Edge cities: Magnets for development

These fast-growing areas, often spawned by large retail projects, are acquiring a more urban character
August 11, 2010

Joel Garreau's widely read 1991 book Edge Cities described a phenomenon that has had a profound impact on U.S. development — the advent of fast-growing areas adjacent to major cities. The following stories describe how these "edge cities" are changing the landscapes of two metropolitan areas — Washington, D.C., and San Jose, Calif.

When the first retail mall was built in Tysons Corner, Va., in 1968, no one imagined that this suburban outpost of Washington, D.C., would become the 13th largest urban core in the country. Today, the bustling "edge city" along the Capital Beltway boasts 25 million square feet of offices — more than Miami. It has become home to such high-profile companies as Arthur Andersen LLP, Ernst & Young and The Boeing Co. And despite the recent economic downturn, Tysons Corner continues to expand.

Now under construction are almost 3 million square feet of office space in speculative towers and corporate headquarters that mark a significant departure from the developments of the past. Clunky, isolated buildings of the 1970s and 1980s are giving way to sleekly sculpted towers connected to parking garages and landscaped courtyards. And for the first time, attention is being paid to the pedestrian in a high-speed environment where the motorist is king.

"As rents have gone up, the architecture has matured," says architect G. Alan Mount of DNC Architects, a Rockville, Md.-based firm that has designed two new speculative office buildings in Tysons Corner for the West Group. "Tenants are demanding a much classier environment with higher quality materials, lots of windows and convenient parking."

They are also insisting on work environments with stores, restaurants and skywalks connected to nearby malls to avoid traffic jams during lunch hours. "The ability to take the car out of the equation is important in these projects," says Warren Amason, vice president of the commercial real estate broker Grubb & Ellis. "There is a trend to do something that is more urban in scale and function."

The most ambitious of these new projects is an 18-acre town-center-style development called Towers Crescent bordering the Beltway, Route 7 and Tysons Corner Center, the area's first shopping mall. Billed as the new downtown of Tysons Corner, it is anchored by a 1980s, arch-topped brick office building designed by New York architect Philip Johnson. This tower, one of the first built near the mall, is known locally as the "shopping bag building" and is considered a Tysons Corner landmark.

The Towers Crescent campus has been planned by A/E RTKL Associates for the Quadrangle Development Corp., the team also responsible for the successful Reston Town Center a few miles away. It comprises five new office buildings arranged around a 400-by-120-ft. plaza with fountains and sidewalks. Ground-floor spaces will house restaurants and retail, and a pedestrian bridge will connect the central plaza to Tysons Corner Center. Explains Quadrangle President Chris Gladstone, "We're trying to create an urban center independent of the automobile. It was something that our tenants told us was desperately needed."

Two of Quadrangle's buildings will be completed this fall: one houses 100,000 square feet in five stories, the other contains 200,000 square feet in nine stories. Both are crisply detailed in brick and glass with cylindrical and angular bays and projecting cornices.

Fostering a "livable environment"

Planned for the apex of the central plaza is a 15-story, 320,000-sq.-ft. office tower now being designed by Detroit-based A/E SmithGroup. It is due to be occupied in spring of 2003. A half circle in plan, it will present a rounded, glass and metal façade to the Beltway and a masonry front to the plaza. Like the neighboring structures at Towers Crescent, the base of the building will incorporate stores and restaurants. "Our intent is to relate it to the Johnson building while making it look more high-tech," says SmithGroup Vice President Maynard Ball. "We would like the building to stand out on the horizon as well as to be connected to the ground. Our desire is to create a livable environment, which Tysons has never had."

Farther to the east, another new gateway to Tysons Corner is under construction. It consolidates the Northern Virginia operations of the Capital One Financial Corp. into a 550,000-sq.-ft. corporate headquarters designed by the Washington, D.C., office of architect Ai. The 14-story tower presents a gleaming front to the adjacent Beltway with a curved wall of glass accented by panels of stainless steel and aluminum. Employees will have the benefit of a fitness center, a cafeteria, a coffee shop and retail on the first two floors. Due to be completed next year, the building is intended as the first of four buildings on a campus linked by pedestrian walkways and landscaped courtyards.

