For all its faults, it’s hard to say Tycon Courthouse doesn’t stand out.
More locally known as the “Toilet Bowl” or “Stargate” building, Tycon Courthouse on Route 123 just west of Leesburg Pike is most notable for it’s over seven-story tall ring in the front of the building.
But there was a time where the building, labeled the ugliest in Virginia in Business Insider’s 2018 list of ugliest buildings in every state, was once the height of local architecture. It was, at one point, the largest office building in Tysons and the first structure to include massive structure parking, able to accommodate a then-record 900 cars.
It was built in 1983 in the middle of a “screaming architecture” fad — a Washington Post article at the time said the buildings were designed to be their own advertisements. They were reflective of peak Reagan-era style, where notability was more important than pleasing aesthetics. Architects Volker Zinser and Barry Dunn were credited with the project.
There are several urban rumors about the project, like that it was designed to look like an “O” for the Olivetti Company, or the lenses of a Nikon camera, but an interview with Zinser at the time said he was inspired by a book about 19th-century French architects who designed projects that explored geometric volumes.
In keeping with the style, Zinser said the fact that the building was being talked about was more important than what people were calling it.
The screaming architecture fad was centered around Fairfax County. Experts at the time called it medieval, noting that businesses were grabbing spaces and turning them into private fortresses.
The Blade Runner-esque Tysons Office Center on Route 7 and Gallows Road, sometimes called the “Flash Cube” building, and Tycon Towers, the 17-story “shopping bag,” were other local examples of this design.
Tycon Courthouse in the 1980s photo via Bonstra Haresign Architects
(Updated 3:15 p.m.) Fairfax is the second richest county in the nation — yet at Second Story, just south of Tysons at 2100 Gallows Rd, there’s a desperate need for bed space for homeless teens.
Second Story CEO Judith Dittman says the organization provides a temporary shelter for teenagers in a crisis, but there is a waitlist of 35 people still waiting for a space to open up.
The waitlist averages 50 people for the homeless youth and young mothers programs. Dittman said those on waitlists are forced to either stay on couches or in the street, where they could become caught up in human trafficking.
“Too many times, people look at me and say ‘that doesn’t happen in Fairfax,'” Dittman said.
But, in 2017, Fairfax County Public Schools reported that 1,200 young people in the county had no support from a parent or legal guardian. A report by Fairfax County’s Department of Health and Human Services found that 18,857 children, or 7 percent of all local children, were in poverty.
The shelter takes in young people who have run away from home, or have no home to go back to, and offers a three-week refuge. The program functions as a shelter for people between ages 13-17, offering counseling, meals, and guidance.
Lauren Witherspoon, the development coordinator for Second Story, said the goal is family reunification and about 95 percent of the teens are reunited with their family at the end of the program. After they return to their family, there are periodic check-ins to see how the child is handling the situation.
From its founding in 1972 through just two years ago, Second Story was known as “Alternative House.” Dittman said that as the organization started branching out, leaders found the original name was no longer reflective of the scope of the work done there.
“Your first story is the one written for you in your early years,” said Dittman, “but in your teen years, you start to write your own story. As a teen you make mistakes. Most young people have a support network to help them through, but many don’t.”
Witherspoon said the organization targets children as early as fourth grade. That may sound young, but Witherspoon said they are competing with gangs that typically recruit at around eight or nine years old or human traffickers, who can grab children as young as 11 or 12.
Another program takes homeless teens and focuses on making them self-sufficient over an 18-month period. Counselors at the program help teach participants skills from how to load a dishwasher to how to manage finances.
The charity was recently the subject of fundraising and toy donation drives at the Tysons Biergarten and the Tysons Partnership. Roughly one-third of the organization’s funding, or $1,209,510, comes from community support. Another third comes from federal, state and local grants, but Witherspoon said the organization has been struggling as costs continue to rise, but federal funding remains stagnant.
“We haven’t had an increase in federal funding for 15 years,” said Witherspoon. “We don’t have any billboards or ads, so we rely on word of mouth.”
Over 85 percent of the organization’s funding, or $2,832,169, goes to program services. The remaining funding is split between development, management, and general funds.
The organization hosts tours on the second Tuesday of each month. Second Story also hosts volunteer and community service opportunities. Volunteers help do things like cook and answer the door to allow counselors to focus on helping teens.
