Last weekend, I sat for an interview for the forthcoming documentary on Reston’s history. Our interview covered a wide range of subjects, from my childhood exploits on the golf course near our neighborhood to the impact of the Metro Silver Line on Reston’s future. But one theme that kept emerging throughout our conversation was change.
Having lived in Reston practically my whole life, I’ve seen a lot of change, as our community took shape and then took off during the tech boom years. My dad, who was also interviewed, mentioned that in those years, after returning from business he’d sometimes get lost driving around town, because of all the new construction. I had the same experience coming back for visits during college.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about change, both the opportunities it offers and the instability and challenges it presents. Change is coming to Reston, and I don’t just mean Barnes and Noble closing. The Master Plan Task Force is grappling with the challenges and opportunties that the Silver Line and related development will bring to our community. The task is not easy, but I believe we can meet it if we figure out the tradeoffs we need to make to build the community we want.
Change is disruptive. It requires shifts in the way we’ve always done things, and that can be bothersome, even if the change is positive. For instance, let’s say you’ve just landed a new job, one that offers better pay and a shorter commute. Congratulations! But even though you’re happy to have more money and less time in traffic, there are plenty of adjustments you’ll need to make: navigating a new office culture, learning different systems and software, meeting new coworkers. Humans are creatures of habit, so it’s understandable that even positive change can be scary.
And the change may not be all positive. Your new job may pay better, but you also have to work longer hours. Now you’re spending less time with your family, and missing out on your kids’ events when you’re stuck in the office. Maybe the new job involves a lot of travel. This can be exciting because you get to see new places, but constant travel can be fatiguing, and it also keeps you away from home. Most changes offer these sorts of mixed blessings.
The same is true in Reston. We’ll have an easier and faster connection to downtown DC on the Silver Line, and the new development promises to bring more jobs, exciting new restaurants and shops, and new housing options. But it will also probably mean more traffic and more competition for our facilities and open space. The more we have of the good, the more we get of the bad. It’s a balancing act.
In my view, one of the Task Force’s biggest shortcomings is that we haven’t thought much in terms of tradeoffs and balance. We’ve thought largely in terms of vision: creating exciting new places with great architecture, new buildings, and community amenities like a performing arts center and a university. We were encouraged to think about what we wanted, and the subcommittee reports reflected that. But we weren’t encouraged to think much about what we’d have to give up in order to get what we wanted.
That’s why the traffic analysis was a dash of cold water in everyone’s face. The Planning staff reacted by dialing back the density in the hopes of bringing traffic under control. But now a lot of Task Force members are concerned that the new scenarion sacrifices too many of the things we want in order to minimize the negative. Developers caution that the reduced density will encourage infill rather than redevelopment, and inhibit place-making around the stations. And some community members are concerned that if there isn’t much development, then we won’t get our desired amenities. In an era of constricted government budgets, we’re reliant on developer proffers for a lot of our new amenities. They’ll only proffer big-ticket items in exchange for big-ticket development.
So what’s the answer? Some on the Task Force are urging us to declare that greater congestion is not a problem. More traffic is inevitable, they argue, and our vision of place-making around the stations is what matters. These folks are not insensitive to traffic concerns, but they believe that congestion can be managed, and that fulfilling our vision is worth the risk.
Perhaps. But I think that approach is too blithe about the risk involved. We want to create great developments and maximize our investment in the Silver Line (I know I do), but we don’t want a major negative impact on our quality of life. Returning to the well-paying but long-hour job analogy from earlier, if you take that job without a second thought because you want more money, you risk being unhappy down the line when you realize that the only time you see your family is when they’re asleep.
On the flip side, the mere fact that the job has downsides and risk isn’t a good reason to reject it. If you refuse change because you’re afraid of risk, then you become stagnant. Similarly, saying that we shouldn’t encourage any new development around the Metro stations because of the traffic doesn’t make sense. We want people to use the Silver Line, and it’s more enticing to do so if there are jobs and houses near the stations.
The key, in the end, is minimizing the downsides and ensuring that they’re outweighed by the benefits. In the case of that job, that could mean flexible scheduling, working from home, and reducing the number of business trips. With Reston’s development, that could mean developer contributions to expand our roads and provide connections over the Toll Road, measures like restricted parking and transit subsidies for workers, and better internal transit options (like high-frequency bus service) to encourage people traveling within Reston to stay out of their cars. It could also mean providing more community facilities to serve our new population, and taking steps to preserve our open space.
Let’s explore the options, and come up with a plan that allows us to have the places we want without creating too many headaches for the people who are already here. With careful planning, and not excessive fear or breezy disregard of risk, we can develop a plan for Reston’s future that works for all of us.