Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reston's Planning: Stuck in Traffic? Colin Mills, President, RCA, Reston Patch, November 13, 2012

The future planning of Reston has been on my mind a lot lately.  In light of the latest developments with the Reston Master Plan Task Force, I wanted to share my thoughts with you.  The Task Force is reaching an important phase in its process, and the decisions it makes will seriously impact Reston’s future.

If you read me regularly, you may recall my Task Force updates from last month, particularly the emerging disagreement over the density around the Silver Line stations, the level of traffic we should accept, and the Department of Planning and Zoning’s new “Scenario G.”  After consulting my RCA colleagues, I wrote a letter to the Task Force supporting Scenario G and emphasizing the importance of avoiding gridlock on Reston's streets.  The letter was written up in Reston Patch and other local media outlets.

Last night, the Task Force was presented with an update on Scenario G, prepared by the DPZ in response to the comments they received on the draft version.  So I want you to know where things stand and what the updated scenario means for Reston.

As presented by DPZ’s Heidi Merkel, the revised Scenario G does not appear to have any major increases in density compared to last month’s draft.  Some community representatives were concerned that the developers’ carping about the draft scenario would lead to more density being added.  That doesn’t appear to have happened; kudos to the DPZ for holding firm.
What has changed from the draft scenario is how the plan is organized.  In the scenario presented last night, the new plan would scrap the existing landbays and the density numbers attached to them, and replace them with districts, which would encompass areas with similar development visions.

Each district would be divided into subdistricts (north and south of the Toll Road, generally).  Each subdistrict would have a development target, which would specify the maximum office square footage allowed and the desired number of residential units in the subdistrict.  Within the subdistricts, there would be two types of zoning: “Transit Station Mixed Use,” which would be within ¼ mile of the Metro stations and where the new office development would be concentrated, and “Residential Mixed Use,” which would be between ¼ and ½ mile from the stations, and where most new development potential would be residential.  (For most areas outside ½ mile from the stations, there would be no new density planned.)

Confused?  That’s entirely understandable.  But the bottom line is that the new plan would provide more flexibility, to ensure the desired level of development around the stations without tying that development to specific parcels of land.  And by keeping the new office space closer to the stations, it encourages workers to use Metro and keep their cars off of Reston's roads.
Of course, there’s a risk that flexibility turns into ambiguity, as Terry Maynard, RCA’s Task Force rep, pointed out last night.  More flexibility in development raises the risk that development might occur in a way that we wouldn’t prefer.  Heidi Merkel cited Reston’s original Planned Residential Community zoning as an example of the advantages of flexibility, but of course, that worked best when there was one master developer controlling the vision for the entire community.

Another risk with the flexible scenario is what’s called the “race to the courthouse.”  If there’s a finite level of development that is shared by a variety of different parcels with different owners, you might see developers rushing to get zoning plans in as soon as possible, whether they plan to redevelop anytime soon or not, so that they can “lock in” the increased density for their parcels.  Heidi didn’t see this as an issue, but some of the developers on the Task Force suggested otherwise.

Despite the risks in the new scenario’s flexibility, it has definite advantages (as long as the plan includes strong performance standards for any new development).  The biggest concern in my mind is not the flexibility, but the level of development and the traffic congestion it generates.
Several developer-allied members remained unhappy with Scenario G’s lower density levels at last night’s meeting.  They continue to argue that the density allowed under this scenario won’t be enough to spark the desired place-making around the stations, or to encourage developers to provide the community amenities we want and need.

Of course, the reduced density levels are a response to the fact that the previous development scenario produced a traffic nightmare.  But the developers argue that we’re looking at traffic in the wrong way.  One developer tried the ever-popular Washington trick of changing the baseline for comparison.  Rather than comparing the traffic levels of the new development to what’s there now, he said, we should compare it to the traffic levels that would be produced if all the properties along the Toll Road corridor developed to their current maximum zoning (which would produce even more office space than allotted in the current Scenario G or the previous Scenario E).

It’s a clever argument.  But like the previous developer assertion that we’ll need to “think about traffic in a different way,” it misses the point.  Most Reston residents already consider the traffic to be pretty heavy at rush hour.  If the new development makes traffic markedly worse, that could be the breaking point for a lot of folks.  Arguing that it could be even worse, or saying that we’ll all just need to learn to accept gridlock as a fact of life, strikes me as contrary to the goals of transit-oriented development, and contrary to what we’re trying to accomplish on the Task Force.

As I stated in my letter, RCA believes that the density levels in Scenario G are a step in the right direction.  We need to ensure that the new development that comes doesn’t produce a downgrade in the quality of life for Reston’s existing residents.  We need to ensure that the new development doesn’t make our traffic dramatically worse.  This should be a first principle of our new Comprehensive Plan, not something to be ignored.

Are there tradeoffs in planning Reston’s new development?  Absolutely.  In order to get the community amenities we desire, we need to offer the developers worthwhile incentives to provide them.  But being able to get from one side of Reston to the other is not an amenity.  It’s a requirement.  And RCA will continue working with the DPZ and the Task Force to ensure that we develop a vision that’s a win-win for the entire community.

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