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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notes and Comments on the January 26 Reston Task Force Community Meeting, Terry Maynard

On January 26, 2010, the Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force held a community workshop on guiding planning principles in the Langston Hughes cafeteria. Most of the task force members were there, county staff led the discussion, and some 100 or more Restonians participated. The meeting went pretty much according to script, and some interesting insights provided along the way. This note tries to capture the essence of the meeting. Please excuse what is a long and winding post.

Task Force Chair Patty Nicoson briefly opened the meeting, welcoming the audience and introducing the agenda before turning the microphone over to Heidi Merkel, County DPZ senior planner, to lead the meeting.

Ms. Merkel began by making an overview presentation on the purpose of the meeting—to capture public ideas and express preferences about Reston’s prospective planning principles—the whats and whys of putting together such a document, and the staff’s own “strawman” Reston planning principles. Those are all captured in the presentation just below.

Developing Planning Principles for Reston DPZ 012610

Citizen Group Presentations

Following Ms. Merkel’s presentation, representatives from three community groups were offered the opportunity to present their group’s ideas for the Reston planning principles. Kathy Kaplan, representing a citizens group comprising herself and Guy Rando, Reston architect, began not by presenting their plan (posted here), but by walking through some small, but extremely meaningful, proposed changes in the county’s “strawman” planning principles. Jerry Volloy, Chairman of the ARCH Board, walked through ARCH’s planning principles as they were spelled out in ARCH’s draft issues bulletin (see here) and approved by the ARCH Board. Dick Stilson, co-chair of the Reston 2020 Committee, presented his commentary on the committee’s work (see here), highlighting the theme of implementing the prospective changes in an orderly way.

Kathy Kaplan’s presentation was noteworthy for dissecting the wording of the county “strawman,” especially language that equivocated or has a special—even peculiar—meaning in the development world (see below). Some of her proposed editing was fairly obvious, for example, dropping the phrase “to the extent possible” from the idea of preserving open space, a classic equivocation. Others were more subtle like deleting the word “enhancing” from the principle of preserving stability in Reston neighborhoods. She reported that, to developers, “enhancing” means adding commercial and retail space into existing residential neighborhoods. The phrase “in proximity to” in the principle regarding existing uses also would foster such an outcome and she proposed it be deleted. She also proposed adding specific clarifying language to the county’s principle on natural and structural beauty in Reston, which would more likely assure the desired outcome. Below is a copy of her edited version of the county “strawman.” One final note on Ms. Kaplan’s presentation: She said that adoption of the 20 proposed “APR nominations” or modifications to the Comprehensive Plan would add more than 20,000 dwelling units to the Dulles Corridor (23,413 units by one detailed count). By her calculations, this would require the County to provide 74 acres of additional parkland to meet its own stated requirement of providing .00148 acres of parkland per person.

What impressed this observer was the sense that the three citizen group presentations were extremely consistent, yet constructively complementary. ARCH’s proposal tended to focus on the look and feel of the Reston result after development—a thematic focus on vision such as higher density around rail stations, but lower at the mid-point between. Reston 2020’s proposals focused on implementation issues, including orderly phasing of development and infrastructure and trading off density in one place for another. The Kaplan-Rando plan was highly focused on specific metrics. All the presentations sought to preserve and protect Reston’s existing neighborhoods, preserve if not expand Reston’s open space, and positive steps to improve infrastructure—especially transportation—in concert with development. Blended together, the proposals could probably weave a clear, powerful, and comprehensive set of planning principles that well represented the interests of Reston’s citizens.

