Last night I think was the first meaningful meeting of the Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force since its inception. The County decided to use Reston 2020’s proposed Planning Principles as the base for further discussion on this topic. The task force members engaged in a dialogue about Planning Principles and Herndon-Monroe TOD although they did not resolve any issues. In all, it was the first real step in wrestling with the future of Reston.
Here are some of the key points I picked out of the meeting and my take on them.
In the brief public comment period, several key points were made:
• Bill Dingell, President of the Polo Fields Cluster, asked that task force assure the protection of its neighborhood as development proceeds, especially with regard to overflow parking and drive-through commuters.
• Diane Blust, reading a brief statement, called for the task force to protect the wetlands at Herndon-Monroe and include language that would encourage their transfer to RA for protection as a natural area.
• John Bowman, Reston 2020 co-chair, noted that the Reston 2020 committee had provided task force members with a Planning Principles statement combining the inputs of all contributors at the January community meeting on that topic. He noted it was a work in progress as others have submitted proposed Planning Principles since then.
Patty Nicoson, the task force chair, proposed that a task force committee be set up to look at the special issues involving the Reston Town Center as suggested by Robert Goudie, task force member and chair of WATCH. The explanation provided by Heidi Merkel was that the County needs to address the badly outdated Reston Police Station (actually, the Northern Fairfax County Government Center) as part of the task force process “while retaining options around the station.”
I found the police station justification to be a non sequitur. What to do with the outdated police station on county property is truly an implementation issue, and a small one at that, involving only the county deciding what to do with its own assets. This is the kind of issue the task force has consistently and strongly opposed considering elsewhere in Reston up to this time.
So why now?? It raised the idea in my sometimes suspicious mind that the county may actually have the idea of selling the county property to private parties for development as part of the urbanization of Reston. We can’t let non-taxable public property stand in the way of taxable and profitable private urban development. If that’s so, we could also say good-bye to the Reston regional public library, the Embry Rucker homeless shelter, and maybe even the affordable housing built in this area. In the broader sense, that would mean even fewer public facilities in Reston. Nonetheless, the proposal was approved without objection. I will be glad to be shown—not told—that I’m wrong in this theory, but the justification for the committee offered last night was weak beyond belief and, if nothing else, speaks of favoritism for a subset of Restonians.
Heidi Merkel walked through a recap of the County’s TOD policy next. It generated a brief discussion about special Metro station design in Reston beyond public art. It appears this is unlikely in the absence of funds to do so. Nick Bauer raised the issue that “open space” needs to be defined and used very carefully, suggesting that some wording in the policy might allow changes in the Herndon-Monroe wetlands area. Bob Simon noted that we don’t necessarily need innovation in architecture—a TOD policy point—just excellence, which is no more expensive than mediocre architecture. He added that RTC was mediocre architecture that should not be copied.
The discussion of the Herndon-Monroe TOD area provided some important insights into many task force members thinking. Heidi Merkel began by synthesizing the key ideas that came out of the community meeting, including:
• The wetlands are beloved and the constituency wants them preserved. The same applied to the environmentally sensitive land on the County’s parking property. (Later she showed how the county envisions expanding the parking facility there on to the adjacent “environmentally sensitive” property to the west as well as to the east. So much for environmental sensitivity.)
• Preserve the stable neighborhood to the south (Polo Fields).
• Complement the TOD work done by Herndon across the DTR.
• Work on solving traffic issues in and out of the area.
• A broader need for open space in the area, including connectivity to the wetlands.
• Improve pedestrian connections across the DTR.
Many of the task force members highlighted what they heard at the community meeting, including maybe less overall density here than elsewhere with more variability across the area (higher east, lower west), an office-centric focus to developing the area to take advantage of nearby FC Parkway, need for better road linkages to Monroe (west) and FC Parkway (east) from the area, more involvement with Herndon on planning the area, a difficult area to create a grid of streets given the wetlands, and much confusion about why and how the county was planning to double the size of the parking garage—noting, “build it and they will come.” On a process note, one task force member suggested the task force needed to come to some kind of closure on these topics while they are still fresh in people’s minds rather than waiting for months to rejoin the topic. The staff will look at how this can be fit into the schedule.