On the northern edge of Tysons Corner, Ai has designed a fourth building on the campus of mortgage investor Freddie Mac that also incorporates on-site amenities. Now under construction, the 400,000-sq.-ft. metal, glass and concrete building includes a cafeteria, a child-care facility, meeting areas and a business center for visitors. Its floor plates are narrower than Freddie Mac's other buildings so that occupants are never farther than 40 feet from the windows.

These corporate additions to Tysons Corner, however, pale in comparison with the Gannett/USA Today headquarters, which has just been completed on 25 acres to the east of Freddie Mac. Designed by New York City-based architect Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the prismatic complex elevates architectural design in this edge city to a higher level of sophistication.

Overlooking a south-facing landscaped courtyard and a stormwater pond, the 820,000-sq.-ft. headquarters is divided into a 12-story tower, which houses USA Today's newsrooms and offices, and a nine-story block for parent company Gannett. Connecting the pair is a three-story podium containing conference/training facilities, a cafeteria, a fitness center and other employee amenities.

As in most KPF-designed office buildings, it's the skin that sizzles. Clad in slightly reflective glass panels, the exterior is detailed with projecting fins of glass placed every 21/2 feet to create a subtle, vertical rhythm like fine lines on a pin-striped suit. Circulation is pushed out from the perimeter in horizontal, transparent bays that subtly contrast with the main façades. Elevators are sheathed in glass shafts rising above the slanted roofs. Glistening alongside the Dulles Toll Road, these light-reflective, crystalline volumes achieve what German Expressionist architects like Bruno Taut only dreamed about.

In addition to Gannett, KPF is also designing a pair of office towers to the east of the Tysons Galleria, a shopping mall completed in 1988. Now under design for Lerner Enterprises is a 12-story, 300,000-sq.-ft. tower that is slated to begin construction next spring. It will be clad in a light-reflective palette that departs from the precast panels and ribbon windows of Lerner's earlier office buildings.

Lerner has also hired KPF to shape a 23-story, 600,000-sq.-ft. office tower on a nearby parcel. Its angular glass and metal façades fold inward to frame a south-facing public courtyard and water garden. A glass skywalk will connect the tower to the adjacent shopping mall and Ritz-Carlton hotel. The project, however, is on hold pending approval of a master plan for the corporate office park.

A pedestrian-friendly environment

"The idea is to connect all the buildings at Tysons II with elevated and enclosed pedestrian walkways so people don't have to get into their car," explains Peter Rosen, senior development director of Lerner Enterprises. "We are envisioning bigger buildings with more uses. As part of this, we are looking to take the design of buildings up a notch."

Both architects and developers predict that the quality of architecture will continue to improve within the edge city as disconnected office buildings give way to denser developments. A major catalyst for this change is the Metrorail station expected to be built on the periphery of Tysons Corner by 2006. "The allowable floor-area-ratio of buildings within 1,000 feet of the station will double what it is now," explains Rosen.

The promise of increased density has led some developers to consider more traditional urban plans. In June, a local apartment building owner hired the guru of the New Urbanism movement, Miami planner Andres Duany, to redevelop a 40-acre parcel within walking distance of the proposed Metro stop into a mini-town. Duany envisions residential blocks, upscale stores, office buildings and an upscale hotel, all designed by different architects. Calling Tysons Corner "the edge city that swallowed Washington," Duany says, "Statistically, it's a city. But in reality it has never added up."

That is changing, however, as architects and developers take the first steps in creating office environments oriented to both the skyline and the street. "Tysons is beginning to feel more like a city," maintains Ball, "and less like a bunch of UFOs from outer space."