SUBJECT: RTC Building Update: BOS Hearing Sept. 11 1
Message flagged Saturday, August 4, 2012 7:05 PM
All (feel free to forward/post as desired),
Sorry for the length here, but a lot has happened since I last communicated on this. On motion of our Planning Commissioner, Frank de la Fe, the Planning Commission by a divided 7-3-2 vote rejected Staff’s recommendation to essentially halve this project and instead approved the plan for a +/- 2,000 person job center more than ¾ of a mile from the Town Center Metro Station. Reston’s own At-Large Commissioner Alcorn did not support his colleague’s motion, and he was joined by Commissioners Lawrence and Hart – with Commissioners Alcorn and Hart offering comments that directly support the strong community opposition.
See full transcript here: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/planning/verbatims/verbatims062812PRC77-C-076.pdf (For perspective, Commissioner Hart said he didn’t “recall ever disagreeing on a Hunter Mill case before,” and it is surely exceptional for Commissioner Alcorn to publicly disagree with his Reston colleague. The Commission typically defers to the local Commissioner on local matters. With the two abstentions, five Commissioners declined the invitation to join the motion to approve.)
The de la Fe Position
The above link will allow each of you to evaluate the content of Commissioner de la Fe’s comments (and I’ve copied him in on this e-mail). I find at least three aspects of his statement especially hard to reconcile:
- The Planning Commission asked the County Attorney to opine on the alleged entitlement here. We’ve not seen that opinion (it is a legally privileged document), but based on Commissioner de la Fe’s statement it appears the County Attorney advised that the BOS may alter this application if conditions have changed sufficiently since the original zoning (in this case almost 40 years ago). Having been given the legal green light, Commissioner de la Fe concluded that “there have not been sufficient changes to negate the original approval.” He restated in a personal e-mail to me, “The bottom line from my perspective, is that conditions have not changed enough to warrant a disapproval on a height and intensity basis.”
Commissioner de la Fe has been at this a lot longer than I have so I respect his experience and view; he’s often provided wonderful service to Reston. But his view that conditions have not sufficiently changed is hard to understand:
1) Metro wasn’t even part of the equation when the BOS approved the 1970’s blob zoning;
2) every major intersection in Town Center is failing or worse, not the case in 1970;
3) we now have data we did not in 1970 that shows office is what drives traffic and that workers are essentially unwilling to walk to/from jobs more than a half mile from a transit station;
4) we now know that the Town Center transit station area is at +/- a 19:1 jobs:household ratio, far beyond what any sound planning concept would consider effective MTOD;
5) we now have a UNANIMOUS vote from the Town Center Committee of the Task Force recommending that all new zoning applications in Town Center be at 1:1 SF residential:office in an effort to bring the jobs:household ratio into a much healthier balance (recognizing this will be a downtown/destination paradigm) and a unanimous rejection of a specific Whealen Team request to be exempt from that to move forward with single (office) use;
6) we now know that although that report has not yet been adopted by the full Task Force, the Vision and Planning Principles the Task Force did adopt embrace the philosophy in the Town Center Committee report that highest densities (and especially office) need to be nearer to the Metro station and taper off as one moves away from the station (consistent, BTW, with the current Comprehensive Plan);
7) we also now know that we will need new office as an incentive to: (a) remake the south side of the Toll Road from an office park to a mixed-use paradigm; and (b) create the two central greens, performing arts space, and other critical public amenities outlined in the Town Center Committee report that will be of much higher social utility than can be delivered on the RTC site;
8) we now know office demand in this “new office” era is declining and there is the serious concern that this development – which would likely create the largest employment center in all of Town Center – will siphon away this critically needed and declining office demand and potentially hurt our ability to achieve these other much more important community goals;
9) we know by the developer’s own boast this site was considered the “gateway” into Town Center when it was blob zoned, something that if it ever was the case is certainly not the case now (Lot D4, the touchdown point from the Metro, is and will be the “gateway” into Town Center); and
10) we know that reducing the intensity of this office space will not hurt job creation since the FARs the Task Force is considering for Town Center will more than meet projected office demand within just the targeted areas and support MTOD so the issue here is location, location, location.
Commissioners Alcorn’s and Hart’s dissenting remarks very clearly recognize that all or most of the above factors are highly relevant to this discussion. It is hard for me to get my mind around Commissioner de la Fe’s rationale. At the risk of being overly pithy, why have we been spending so much collective time on a Task Force the last two and a half years if conditions haven’t materially changed since the 1970’s?
- Commissioner de la Fe, responding to the MTOD issue, says that this application is only a half mile from the bus station and that is TOD.
I agree with the Commissioner that buses are of course TOD, but we know what traffic patterns and failing intersections in Town Center they have yielded. And they are not MTOD and I think most of us understood this to be central to the Task Force’s mission: maximizing the massive Metro public expenditure (ridership must come from somewhere). Plenty of communities surveyed have bus systems to take people from train to jobs outside the half mile, and the data still show that this negatively impacts train ridership. Unless the academic literature is wrong or I am badly misunderstanding what the Task Force has been repeatedly told by multiple sources, I do not view the existence of bus service as an acceptable justification for building a 2,000 person job center beyond the half mile radius absent other compelling public purposes. Examples of such might be revitalizing an area like Lake Anne or providing office as incentive to get a 7-8 acre central green in North Town Center. There is no compelling public purpose here. This is a developer, as is his prerogative, seeking maximum ROI. It is our prerogative to say no.
