County heightens scrutiny of Tysons accessibility after issues at The Boro

Community members have criticized the placement of tree planters by curbside parking spaces in The Boro (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The accessibility of Tysons is under a microscope after community members pointed out oversights at The Boro that make the development challenging to navigate for people with disabilities.

In a presentation to the Fairfax County Planning Commission’s Tysons Committee last week, county staff said they’re looking more closely at how developments are designed — from the availability of drop-off zones to the slope of a sidewalk — and flagging potential issues earlier when reviewing new proposals.

“We’re going to continue to raise these concerns with applicants during the review and working toward continual improvement as the development of Tysons builds out, so we’re keeping a really close eye on these and trying to get better and better as we go,” Suzie Battista, the Department of Planning and Development’s (DPD) urban centers section chief, said at the July 14 meeting.

Accessibility Issues Found at The Boro

Since its first phase came online in 2019 and 2020, The Boro has exemplified both the promise of Tysons and the obstacles facing the county’s vision of a walkable, inclusive urban center.

Built by The Meridian Group, The Boro brought 1.7 million square feet of development to two blocks near Leesburg Pike and the Greensboro Metro station, including 677 housing units, 500,000 square feet of office space, and retail anchored by Whole Foods and the ShowPlace ICON Theater.

After all that construction, the new neighborhood failed to consider the needs of people with mobility issues, says retired architect and The Boro resident John Colby, who shared his concerns in a Washington Post op-ed last year.

None of the 34 street parking spaces were reserved for people with disabilities, as all 31 Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant spaces are inside garages. There are no drop-off or loading zones, and the button for the entrance to the Verse condominiums, where Colby lives, is frequently broken, he told the Tysons Committee.

“ADA-compliant entry doors are minimally required at public-to-private interfaces, such as entry doors from the street, but not private-to-private internal doors,” he said. “Contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the ADA law, those dependent on a wheelchair are thus denied unaccompanied access to our building’s fitness and meeting rooms, the half-acre skypark, and similar amenities.”

Other issues are more subtle, such as a garage entrance and utility manhole cover on Silver Hill Drive that make those areas of the sidewalk steeper than the adjacent street — putting it out of compliance with the ADA, according to Fairfax County Tysons Urban Center Coordinator William Marsh.

Community members also took issue with the presence of bioretention planters next to curbside parking spots and called for better pedestrian protections on Westpark Drive with The Boro’s planned expansion, which is currently under construction and will include a 198-unit senior living facility.

The Boro didn’t address specific criticisms in a statement to FFXnow, but it noted that the expansion’s streetscape design was revised in response to the community concerns:

Our goal at The Boro is to create an enjoyable environment for everyone in our community to shop, eat, and enjoy time with friends and family through innovative activations and events. Our neighborhood is built to the strictest local, state and national standards of accessibility and safety. These standards will continue to be implemented in the second phase of the neighborhood, with new on-street ADA parking and an ADA drop off zone, which was achieved in close coordination with Fairfax County Department of Planning and Development, the Tysons Partnership and the Tysons Core Team.

County staff told the Tysons Committee that they’re withholding bond funding until Meridian brings the original Boro into compliance with the ADA, including by adding an on-street, accessible parking space.

However, many issues are difficult to fix after a development has been approved and built. Other needs have to be considered as well, with utilities, trees, benches, lighting and more often competing for limited space.

“Tysons is not flat, and there are a lot of competing interests within that streetscape element — utilities, entrances, stormwater management, just to name a few — so we continue to look for creative solutions,” DPD Deputy Director Chris Caperton said, stating that “pedestrian safety and access is paramount.”

Designated Citizen Advocate Proposed

While focused on Tysons, commissioners noted that there are accessibility issues across the county, from the soon-to-be-widened gauntlet of Richmond Highway to a too-small ramp in the garage of the Fairfax County Government Center, where the group met.

Many of the challenges stem from trying to “retrofit” suburban infrastructure to create an urban environment, Franconia District Commissioner Daniel Lagana said, adding that his office is revisiting the ADA requirements for a proposed affordable senior housing development on Route 1.

“We’re left even in our urban areas with very wide boulevards, very wide streets,” Lagana said. “…Even in Reston, for example, I love seeing the development around the Metro stations along [the Dulles Toll Road], but you still have to walk a really long way from the Metro station to your building.”

To ensure accessibility is prioritized in development, Colby suggested that the county appoint a citizen advocate who would serve as “a combination of compliance officer and ombudsman fully versed in ADA policies, practices, oversight, and enforcement.”

The county has a Fairfax Area Disability Services Board that advises local officials, but At-Large Commissioner Candice Bennett said the perspectives of those with disabilities need to be included more broadly.

“It’s parks, it’s schools, it’s transportation, so it’s not just their siloed board,” Bennett said. “We need to have more of those opinions and voices being brought across the spectrum of issues that we’re talking about.”