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Reston's Future: Who Should Decide?

In the wake of the disappointing decision on the 23-story Reston office tower, we must figure out who will decide Reston's future development. RCA, RA, and ARCH have an idea: let's work together.

You're probably heard by now that the Board of Supervisors this week.  And if you've been reading me regularly, you know that RCA, RA, and ARCH were to the tower proposal.  We met with Cathy Hudgins last week to discuss our concerns about the proposal, which reflected the comments of our constituents.  Supervisor Hudgins heard our views, but went ahead and voted for the tower anyway.

Naturally, I'm by this decision.  Our Supervisor went against the opinion of our leading civic organizations, as well as the vision outlined by her own Reston Master Plan Task Force and the views of County planning staff, which recommended denying this application.  I believe that, contrary to the claims espoused by the developer and endorsed by our Supervisor, this is not an example of transit-oriented development.  It's too far away from the Metro station, and as a result it's going to worsen the traffic on Reston's roads.  And it's likely to hamper efforts to build denser development closer to the station, where it would do us more good.  This is the wrong place for a building this size.

That said, I can understand that Supervisor Hudgins was in a difficult spot, due to the unusual circumstances of this parcel of land.  The parcel received a rezoning approval and Comprehensive Plan amendment from the Board of Supervisors back in 1978.  It was lumped into the approval process for South Lakes Village Center, believe it or not.  And the approved zoning for the parcel contained no restrictions on height and density.  It's the only parcel in Fairfax County with no such restrictions. 

Given that zoning, the developer had unusual leverage in developing a plan for this site.  Now that it's approved, we'll need to mitigate the negative effects the project will have on traffic and development in Reston.  I understand that Supervisor Hudgins is working with the developer to limit the amount of parking on the site, which is a step in the right direction.  I will be happy to support her in efforts to reduce the negative impact of this development for our community.

More importantly, we should be looking beyond this individual project at the larger picture of development in Reston.  This parcel's peculiar zoning means that it shouldn't serve as a precedent, so fears that this approval will turn Reston into Manhattan might be overblown.

But the discussion about this building reflects the bigger issue: What is Reston going to look like in the future?  What principles will guide its development?  And who will decide those principles?

Shaping Reston's future development was supposed to be the job of the Master Plan Task Force.  Our Supervisor put together the task force so that developers, planners, and community representatives could build a vision for the future of Reston together.  (I serve on the Task Force as an alternate.)  But the Task Force has been at work for well over two years now, and we haven't approved any plan language or finalized our development recommendations yet.  And so far, we've only looked at the Toll Road corridor and the areas around the Metro stations; we haven't even considered the rest of Reston.  At the rate the Task Force is moving, Reston may be redeveloped before we issue our recommendations.  Also, given the fact that Supervisor Hudgins voted to approve a development that flew in the face of the vision developed by the Task Force's Town Center sub-committee, will she ultimately go along with the Task Force's final recommendations?

The Task Force may be slow in forming its opinions.  Not so Reston's founder.  As you may know, Bob Simon supports the proposed office tower, and has not been shy about .  The development fits right in with what he thinks Reston should be.  Among the people I've talked to who support the tower, one of the more popular arguments is: "If Bob Simon's in favor of it, that means it's right for Reston."

I Bob Simon.  Without his vision and hard work, Reston wouldn't exist.  And I'm very glad that he's still around to offer his opinions on how Reston should develop.  But he is not the master developer any longer.  His views certainly deserve consideration, but they are not the last word.

Bob created a vision for a New Town.  In my view, it's a great vision.  And over the last 50 years, Reston's citizens have brought that vision to life, and shaped it in ways Bob probably couldn't have dreamed of.  A lot has changed in that time; Bob freely admits that Reston hasn't developed exactly as he envisioned.  In 1963, when things got started, Reston was Bob's town.  In 2012, it's our town.  We as Restonians have spent 50 years building this community, and we as Restonians should be have a strong voice in shaping its future.

