became reality in the 1980s as technology, aerospace, and defense companies took advantage of locating between a major airport and the nation’s capital. The new Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, running alongside this access road, is the latest in a long-anticipated series of steps to provide additional connections.
Over the years, the growth catalyst has been and remains the airport and related services. Close proximity to a major international gateway has long been a drawing card for such communities as Reston, Herndon, and points west toward the Shenandoah foothills. Yet these communities immediately west of the Capital Beltway and beyond felt a certain disconnect from metro Washington. Rail transit will dramatically change that perception.
Architects and planners view this emerging corridor as a quest for connectivity. Built and managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (“Airports’ Authority”), which took possession of the entire corridor—including the Dulles Access and Toll Roads—from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2007, 11 new rail stations constructed in two phases will be established. More than 80 percent of total project costs will be supported from toll-road revenues and other local funds. On completion, ownership and management of these stations will pass from the Airports’ Authority to Washington’s Metrorail subway system. Phase One will include a spur line from East Falls Church to the eastern side of Reston at Wiehle Avenue. Five stations in Phase One are exclusively designated for Tysons Corner. Phase Two starts near Reston Parkway, running between the east and west lanes of the Dulles Access Road, with stations serving Reston Town Center, Herndon, Va.-Route 28, Dulles Airport, Va.-Route 606 (Old Ox Rd.), and Va.-Route 772 in Ashburn. Not only will a major population center be better connected to other areas in Virginia, Maryland, and the District, but Dulles—formally accessible only by car or bus—will enjoy point-to-terminal rail service currently available at the District’s other major airport, Reagan National.
“This rail corridor extension will provide impetus for dramatic change,” says Marcia McAllister, communications manager for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. “Fairfax County hopes to see this entire area of Tysons Corner transformed from suburban sprawl into more mixed-use transit-oriented development.” Community site lines and new zoning areas will be established as architects and planners change the visual scope of these corridor communities. Fairfax County has established new comprehensive land-use plans to guide architects and planners as they change the visual scope of Reston and Tysons. Loudoun County also has development plans for the Route 772 end-of-line station in Ashburn. This transformative experience will be especially important for Tysons Corner, which McAllister says is the largest employment sector in Virginia.
Comprehensive mixed-use development is inherent with Reston’s planning ethos—harkening back to high density and economic diversity concepts promoted by its founder, Robert E. Simon (the “RES” in Reston). “Reston set the benchmark for responsible development,” says Phil Tobey, FAIA, senior vice president with the SmithGroup D.C. office. “Good design cannot exist in a vacuum, and that’s where planning comes in,” he says. “It’s all about scale and capturing people’s positive perceptions of urban architecture.” A new Metrorail link planned for Reston Town Center will provide residents and visitors easier access to other areas of D.C., fulfilling one of Simon’s concepts of a tight-knit community both apart from but readily connected to a major urban center.
With open space preservation a key objective, architects and planners are focusing on development between rail stations and existing commercial/residential areas, with planning tracts going no further than one-eighth to one-half mile on either side of the Silver Line, Metro’s color-coded designation for this new spur. Designs focusing on city-style environments will transition toward more public transportation options, thus greatly reducing the need for autos as a sole means of transport. Pedestrian walkways and bike lanes will also be added where they do not conflict with major traffic arteries. Structural aesthetics will be directed up rather than out, with designs favoring multi-purpose buildings combining office, retail, and residential space. These design themes for the Dulles Rail Corridor trend along lines of other local mixed-use areas served by Metrorail, such as Ballston, Clarendon, and Pentagon City in Arlington County, and Alexandria’s King and Duke Street corridors.
For Doug Carter, AIA, CEO of DCS Design in McLean, Dulles Access Road’s connectivity potential has been apparent for decades. Possessing expertise in both architectural and planning fields, Carter believes sustainable development with light rail will transform “edge communities” such as Tysons, Reston, and Herndon into municipal models based on quality of life, accessible linkages, and energy savings. Reducing traffic congestion abates fuel consumption and longer commutes while preserving open space and enhancing air quality. “We must think beyond existing planning modes for creating and preserving livable communities,” he says. “Environmentally responsible mixed-use options must form the nucleus of any new development scheme, especially in Northern Virginia’s high-density environment.”
Carter says green planning concepts must prevail with this and other mixed-use projects. New zoning ordinances must bring community services closer together instead of disbursing them over several miles. Commercial, cultural, and life-safety services should be within walking or rail-ride distance wherever possible. “Today’s investment in sustainable planning pays positive dividends well into the future,” Carter adds. He views the Dulles Corridor Project as a chance for Northern Virginia to begin anew with innovative planning and design techniques.
Fortunately, Metropolitan Washington has successful mixed-use development models close by. Smart-growth planning in Virginia’s highly dense and culturally diverse Arlington County was essential for managing phenomenal growth in recent years. County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman points to successful mixed-use development along the Rosslyn-Ballston-Clarendon corridor. With five Metro stations and 10 percent of the county’s population, this corridor generates a third of the county’s total tax revenue. For Zimmerman, mixed-use is all about combining form and function that best serve communities. “Structures must be functional, yet aesthetically unique to their environment,” he says, adding that signature structures help seal a sense of identity for local residents and visitors. Zimmerman reinforces close-in density planning as essential for successful rail corridor development. “We’ve seen tremendous growth between Rosslyn and Ballston in recent years,” he adds, “yet those neighborhoods have maintained a sense of identity without measurable traffic increases.”
Fundamentally, architects and planners believe mixed-use approaches must come at the earliest planning stages. That is especially true with development along rail lines where space and zoning are limited. One of the most heavily congested areas in the country, Northern Virginia cannot afford deleterious influences taking hold as this once-remote part of the metro area continues to grow as a technology, residential, and commercial hub of the mid-Atlantic region. Phil Tobey, FAIA, points to light rail as a primary environmentally friendly transportation option. “The key is creating viable communities growing near to, rather than away from, transit hubs.” It’s a goal architects and planners will establish early as rail line construction proceeds toward completion dates of 2013 (Phase One), and 2017 (Phase Two).
“Quality transit infrastructure could alter people’s daily transportation priorities for the better,” says Linda McMinimy, executive director of the Virginia Transit Association in Richmond. “An effective rail system placed in or near local communities spurs economic development while preserving future growth options.”