Photo via Facebook
It’s an issue that town staff have been working for years to address, and solutions have been identified, but year after year have remained unfunded.
A report presented to the Vienna Town Council in December 2016 examined the state of Vienna’s sewer infrastructure, particularly at the intersection of Maple Avenue and Center Street N. in the center of the town.
The study found that there were places that experienced significant flooding where existing sewer infrastructure was unable to handle storm volume. Town staff confirmed that improvements suggested in the study were included in the CIP, but have yet to receive funding.
The report indicates that there are three major locations for flooding in three different areas. According to the report:
- In moderate storms, flooding first occurs along Center Street at the location of the N Condos building and Starbucks parking lot.
- In more intense storm events, flooding occurs in the area of the Freeman House Museum, at Church Street NW and Dominion Road NE.
- Flooding also occurs near the intersection of Mill Street NE and Ayr Hill Avenue.
The report notes that flooding at the Starbucks is generally seen as the first sign of storm sewer capacity issues. The report noted that the ponding at these issues is more indicative of capacity problems than issues with draining.
“The ponding in all three areas of concern is a result of storm sewer surcharge, rather than surface drainage issues,” the study said. “This is evidenced by the ponding that occurs during a storm event and the rapid dissipation of ponded water immediately after the rain intensity subsides.”
The study assessed every outfall and junction in downtown Vienna and found that the system is unprepared for handling severe storms.
“The flow capacity of portions of the existing storm sewer system is insufficient to carry the stormwater calculated for a 10-year frequency storm,” the study said.
Ten-year floods are floods that have a 10 percent chance of happening in any given year, though there is some concern that this type of descriptor can lead to a false sense of security for those in areas prone to flooding.
Crucial to any fix to the local sewers, the study said, would be preventing flooding at the Freeman House and Starbucks, which are most prone to flooding.
The report recommended clearing debris and obstructions to sewer flow but that more substantial improvements will be needed over time.
“Even with clean sewers, the flow capacity in the piped portion of the system is lacking in two general areas,” the study said. “Sewer system improvements will be needed if the system is expected to move the flows resulting from a ten-year frequency storm, without undue flooding.”
Idylwood Plaza is home to to a new international gallery.
The pop-up Dara Global Arts offers paintings, furniture, ceramics, and gifts at a wide range of price points, and is a gallery driven by social consciousness with particular attention to women’s empowerment. Many of the artists represented are Iraqi: while most Americans only see Iraq as a battleground on the news, Dara Global Arts provides an opportunity to see firsthand the country’s importance as a source of contemporary art.
On a recent visit by Tysons Reporter to the gallery, the directors, Nawara Omary Elliott and Maysoon Al Gbari, were busy setting up. Over the smell of slow-burning incense, freely mixing Arabic and English, the pair revealed more about the gallery, the artists and the challenges and opportunities of opening a pop-up in Tysons.
Omary Elliott has been running Dara out of her basement for years, hosting exhibitions that often filled the space to its capacity. She is motivated by her belief that “art is a peaceful language that can bring awareness” and her dedication to social justice. That dedication to justice has driven her to collaborate many times with a variety of charities, including Bringing Resources to Aid Womens Shelters, the Iraqi Childrens’ Foundation, and the Downs Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia.
Al Gbari is a professional artist who, upon arriving to the United States, faced a problem shared by many international artists: a lack of opportunities for gallery representation. Many artists come to this country but, lacking a community and behind a language barrier, struggle to make a living selling their work.
Al Gbari and Omary Elliott both grew up in the secular, intellectual, artistic climate of pre-war Iraq and the pair met in Virginia in 2016. They became fast friends, and Omary Elliott’s work as a gallerist blossomed. After a year and a half searching for a suitable space, they are excited to announce the opening of Dara’s first storefront location.
The idea for a pop-up came from Omary Elliott’s frequent visits to New York City, where the practice is popular among gallery directors. When she first brought the idea back to Tysons, it was hard to find support, and property owners often weren’t even familiar with the concept. Over the past 18 months alone, though, she’s witnessed substantial change.
