TOD at IAD: a concept for developing Saarinen Circle at Dulles International Airport

As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority continues work on Phase 2 of the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport and beyond, it’s worth considering some of the transit oriented development opportunities at the airport beyond just the obvious connection for passengers at the terminal.

Airports around the world take advantage of their connectivity in developing an airport city: office space, warehouses, hotels all diversify an airport’s business income. It’s a virtuous cycle:

  • real estate connected to the airport has value;
  • rents from those spaces diversifies airport revenues and drives down their operating costs;
  • lower costs encourage more airline service which increase connectivity around the world;
  • increased connectivity adds value to the airport location.

Amsterdam Schiphol is one of the best examples, with nearly 6 million sf of commercial space on the airport grounds alone. They don’t just brand themselves as an airport city, but as the ‘Schiphol CBD,’ complete with new public spaces.

Munich Airport Center. Image from Wikipedia.

Munich Airport Center. Image from Wikipedia.

While that may be an ultimate goal, perhaps something closer to the Munich Airport Center (MAC) is a better match – particularly for any development in the Dulles parking bowl within Saarinen Circle. MAC is a pedestrian oriented retail and commercial complex connecting the airport’s two terminals and S-Bahn station, flanked by airport parking, buses, and a hotel. All of the key airport destinations feed pedestrians into the space: parking, taxi, drop-off, etc, increasing foot traffic to the retail spaces.

Schematic map of Munich Airport Center; note retail (red) and restaurants (yellow), Terminal 1 (top), Terminal 2 and the Forum (bottom), S-Bahn station (below), buses (left side) and taxis (right side).

Schematic map of Munich Airport Center; note retail (red) and restaurants (yellow), Terminal 1 (top), Terminal 2 and the Forum (bottom), S-Bahn station (below), buses (left side) and taxis (right side).

The most iconic element is the MAC Forum, a large covered outdoor plaza surrounded by shops and offices. The airport operator extensively programs the Forum with a variety of sponsored events to draw in non-airport patrons (for whom parking fees are waived) in addition to workers and travelers.

Entrance to the S-Bahn at the MAC Forum; CC image from Jeromyu on Flickr.

Entrance to the S-Bahn at the MAC Forum; CC image from Jeromyu on Flickr.

Munich Airport Forum; showing roof over the open air public space. Creative Commons image from Nir on Flickr.

Munich Airport Forum; showing roof over the open air public space. Creative Commons image from Nir on Flickr.

The key elements of the Munich Airport Center include retail, restaurants, public space, and public transit. For adjacent development, the airport offers flexible office and conference space for rent (and is working on additional office development – they do not yet have planning permission for office space on the magnitude of Schiphol) as well as a connected hotel.

MWAA is actively looking to diversify their revenues at Dulles. For development, MWAA is shopping the Western Lands on the far side of the airport, searching for interest in a second on-airport hotel, as well as other various sites on airport property that might generate some kind of revenue for the Authority. Among other development opportunities, they list ‘Saarinen Circle’ as something to watch.

Saarinen Circle surrounds the surface parking lot directly in front of the Eero Saarinen terminal building. The Metro station (under construction) and parking garage are currently connected to the main terminal via a tunnel beneath the parking lot.

The Saarinen Circle site has several advantages. Space is plentiful (there was plenty of complaining about the decision to move the Metro station to the opposite side of the parking lot from the terminal), but the distances aren’t overwhelming: The distance between the garage and the terminal is similar to the distance between Terminals 1 and 2 at Munich. Development in the circle has the potential to make that walk a pleasant stroll among shops and public space, rather than through the drab-but-functional existing tunnel.

Because of the iconic Saarinen Terminal and the views of it for drivers approaching via Saarinen Circle, any development within the parking bowl couldn’t be very tall. Several historic preservationists objected to the Metro aerial guideway’s potential to block views. While this may foreclose on a large structure such as the one covering Munich’s Forum (after all, the canopy over the forum is the signature architecture for Munich’s airport – Dulles already has an icon), it shouldn’t stop all development. Using the existing tunnel level as the ‘ground’ floor would offer some room for development above. MAC is similarly surrounded by roadways and airport infrastructure at different levels.

Munich Airport Center makes good use of changes in grade to connect pedestrians between the terminals at multiple levels. Relocating existing taxi, bus, and valet parking to flank a new multi-level development between the terminal building and the parking garage/Metro station. The development not only has the chance to aid the finances of IAD by generating non-aviation revenue, but also in attracting more use to the Metro station via old-fashioned transit oriented development.

There’s plenty of developable land at Dulles, but only Saarinen Circle has the key location between the Metro station and the terminal. Airports around the world provide models for better uses of the space than surface parking.

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