Heidi Merkel then presented the DPZ staff’s synthesis of the many Reston Planning Principles they had received. She shared the data results from the community meeting preferences (where participants put “dots” on the 10 ideas they thought most important). She noted that the staff had decided that the format and issues addressed in the Reston 2020 Committee proposal were very useful. They had decided to use the Reston 2020 proposal as the core document for the task force to review and propose amendments. She asked the task force members to try to send their proposed changes to her so the staff could integrate them into the Reston 2020 proposal. Some discussion followed on whether this was a workable way to handle this given the number and variety of inputs staff was likely to receive. Heidi suggested that they would try this approach this time to see if they could make it work.
During this discussion, Mike Corrigan, RCA member of the task force, challenged the development community to provide its vision of Reston’s Planning Principles like so many Reston citizens’ groups had. He noted that he imputed from the APR nominations held by the task force that developers were interested in increased FARs, fewer height restrictions, contributing nothing to public facilities, amenities, or open space, and the most profitable mix of uses (adding "not that there's anything wrong with that"). In short, he asked them to lay their hand on the table. None said they would.
And I don’t think the development community—developers, land owners, property managers, and their attorneys—will take the challenge, at least not seriously. They could offer a strawman, but from their perspective, it would most likely yield them criticism, some of it misguided, but nonetheless unneeded. Moreover, showing your hand is not how the business negotiation process operates. They might try to nick editorially some of the Reston 2020 Planning Principle proposals they find most disagreeable by seemingly modest language changes that reduce their constraints, such as changing “require” to “encourage” or “preserve” to “enhance.”
To developers, however, the key Comprehensive Plan language will be the specific wording and numbers attached to the development of various land sub-units, the FARs, the height restrictions, the open space and public facility requirements, and so on. Moreover, while they might raise these issues reactively in the task force to some unusually constraining demand, their focus will be on persuading County Planning Commissioners and Board of Supervisors members outside the public glare of the task force. Who knows what deals they will make in this unobserved process? In the end, they are much more likely to trust their strong historic ability to influence the County’s planning and zoning decision making outside the public eye to achieve their ends.
Following this discussion, county staff walked through the existing conditions report for the Wiehle TOD area. The several viewgraphs included maps of current land uses, densities, etc., although not all the viewgraphs were in the task force members’ packets. The briefing ended with a look at a table reporting existing development, approved zoning, and development authorized under the current Plan.
The final chart provoked a question from Mike Corrigan about the availability of the much-promised existing conditions report from the County. In his view, it is important to start the discussion with some facts. Fred Selden, Chief, DPZ, tried to explain why it wasn’t important in his experience and that it could result in bad decisions in one of the most outlandish displays of bureaucratic blather I have seen. Mike pressed this issue by noting we don’t know how much we need to change if we don’t know what exists or could exist under the current plan and that this information was as important to the development community as to the citizens of Reston.
Jerry Volloy, ARCH President and task force member, added a third dimension to this discussion: The County. He noted that the County has its own revenue needs and obligations both now and in the future and it would help tremendously in planning what should be done if the task force knew what those revenues and costs are and might be, basically a financial existing conditions and projections report.
The overarching point the two task force members were making is that the task force could make better decisions about what planning changes needed to be done if it could it knew the current situation and what the current plan would allow in development and generate in tax revenues. From that foundation, a better Plan could be developed that met the needs of all the core parties—developers, residents, and the County. Still, it generated no commitments from the task force chair or the county staff.
From this observer’s perspective, this task force meeting was a huge improvement on the meetings up to this point precisely because there was discussion about the topics under consideration. Much of that discussion was aimed passed another member’s point in a somewhat passive-aggressive manner, but nonetheless a sort of dialogue began to emerge even if no issues were resolved. For those familiar with small group dynamics, this was the beginning of the “storming” phase of the process characterized as Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing. While the task force has been a long-time reaching this point in what is clearly an over-ambitious schedule, we can hope that it will now fully engage in solving the tough development issues it is charged with resolving. We would like it to become a fully “performing” task force all can be proud of.