“As Tysons is growing, I noticed that the pop-up term has become more popular,” she said. Even so, it took patience and a very helpful realtor to find a suitable location. Omary Elliott encourages others to consider a similar approach, but cautions them that they’ll need a lot of patience and flexibility.
The Washington Post has previously suggested that pop-up retail could be catalytic for Tysons’ development.
The gallery showcases work by a half-dozen artists, about half of them Iraqi. Omary Elliott didn’t set out to represent Iraqis specifically; in fact, she is constantly searching for new artists to represent, saying “we don’t close the door to anyone who wants to participate.” Rather, the strong showing of Iraqi artists is testament to Iraq’s millenia-long tradition of visual art and Baghdad’s stature before the 2003 invasion as home to the greatest artistic institutions of the Arab world.
Al Gbari’s own art fills much of the exhibition space. Working in several media and several artistic styles, she seems to give us several artists’ worth of paintings and household objects.
“I love to work,” she said. “To be honest, I find myself, my soul, through my work.”
Al Gbari’s art blends figuration, often of women and cities, with a rich symbolic language and bold expanses of color. Some paintings draw deeply upon Arab legends and Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious traditions, connecting them to modern-day social issues. Others literally pop into the third dimension as the shapes of faces jut from the canvas. Yet more speak through simple figures to universal themes of motherhood, love and loss.
Al Gbari’s “Shahrazad’s Tales” is an elegy to Baghdad that draws on the Arabic classic “One Thousand and One Nights.”
That classic relates the stories of a woman, Shahrazad, who must spin a new tale every night to avoid the wrath of a vengeful king. She is a symbol of self-expression, literary beauty and cunning femininity. In Al Gbari’s painting, Shahrazad lies fallen against a field of symbols rich with meaning, struck against the skyline of medieval Baghdad with its churches and mosques — a scene which, Al Gbari tells me, truly was as colorful as it appears. But here, Shahrazad has fallen silent, mourning a city wounded by 21st-century bombs.
Bahir Al Badry’s work is more abstract and is highly textured with shining colors and tight detail. Though his art can be endlessly analyzed for its symbolic content, often drawing upon visual motifs from ancient Mesopotamia, it is also invigorating to the eye. In Omary Elliott ‘s words, it “brings happiness and hope.”
Oliver De La Via is a young Bolivian-American artist whose most recent series, “Numbed Contours,” deals specifically with sexual assault and sexualization on American college campuses. His works are unrestrained, honest and, at times, startlingly ambiguous.
Baha Omary Kikhia has exhibited her work, which is “based upon her concept of the woman as a powerful and inspiring figure,” internationally. Her abstracted, curved figures are highly emotive. They call upon her personal experiences, like her struggle to raise two children as a single mother in 1970s New York City, and international issues, like ISIS’s destruction of precious cultural heritage in her home country of Syria.
Other artists featured in the gallery include Ahmed Ghareeb, a sculptor and painter with a bright, chaotic, abstract style that tends toward expressionism, and Haydar al-Yasiry.
The gallery carries a variety of decorative arts in addition to paintings. The collection includes lamps, wooden boxes, chairs, and large and small tables, as well as a variety of gift-appropriate objects at all price points. The Dubai-based brand Mishmashi makes an appearance with lively, one-of-a-kind cushions from their Flip collection. Al Gbari, a Muslim, hand-paints Christmas ornaments, echoing the secular Iraq of her childhood.
Dara Global Arts accepts commission orders to custom-decorate furniture or to paint a canvas at a specific size and using a specific color palette to match any room. Committed to social good, they are also eager to work with charities of all kinds, and will happily host private charity events and offer 20 percent of proceeds from art sold directly to the charity.
Dara will also host a series of special events, like a solo exhibition reception on Feb. 5. and a Valentine’s Day event on Feb. 15.
On one recent afternoon at the gallery, an interested couple happened to stroll in to view the art on display. One commented that the works were “extremely colorful and vibrant — and for a good cost,” and added, “I love the message that’s attached to it, too!”
Dara Global Arts will be open at in Idylwood Plaza next to the Starbucks 7501 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, until the end of March and possibly beyond. Hours from 10am-7pm daily. Contact 702-582-0804 or [email protected] with inquiries, or see the online store at daraglobalarts.com.
