Katie Cristol draws on Arlington experience as new face of Tysons Community Alliance

Katie Cristol, formerly the Arlington County Board chair, took over as the Tysons Community Alliance’s CEO on July 5 (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Katie Cristol wants to help Tysons become what the community imagines it could be.

Since taking over as the Tysons Community Alliance’s first permanent CEO on July 5, Cristol has been busy overseeing the creation of a Tysons strategic plan to identify priorities and needs for the 2,100-acre area envisioned by Fairfax County as an urban downtown where “people live, work and play.”

While a final report isn’t expected until November, the word “connected” keeps popping up in Cristol’s mind when she considers what it’ll take to turn Tysons into the vibrant, accessible and inclusive community that the TCA is tasked with manifesting and marketing.

“There are so many assets in Tysons, and I think one of our biggest opportunities is to create a sense of place,” Cristol told FFXnow in an interview last month. “It’s not just disconnected neighborhoods, but it is a downtown, and so, that absolutely requires physical connectivity…It also requires a sort of emotional connectivity, people really seeing themselves as being part of a broader community.”

From identifying gaps in the sidewalk network to promoting local events, building connections is essentially the core mission of the TCA, a community improvement organization that’s funded by but operates independently from the county.

Tysons booster by day, Arlingtonian by night

On a more personal level for Cristol, building connections also means networking, as she adjusts to a new working environment after serving as chair of the Arlington County Board for almost eight years.

She knows some Tysons residents may be wary of her ties to Arlington — and her continued residency there, which was acknowledged in a May 2 message saying she’ll “keep the title I’ve always valued most: Arlingtonian.”

However, after getting involved in the Tysons Partnership, the TCA’s predecessor, Cristol says she was drawn to the opportunity to continue working on issues like housing, transit and land use in an organization intended to bridge divides between the public and private sectors and the community.

“I believe in the region and I think that we are all interconnected,” Cristol said. “In many ways, I am going to look like a lot of people in Tysons, who spend their day there, working, contributing to the sort of overall return of employment…enjoying the coffee shops and the diners, and really thinking a lot about the space around me, even though I may sleep somewhere else in the region at night.”

Lessons from one of the defining initiatives of Cristol’s tenure in Arlington — the contentious Missing Middle zoning overhaul — could carry over to Tysons, even if the goal of eliminating single-family-only zoning isn’t applicable to an area where 82% of the housing is multifamily, per a market study released last week.

Like Arlington, though, Tysons is grappling with an insufficient supply of housing for its growing population and ever-rising real estate costs that could keep out low-income households and even the middle-class, white-collar workers sought by many employers, Cristol observed.

According to the market study, the affordable housing that exists in Tysons is mostly aimed at people earning 80 to 120% of the area median income, which is $105,000 for a single-person household. In addition, for-sale units make up just 38% of the overall stock and are concentrated at the edges of the urban district.

“When you talk to people about their experiences, the number one thing is I can’t afford to buy here,” Cristol said. “I don’t want to rent until I’m 50. I don’t want to have a roommate until I’m 35…The need for ownership housing stock in particular, but really a…rental [market] as well for people in that kind of middle-income band is a really interesting lesson from the Missing Middle that I think is relevant here in Tysons too.”

“We’re building something really exciting here”

While the TCA can’t implement policy, it can advocate for changes and share the different stories of residents, businesses, the county government, nonprofits and others with a stake in Tysons, according to Cristol.

For example, the TCA could organize a traffic safety campaign like the People Before Cars Coalition that the National Landing Business Improvement District in Arlington created to build support for improvements on Route 1.

“That’s really powerful, when you have those kind of background organizations that can say we’ve helped sort through some of these divergent perspectives and really can speak with some authenticity on the part of the community about what’s needed here,” Cristol said.

To get a more complete understanding of the Tysons community is looking for, the TCA is conducting surveys on topics like transportation, office and the workforce, and residential development as part of its strategic planning process.

The alliance is also developing a software system for communicating with residents and workers, whether to advertise upcoming events or gather feedback for future research efforts, according to Cristol.

As she settles into her new role at the TCA, Cristol says she’s excited to recruit others to the cause of championing Tysons. An initial budget plan approved by the board on June 14 funds 14 staff positions, including directors for each of the organization’s priorities of marketing, transportation, placemaking and research.

“I think we’re building something really exciting here in Tysons,” Cristol said. “And I hope that we can make this organization itself a model of Tysons being a fantastic destination for creative people who are passionate about community to come work.”