Case Studies on Smart Zoning Reforms, Part Three: Tysons, Virginia’s Transit-Friendly Development

Fairfax County, VA. policymakers set out to permit more high-rise multifamily housing on what was formerly land zoned only for commercial uses -- and it’s paying off.

This article is part of a series of case studies of positive local housing policy reforms in the United States. Each looks at a reform or set of reforms implemented at the municipal level. We have only included reforms that appear to have successfully improved housing affordability, to serve as examples for policymakers looking to do the same in their jurisdictions.

Part one: Houston, Texas

Part two: Portland, Oregon

Part three: Tysons Corner, Virginia

Part four: Buffalo, New York

The story: In 2010, policymakers passed an ambitious redevelopment plan for the Tysons area (just outside of Washington, D.C.) in anticipation of a new Metrorail line, hoping to transform a suburban, car-oriented area into a walkable, transit-oriented downtown. A decade later, they are on track to meet residential construction goals.

Why it matters: The transformation of this high-income D.C. suburb provides valuable lessons for policymakers considering their own plans for redevelopment. The case study is particularly useful for observing the effects of rezoning commercial lots for the development of high-rise multifamily housing. It’s a different model than recent efforts in other areas which emphasize single-family zoning reform.


  • Ahead of the arrival of the new Metro line, Fairfax County policymakers adopted a plan to permit redevelopment around the stations in 2010. At that time, Tysons was developed primarily with office parks, shopping malls, and lower density retail.
  • The Tysons redevelopment plan permitted the construction of multifamily buildings on land that had been previously zoned for commercial use. Policymakers crafted the plan to permit more residential development in part to improve the area’s appeal to office tenants who were increasingly choosing to locate in more walkable, dynamic neighborhoods in nearby Arlington, Va. or D.C.
  • Fairfax County policymakers managed to pass land-use liberalization that has permitted extensive housing construction with a minimal impact on the area’s single-family neighborhoods. This stands in contrast to more recent efforts to repeal single-family zoning, such as in Minneapolis, which has so far delivered a disappointing number of new housing units.
  • The 2010 redevelopment plan for Tysons is currently on track to meet its target of adding 80,000 more residents by 2050. The new multifamily housing that the plan has enabled is creating opportunities for many more people to live in a high-opportunity suburb at prices that are more affordable than many of the alternatives in Fairfax County. Simultaneously, redevelopment has increased the county’s property tax base.

The big picture: Tysons serves as another example of how smart, targeted regulatory reforms can be implemented even in cases where many changes to housing policy would draw out opposition from current residents. Leaders facing the need to permit new housing construction in high-income suburbs would be wise to consider their current commercially-zoned land as potential sites for redevelopment.To learn how to improve housing affordability in your area, check out our Guide for Local Policymakers.