D. Taylor Reich is a freelance journalist who writes about urbanism and development. They are a Fulbright scholar, a 2017 graduate of Brown University and a proud alum of Arlington Public Schools.
When Brian Truitt, USA TODAY’s film critic, is putting together interviews for the pop-culture podcast The Mothership, there’s one reaction he says he gets more frequently than others:
“You’re located where?”
The Mothership is one of several podcasts run through USA TODAY at their headquarters Valo Park, a sprawling state-of-the-art complex tucked away in Tysons’ northeast corner.
It’s no secret that media companies, including USA TODAY owner Gannett, are struggling to find a way to stay afloat. The company recently resisted a hostile takeover. But Shannon Green, senior podcasts producer for USA TODAY and co-host of I Tell My Husband the News, said podcasts have been at the forefront of the company finding new ways to tell stories.
The Mothership is hosted by Truitt, technology reporter Brett Molina and TV critic Kelly Lawler, and has been running weekly for four years. While Tysons has not traditionally been considered one of the country’s entertainment hubs, Molina said there are some distinct advantages to working outside of Washington D.C.
“One of the cool things about having this outlet in the suburbs is that we can live here,” Molina said. “People tend to think we work in New York or Los Angeles.”
“Being out here means we have to catch whoever is in the area,” said Truitt.
New episodes of The Mothership air every Friday. This week’s episode is a discussion of romantic comedies. Molina noted that the group narrowly avoided making a “Tribute to Liam Neeson” episode, quickly scrapped after the actor made some troubling confessions.
Green said she was approached to run the podcasting at USA TODAY shortly after Serial brought podcasting into the mainstream in 2014 and the company leadership began to see podcasting’s potential. Green said investigative stories are unique suited for podcasts, using voices to convey ideas and emotions that can’t be conveyed in text.
Not all of the podcasts garner enough downloads to have advertising, but Green said enough do to bring in revenue and help fund more experiments with the medium.
One investigative podcast, The City, profiled the rise of a massive illegal dump in Chicago, including an augmented reality component that helped demonstrate the story of how the empty lot evolved over time. Green said the augmented reality technology helps bring a new visual level to a traditionally auditory form of storytelling.
Green also said bringing in new talent from nearby schools has been part of bridging the generational gap. Kate Gardner, a student at the Madeira School in McLean, interns at USA TODAY but also uses the equipment to help put together an audiodrama: The Ark of Light.
Green said working with Gardner that she’s learned a whole new side of audio production involving Foley sound effects and other methods.
Green said podcasting, audio dramas, and other types of audio-entertainment have become such a hit, primarily due to the intimate connection they offer listeners to the story.
“Spoken storytelling is extremely intimate and emotional,” said Green.
Fairfax County’s aerial photography can offer a view of the startling growth of some some parts of the area, charting Merrifield‘s growth from a lonely drive-in theater to today’s Mosaic District, changes to Tysons Galleria and the commercial properties around Route 7, and Tysons East’s transformation from suburbs to an urban center.
But McLean’s story is more like Maple Avenue’s, where rapid growth has been followed by decades of stagnation.
An ongoing effort to update zoning for downtown McLean, called the McLean Community Business Center (CBC), has faced pushback from some local residents who say the plans will transform McLean into a new Tysons-style development.
While the town of McLean was founded in 1902, aerial photography shows that even as late as the 1960s there wasn’t a developed center of town. The first developments in the CBC, like McLean House Condominiums in the northeast corner and Langley Shopping Center a little south of that, show up in photography from the 1970s.
Between then and 1990, much of the area along Old Dominion Drive was developed and new shopping centers bloomed at the southern edge of downtown McLean.
But in all of the photography between 1990 and 2017, that development grinds to a halt. At several of the McLean CBC meetings, locals lamented that McLean didn’t really have a “sense of place” and that much of the downtown was defined by gas stations on every corner and vacant buildings.
The plans for the CBC call for changing some of the transportation routes through the downtown McLean to make the area more pedestrian friendly and allowing new, mostly residential and commercial developments downtown.
5G is coming to Tysons — sooner or later — but its local rollout is not without challenges.
The next generation of wireless internet technology, which will arrive in Tysons in the next few years, means more than faster Netflix. It means infrastructure, laying the groundwork for innovation and entrepreneurship. It means bringing technology like self-driving cars a step closer to reality.
