Is Your NU Too New?

A column by Steven Pearlstein today’s Washington Post business section complains about Reston Town Center. Yes, it’s well designed. Yes, it achieves density without sacrificing the human scale. Yes, it has attracted big-name tenants, and yes, it’s a great financial success. But it’s just “too neat, too homogenized.” It has no liquor stores, no bums or graffiti. It lacks “messy vitality.”

Tysons Corner, says Pearlstein, is more dynamic and real. Yes, it’s one big traffic jam after another. Yes, it’s ugly. But it has “variety, ordered chaos and an urban-like intensity that puts you on edge.” In Mr. Pearlstein’s opinion, it’s a lot like Chicago, Manhattan and San Francisco that way.

Um, I’ve never noticed any bums or graffiti in Tysons Corner either. The only thing dynamic about Tysons’ civic realm is the masses of automobiles gunning from stoplight to stoplight. I agree, it certainly does put you on edge.

Chicago, Manhattan and San Francisco would reject the comparison; those cities are intensely walkable. They have great urban environments without Tysons-style 10-lane arterials, massive surface parking lots, pedestrian-hostile intersections, or hulking structures with nothing but enormous blank walls to walk past, surrounded by berms and buffers galore.


Now, I’m not about to argue that Reston Town Center is perfect, or even close to the best of Chicago, Manhattan or San Francisco. Philip Langdon has written a good editorial that calls the development “a mix of outstanding accomplishments and missed opportunities.” That’s about right. But to call Tysons more “real” is missing the mark entirely.

It’s true that Reston Town Center is rather clean and new. It has no bums or graffiti

, and that seems to disturb some commentators. To rectify this situation, I’d like to offer the services of a company I am starting, Town Degraders, Inc. (TM)


For those who prefer “distressed” antiquing to the brand-spanking-new esthetic, Town Degraders, Inc. is proud to announce its new service, Acid-Washed Neighborhoods (TM). Just one phone call will bring our fleet of modified fire trucks to your doorstep today! Our trucks trundle up and down the streets of your New Urban (NU) development, applying the antiquing treatment to every exposed surface. The patented, custom-formulated treatment (a slurry of used oil, fine grit and restaurant grease) is shot at high velocity from our fire pumpers to achieve total coverage, deep saturation and consistent abrasion.

The Acid-Washed Neighborhoods (TM) treatment faithfully re-creates the urban patina that otherwise takes years to achieve. The effects of engine exhaust, acid rain, vandalism and normal wear-and-tear are flawlessly duplicated for the “everyday urbanism” look so prized by leading urbanists. A select number of large stones are included in the slurry mix, giving a realistically random result of chipped pavement, cracked windows, splintered sashes and stripped trees.

And for you architects, here’s a special note: The Acid-Washed treatment is guaranteed 70% flammable. The simple application of any flaming object will transform the most prosaic structure into an artfully-crafted exploration of the building material/community values nexus (see Architecture Magazine, April 2001 for details).

The Acid-Washed Treatment: It’s not just for clothing anymore! (TM)

Update: Commentary on Pearlstein’s article from Ryan Avent at DCist, and from Roger Lewis at the Washington Post.

3 responses to “Is Your NU Too New?

  1. George "Physical Graffiti" Roman

    Comparing Tysons to SF or NYC is nuts. We’re talking a couple of big Malls surrounded by business parks and hotels. Sheesh, is Pearlstein blind, or what? And complaining that Reston is missing beggars and graffiti? I’d like to visit Pearlstein’s house and spray a little of my own paint on his door to see how he likes it!

    Pearlstein: sometimes it’s better to simply keep your pen dry.

  2. arcadia

    When will planners learn that 4, 6, 10-lane arterials are neither urban nor walkable? I haven’t been to Tyson’s Corner in 15 years, but your picture clearly shows that Tyson’s is suburban sprawl, not urban vitality.

    Here’s something I’ve realized – any development that designs for cars first is inherently NOT WALKABLE. San Francisco and Manhattan were built for pedestrians, yet somehow these cities have not collapsed into chaos. Why? Many people walk, take a cab, or use public transportation. Many don’t own cars.

  3. Laurence Aurbach Post author

    I tend to agree. Places are either built for total driving convenience, or they trade some of that for better functionality for buses, rail, bikes, and of course, walkers. Developments that try to have maximum driving convenience and walkability usually make poor walking environments. They often turn out like outdoor malls, with a central pedestrian spine surrounded by big boxes, berms and towers that huddle against the torrents of surrounding traffic.

    Looking at one proposal for Tysons retrofit, it seems like they haven’t figured this out yet.

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