- Commissioner de la Fe also recasts the strong community opposition as “concentrated not on the height and intensity, but on the fact that no residential was included”; since that would require a rezoning (not on the table) he de facto minimized the community opposition.
Commissioner de la Fe regrettably got this wrong. The RA Board, the elected body of the largest residential organization in our community, submitted the attached testimony in opposition since I last corresponded with folks on this. While suggesting it would “prefer” that some residential be added to this application, the RA Board specifically “supports the conclusions contained in the County Staff Report, dated March 7, 2010, especially as those conclusions relate to the building height and the intensity of the proposed project.” (Emphasis added.) The ARCH testimony likewise specifically suggests that this application is “not consistent with TOD,” could add to the “economic impact to taxpayers of rail” by moving potential ridership outside the half mile radius, and is inconsistent with “the concept of tapering densities, with the highest nearest the station . . . .” The RCA testimony was the same; Bill Penniman’s excellent statement as well. And two entire sections of my testimony to the Planning Commission were devoted to showing how the “height and densities” (irrespective of the residential issue) were inappropriate and that the proposal would undermine our MTOD and other community goals. Would it be preferable to have residential here as well? Sure. But there is more than one way to skin the jobs:household and MTOD issues. Reducing the office footprint would be an option. And this message was not lost, for example, on Commissioner Hart who spoke at length how he had genuine concerns about a building of this character and intensity being outside the half mile radius and thus undermining MTOD and tapering.The Scenario Facing Supervisor Hudgins and the BOS
Here is where we are:
1. We know from Commissioner de la Fe’s statement that the centerpiece of the developer’s position (that there is an unqualified entitlement here) has been dismissed by the County Attorney and this application can be amended if the BOS finds that conditions on the ground have changed sufficiently since the 1970’s blob zoning. This is a huge development.
2. To the best of my knowledge, not a single Reston resident or resident organization other than Commissioner de la Fe or someone part of the Whelan Team has supported this application and all Reston resident organizations have opposed it. (The exception would be the PZ Committee, but several in its majority openly said they had no choice but to support this due to an unqualified entitlement that we now know does not exist, thus devaluing that vote in part; RA DRB of course supported the architecture but that is not the issue now – this is about planning and land use.)I would hope that based on this record the BOS, on our Supervisor’s motion, would at a minimum accept the Staff’s recommendation and reduce the office footprint in this site plan. I am certainly going to make every effort to ensure the full BOS is aware of this record to date. There is another possibility and Commissioner Hart to his credit ably identified it – let’s take a “little more time to work on this” and see if we can create a better outcome. This is consistent with my view that this is an evolving negotiation (e.g., I have always said that as one possible compromise I might begrudgingly agree to these kinds of heights and intensities if residential were part of the equation). While the developer has given no indication of interest in trying to work this out, the developer also thought it had an unqualified entitlement. We now know this application can be altered if conditions on the ground have sufficiently changed since the original zoning so as to warrant some limitations on height and intensity. I’d say that puts this very much in play.
3. While the Task Force recommendations have not yet been reduced to Plan language, this application is unquestionably at odds with the spirit of the Task Force’s work and its already approved Vision and Planning Principles.
4. Staff has unequivocally recommended that this application be materially reduced in height and intensity.
5. Five Planning Commissioners, in a highly unusual circumstance, declined to defer to the local Commissioner; the two Reston residents on the Planning Commission have publicly differed on the merits; and the rationale behind the Planning Commission vote is mistaken in parts and, I would respectfully argue, unpersuasive overall.
If the residential community or Task Force were divided on the kind of base line issues at stake here, or Commissioner de la Fe’s statement brought new thinking to the fore and had been persuasive to all of his Commission colleagues, I would say you win some you lose some, move on. Instead, the BOS can obviously see there is a real disconnect here given the strong and reasoned community opposition; the inconsistency with the Task Force work; several members of the PZ Committee majority expressly relying on the notion of an unqualified entitlement that the County Attorney has now apparently said does not exist; and the Planning Commission’s rejection of a contrary recommendation from the paid professionals (Staff) via a highly unusual dynamic. As they say in the business, this application has lots of hair on it. It sure would be better to find an outcome that a whole lot more people could feel good about. I hope that many of you will consider reinforcing your earlier views with Supervisor Hudgins (and the entire BOS so the full Board knows this is a serious community issue). To her credit, Supervisor Hudgins agreed to postpone this hearing to Sept. 11 to allow the community an opportunity to digest Commissioner de la Fe’s rationale and respond pro or con. Without the entitlement as a shield, I just think that what appears to be the fairly uniform community position has the better of the intellectual/planning/land use argument here, by a wide margin, and I will continue to advocate for that position unless I can be convinced that everything I’ve learned the last two and a half years is a bunch of hooey and/or applies to everyone but just not this lot.
1892 Crescent Park Drive
Reston, VA 20190
tel: (703) 689-0496
fax: (703) 689-4993