It also means regulation: it means Fairfax County negotiating with property owners, telecom providers, and the federal government. Tysons is built on a legacy of leadership in network technology, and the path forward relies on wise implementation of wireless technology. The future of “Internet Alley” hangs in the balance.
Mobile internet has changed a lot since 2G technology came along in 1991. Every additional G (for ‘generation’) follows the same trend: speed increases while range drops. Long-gone are the days of a single cellular tower providing a signal for the entire city. Today’s 4G technology relies on a network of smaller nodes, often located on top of buildings, that each cover a neighborhood. Tomorrow’s 5G nodes, with speeds up to twenty times faster, will probably have a range between 250 and 2000 feet. Fortunately, these will be “small cells”: maybe as large as a thirty-foot tower or as small as a backpack attached to a streetlight that’s already there.
5G’s higher speeds will be critical for Tysons moving forward. With much of the area’s historical success and present industry built on network technology, internet connection is as important here as was coal to the cities of the Industrial Revolution.
The new technology will be particularly important for self-driving cars, often called autonomous vehicles or AVs. Full automation will require that an AV is always connected to the internet, at reliably high speeds, so it can communicate with other AVs on the road. Only then will the full potential of the technology be unleashed. Tysons is heavily reliant on cars for transportation and Fairfax is “trying to become a capital of driverless cars,” so it is clear that AVs and 5G will play a transformative role for ‘America’s Next Great City.’ 5G will also be important for “Internet of Things” technologies like cashier-free retail and augmented reality.
Tysons faces unique and formidable challenges in implementing 5G. These challenges arise from the combination of 5G’s limited range with Tysons’ unusual physical and legal environments.
Where should 5G small cells be located? The first half of the question is physical. In traditional cities like Washington, we can attach them to existing streetlights on every block where they’ll cover traffic on the streets as well as people using mobile devices on the sidewalk or in parks, shops, and cafes. But Tysons doesn’t really have blocks. Here, a cell at the side of the road might not be strong enough to reach all the way through the parking lot to the building behind it. Here, the 495-123 interchange is almost 1,000 feet wide — it alone might need several cells.
Although Tysons is working hard to be more pedestrian-friendly, most people walking in the area are still inside buildings. Because 5G signal can’t easily penetrate walls, that means that our malls, parking garages, and big-box stores might only get reception if the cells are actually indoors with the shoppers.
Solving those technical issues will be difficult enough, but on the legal side of things the problems really get thorny.
Many of Tysons’ streets, along with its enormous buildings and parking garages, are privately-owned. This means it will be difficult for Fairfax County to coordinate a unified system that covers the entire area. The wide variety of private landowners will each bring their own desires to the table, but for the 5G network to be really useful it will have to be unified. To imagine what an inconsistent network might mean, think about an autonomous vehicle that drives itself off the highway ramp only to abruptly switch back to manual control when it enters a private street. To imagine a consistent one, think about placing an HD video call from your seat on the Metro and the connection not missing a beat as you disembark and walk to your favorite shop inside the mall.
To make the situation even stickier, Fairfax will be handling all of these negotiations with one hand tied behind its back. The FCC recently released a set of regulations dictating that local governments will only have 90 days to approve or deny small-cell installation applications, restricting environmental approval processes, and limiting the fees that can be charged to a service provider. 90 days is the blink of an eye for regulators, meaning that Fairfax will have to have a well-made plan ready before the first installation applications appear.
5G is coming quick. It could arrive as soon as next year, though probably not soon enough that you should upgrade your phone yet. However, if we hurry to bring 5G to Tysons, we might ignore the complexity of the issue and get the rollout wrong.
Early-adoption 5G might provide an advantage in the short term that turns into a long-term obstacle when the system is too established to change. We might be better off if we take our time and avoid other communities’ mistakes. Internet connectivity is important here, but it’s more important to get it right than to get it fast.
D. Taylor Reich is a freelance journalist who writes about urbanism and development. They are a Fulbright scholar, a 2017 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Brown University and a proud alum of Arlington Public Schools.
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Newer Townhouse in Mosaic District
2900 Block Penny Lane
Fairfax, VA 22031
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Even with the National Park Service coming to change the locks in a few hours, Anna Eberly can’t resist a few last lessons about colonial life.