So let's have the discussion.  Bob believes, and has said many times, that density builds community.  Cathy Hudgins appears to share that view.  It's a defensible opinion, and I welcome the opportunity to hear their case.  But a lot of Restonians don't agree with that view, and we should be heard in that discussion as well.

Which brings me to the most encouraging news to emerge from all of this.  For the first time in recorded memory, RCA, RA and ARCH united to form a common position and advocate for it jointly.  Yes, we lost this battle, but we gained something important: The leaders of our three organizations have agreed to meet regularly, discuss the issues facing our community, and when we share a common view, we will band together and speak up together.  And being able to speak with a united voice can only benefit Reston.

We learned some important lessons from this experience.  For one thing, we came together fairly late in this process, and we've learned the importance of starting earlier.  We're also going to work on expanding our communication with the citizens of Reston, spending more time educating the public and rallying support for our positions.  We're also going to talk among ourselves about strategy, and the best ways to influence these decisions.

But we know, and I want all of you to know, that we are committed.  We're not going away.  We take this seriously, and we are goign to do everything we can to ensure that our vision for Reston is heard and incorporated into the plans for the future.

Is the decision on this office tower a setback?  Sure.  But by bringing our civic organizations together, we'll gain more than we've lost.  And I look forward to working with my colleagues to promote constructive discussions and a well-thought-out plan for Reston's future.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Colin Mills September 13, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Thanks for the comment, Beth. And you speak to the reason why we've got to work on our strategy: so that we can be stronger, and harder to ignore. My understanding is that the tower will still need to go through RA's Design Review Board, which may be able to effect architectural changes. But as far as preventing the tower from being built, I'm afraid that ship has sailed. (If someone with superior knowledge of the planning process disagrees with that assessment, feel free to chime in.) The only thing that would keep the tower from going up, to my knowledge, is if the developer can't find enough tenants to fill the space, or if they can't get it financed. According to the folks I've talked to, it's likely to be 5 to 10 years before this would be built in any event.
Kathy September 13, 2012 at 08:49 PM
Legal action is also an option. An injunction to block the development because it fails to meet state laws in some way.
Colin Mills September 13, 2012 at 08:53 PM
That would be a possibility - if the development violated the law in some way. But the BOS paved the way for this development back in '78, and Virginia is a very property rights-friendly state, so it's hard to imagine that case getting very far.
John G September 13, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Simon is a private citizen who is entitled to his opinions and should hold no sway beyond that...yet he is treated as if he is a God who knows what is best for our MODERN reality, although his best work is decades behind him. He is a developer who made his money and cashed out, and won't be here to see this devastation of a beautiful place - looking more and more Tyson's Corner every day.
Terry Maynard September 13, 2012 at 10:28 PM
Bob Simon made his "density builds community" remark at the first community meeting of the Reston Task Force as I recall. And he has said it often since. The only thing I would say for certain about density is that density builds density. What I'm concerned about, as are many on the Task Force and the community, is that density can easily build chaos, not community. Bob Simon's Reston vision was a great, but not perfect one. His focus on diversity of buildings, diversity in the community, balancing nature and development, etc., were exceptional--if not unique--in the 1960s. Now many of his visionary ideas have become models for development worldwide. But the world has moved on in terms of understanding the interaction of people with their environment. The most important such urban design evolution in this circumstance is transit-oriented development. We want Town Center to be transit oriented. Most importantly, it gets people out of their vehicles to walk to work, shop, and--yes--play. In so doing, it reduces congestion, pollution, and the need for infrastructure investment. The Wealen RTC Partners proposal is inconsistent with TOD principles in just about every way it could be. Next to the Metro station, it would work; 3/4 mile away, it is the wrong building in the wrong place. We need predominantly residential buildings there with less density (which would lower height) and more open space--not boundary-to-boundary concrete.

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