Ideas, Questions, Answers, and Polling

After the community group presentations were completed, Heidi Merkel opened noted that two DPZ staff members were keeping track of both additional ideas for the planning principles and ideas for consideration further along in the task force’s deliberations. She opened the floor to ideas, questions, and answers. Here are a few notes from I caught as key discussion points:
* In a discussion that covered both the preservation of open space and residential neighborhoods, a question arose as to whether RA or clusters could turn over (sell, rent) parts of their property to developers.
** Per Milt Matthews and Jerry Volloy, RA would have to have a successful referendum to transfer property to another party. This happened with the Stonegate Community Center proposition; it failed in the recent Reston Community Center at Browns Chapel proposition. Correction: An alert reader has pointed out that the community center is at Southgate, not Stonegate. Also, she points out that the Browns Chapel proposition actually never went to a referendum. It did not emerge from the community discussion phase in the face of local opposition.
** Joe Leighton, RA Board member and head of his cluster organization, said that clusters could transfer their common property to others if the cluster boards and the RA Board approved such a transaction.
** Ms. Merkel said that the county tries to preserve stable neighborhoods, but it cannot interfere if clusters want to alter their arrangements as a group, such as a collective decision to sell their properties to a developer.
** Frank Selden, Chief of the County Planning Staff, thought we were focused a little far into the planning details at this point. In the course of explaining his concern, he noted that no property could be down zoned (or down planned) without a compelling public purpose. I noted that this suggested we could expect only higher density, FARs, DUAs, etc.
* A question arose as to what studies have been done that show that Metro can handle ridership from Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Ms. Merkel suggested this was a good topic for discussion at an upcoming task force meeting on transportation. Joe Stowers noted that a number of such studies have been done and they indicate that Metro needs to make adjustments, such as more eight-car trains, etc.
* Several people raised concerns about different aspects of the transportation issue:
** One resident said is it dangerous for pedestrians to cross the two bridges available across the Dulles corridor because, in the process, they must walk across essentially interstate entry and exit ramps. He added that we also need more connections across the DAAR, such as a link between Mercer condominiums and Plaza America, which would be easily walkable.
** Another citizen noted that we need all-day, everyday, frequent bus service with routes nearer all of Reston. In her case, it was a 20-minute walk to a bus stop, and the buses were extremely infrequent.
** A third person wondered if we need to target a “level of service” for Reston’s streets as part of the development effort. He pointed to a concern captured in a recent AEI article titled, “The War on Suburbia.”
* A broader discussion on the infrastructure question focused on whether or how much emphasis we could include in the Comprehensive Plan under review to the implementation of supporting infrastructure before or during development. Several people cited legal cases in which Virginia courts ruled that developers could not demand that the county provide infrastructure before development, that the county couldn’t prevent development because of a lack of infrastructure, etc.
* A citizen suggested that, in addition to thinking of Reston as a place to “live, work, and play,” we needed to think about Reston as a place where people may remain after they die.
* One resident asked if we didn’t need to think about additional taxation for Restonians to cover the improvements we could expect. Another citizen responded that there should be no additional taxes or tolls placed on Restonians as part of the changes in the Reston Master Plan.
* Task Force Chair Patty Nicoson thought we ought to consider principles around more educational opportunities in Reston, more public art as suggested by IPAR, and an effort to reduce air, water, and noise pollution.
* Mr. Stowers also suggested that we needed a more urban community. We should look for a quantitative balance in land uses between office and residential to best minimize traffic.
* Bob Simon, following up on Mr. Stowers’ remarks suggested that we may be making too much of this urban vs. suburban issue. “Community is the best thing and density makes community…Some people think living alone on 160 acres is community, but that’s isolation…We should have as much of it (density) as we can afford… Density is community.” (I don’t share this view, unless one considers Mumbai, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong as exemplars of community. My view is that one of characteristics that makes Reston a great community is that it has opportunities for all lifestyles over a lifetime. Indeed, with its more than 1,200 acres of natural area, Restonians can approach that notion Mr. Simon says some have of community in isolation. To me, that means Reston must be both suburban and urban in a way that all gain quality of life from the experience.)

The meeting closed with a polling exercise. All of the proposed planning principles were presented on large boards around the room. Everyone was given nine “dot” stickers they could place on any principle in any list that they thought was important. Ms. Merkel indicated that the Planning Staff would collect the boards, count the results, and use them in moving forward with the Reston planning principles. Over about 15 minutes, the more than 100 people attending participated in the task, and the evening ended at about 9PM.

From this writer’s perspective, the dominant theme principles coming out of the community meeting based on the group presentations, the ensuing discussion, and a macro-scan of the "dots" on the boards seem to focus on
--preservation and protection of existing residential neighborhoods,
--developing infrastructure—especially transportation infrastructure—before or as part of development, and
--preserving and expanding Reston’s open space and natural areas.
I would expect the county tabulation of the preference poll to show similar areas of interest as reflected in the “dots,” possibly spread across all four of the principle proposals laid out during the evening.

As always with this blog, I welcome comments below or to me at that correct or add to this review of the meeting.

Terry Maynard
Blog Administrator
Reston 2020 Committee

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