She holds up one of the hand-woven baskets before it gets stuffed into a plastic bag. Unlike some of the other baskets woven from grass, Eberly says this one is woven from thin wooden shavings, making it incredibly resilient to everything except being dropped while carrying a heavy load.
After 46 years of volunteering at the farm, lessons like that come naturally to Eberly. But today (Friday) is the last day she’ll teach them at the farm. After one year of battling with the NPS over control of the farm, the Friends of Claude Moore Colonial Farm, which has maintained the farm since 1981, rejected an agreement that would have required greater levels of administrative and financial oversight.
Elliott Curzen, the director of Claude Moore Colonial Farm, said the farm equipment and animals are being moved off-site. Eberly said they are going to her home out in Loudoun County, where there are two acres of pasture.
“It’s disappointing we couldn’t come to a compromise,” said Curzen. “The locks change tomorrow, or tonight, and we have until Jan. 20 to keep moving property off-site.”
There was plenty of finger-pointing to go around throughout the debate over what should happen with the farm. The conflict started with a 2015 report questioning the farm’s financial relationships and demanding more oversight into what is bought and sold at the farm in markets, a mainstay of the farm events. Even a joint letter from Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to the NPS wasn’t able to stave off the closure.
The NPS says the regulations are the same as would be imposed on any other national park. But Eberly said the new regulations were unfair, given that the park funds itself through the fairs rather than from federal funding.
The NPS says it has no plans to sell or develop the land, but in 2019 there will be community discussions about what should happen to the site next.
On the farm’s last day, there was some bitterness from volunteers helping to pack up. Eberly noted that the cats running around as people worked would be going back to her property.
“Taking care of them is my job,” said one volunteer walking past, before amending, “well, ‘was’ my job.”
“I won’t miss dealing with the National Park Service,” said Eberly. “I’ll miss the volunteers, but this is just a place. It’s a former landfill, with terrible soil. It’s not a very good farm. We have to import everything here from Loudoun.”
But it was also a living history museum to what life was like for the average colonial farmer in the 18th century. Curzen said while it was around, it was a unique look into a piece of local history, and one that will be gone by the end of the day.
Merrifield has always been anchored by its movie theater. While Fairfax County’s aerial photography shows the site’s growth from fields to an urban center, the theater has been there since some of the earliest photos.
In photography from before 1960, Merrifield is mostly fields and farmland. But in 1954, the Washington area’s largest drive-in theater, the Lee Highway Drive-In, opened at the site. That’s the cone-shaped development in the middle of the aerial photography.
The theater featured a 50×120′ CinemaScope screen and a rotunda-style dining area. At its capacity in 1983, the drive-in could fit 1,353 cars.
The drive-in is still visible in the 1976 photography, with other development sprouting up nearby. In 1984, however, the drive-in was closed and replaced with a multiplex theater nearby. Like the drive-in at its heyday, the new theaters that opened were state-of-the-art.
But by the mid-2000s, the once modern multiplex was showing its age, like the drive-in had before it. The site gained some notoriety in 2005 after a man leaving the theater was attacked by several assailants, one of whom wielded a machete and cut three fingers off the man’s hand.
In 2009 the site’s owner, National Amusements, sold the site and plans began to emerge for a more pedestrian-friendly urban center today known as the Mosaic District. Photography from 2011 shows the area mid-development; in 2012 the Mosaic District opened with a mix of handpicked local boutiques and national retailers.
Prior to that, Rep. Gerry Connolly described Merrifield as a “waste” in a New York Times article on the emerging development.
Mr. Connolly… is familiar with Merrifield’s past and present. He remembers thinking to himself, “What a waste of land,” after being elected in 1995 to the Fairfax County board of supervisors. “We have this aging movie theater that’s surrounded by acres of surface parking,” Mr. Connolly said.
In fall 2012, the Angelika Film Center opened an 8-screen theater in Mosaic District, continuing Merrifield’s movie legacy established more than half a century earlier.
Past and Present is a Tysons Reporter series looking at locations in our area as they’ve changed over the last century. Check out our articles for Tysons Corner Mall, Tysons Galleria/Leesburg Pike, Tysons East, and Maple Avenue.