As promised, today I’m offering the second half of my update on the progress of the Reston Master Plan Task Force, and the issues that arose over the course of last week’s meeting. Last week, I wrote in this space about the slow progress of the Task Force, and the impact those delays will have on development in Reston. This week, I want to talk about the growing divergence in vision between Task Force members, and what that might mean for the process.
The Task Force is composed of representatives of both development interests and community organizations, which is as it should be. You need the opinions and expertise of both developers and residents to come up with a workable plan. But there's an inherent tension in the interests of both groups, and that tension was on display at the meeting.
Last week, I mentioned that the planning staff was working on its latest land-use scenario, which they call Scenario G. It was necessary to revise the land-use plan because FCDOT ran its transportation analysis on the last scenario, and the analysis yielded a traffic disaster. Several of Reston's major intersections would see dramatically worse congestion, and two in particular - the intersection of Reston Parkway and Sunrise Valley, and the intersection of Wiehle and Sunset Hills - were so bad that FCDOT and the planning staff couldn't mitigate the impact adequately. The transportation analysis must ultimately be submitted to VDOT for review and comment, and it’s hard to imagine them looking favorably on the level of gridlock that was forecast.
The new development plan will (we hope) reduce the traffic problems. Scenario G involves a modest reduction in overall development compared to the last one, with a higher percentage of residential development. (A better balance of residential space to office space is better for traffic, since the traffic flow for residential and office tends to go in opposite directions.) The draft scenario also allows for variable amounts of development closest to the stations, which would allow some parcels to develop to higher densities while still limiting the overall development intensity.
When the planning staff presented the new scenario, it drew protests from the developer-associated members of the Task Force. They argued that the lower levels of development would inhibit the planning of "great" development projects, and would prevent the "place-making" that is a key goal of transit-oriented development. They protested that the planning staff was letting the traffic analysis drive the development, which they considered backward. They also argued that focusing on density numbers and floor-area ratios missed the point: what we should be striving for is high-quality development, not slavish adherence to a set of numbers.
Several of the non-developer-allied members (including RCA's representative, Terry Maynard) countered that the best interests of the community should not be sacrificed on the altar of "great" development projects. If a great-looking development project would snarl the traffic on our streets, they argued, it's not a great project. They also said that the density numbers do matter; this process is the community's best chance to have a say on the development that occurs in Reston, and we need to have limits in place to protect Reston from overdevelopment.
In my view, both sides have valid points. The developers are right that the numbers don't tell the whole story. A 2.0 FAR building that covers an entire parcel looks far different than a 2.0 FAR building that covers one-fourth of the same parcel. And low-density projects can be harmful to the community if they’re poorly designed and planned. Design excellence matters, and we want to encourage quality architecture. We also want to encourage the construction of community amenities, like parks and recreational centers, close to the stations. If we set the density numbers too low or add too many restrictions, then the parcels might not develop at all, and we'll miss out on the chance to maximize our investment in the Silver Line.
But the community representatives, to my mind, make even more compelling points. The development around the stations should serve the community, not the other way around. And we need to ensure that the new development doesn't create a "virtual wall" that makes it virtually impossible to get from north to south Reston. If we can't get anywhere on our roads, then we're damaging our community. The entire purpose of running the transportation analysis is to ensure that we'll have the infrastructure to support the density we're adding. If we ignore the traffic impacts in the name of "great" development, then we're not doing our jobs as a task force.
The developers on the Task Force argued that we’ll need to “think of traffic in a different way” in the future. It wasn’t clear whether they meant that people will be less car-dependent in the future, or that we’ll all just have to accept more traffic as the price of progress. While it’s true that more urbanized areas tend to be less car-centered than Reston is today, it’s hard to see that as a viable future for us. Fairfax County isn’t Manhattan; we just aren’t designed to allow most people to avoid using their cars regularly. And if we’re supposed to just get used to more traffic, there comes a point when we’re so overhwelmed that the road network breaks down. And is that really progress?
The Task Force is scheduled to meet next Tuesday (October 23rd), and at that meeting, the planning staff will present its latest draft of Scenario G. Given the developer pushback at the last meeting, it’s entirely possible that this draft will feature higher densities and a lower percentage of residential development. If so, the community representatives will not welcome the proposal with open arms. And we’ll find ourselves stuck in neutral again. In the long term, this disagreement may further delay the work of the Task Force. It's not an easy balance for the planning staff, and I don't envy them as they try to balance competing interests.
Regardless of which side you're on, this debate matters. This plan will shape the face of Reston for decades to come. The County has posted information about Scenario G on the Special Study website. I urge you to review it and become familiar with the plan.
And if you have an opinion, contact the members of the Task Force and make your voice heard. We generally see the same faces at the meetings, and we know what they think. I'd like to know what you think. If you have any thoughts to share, feel free to leave them in the comments below.