Testimony of Robert Goudie
To the P&Z Committee, 11/21/11
RE: Proposed redevelopment of the so-called Town Center Office Building Site
I appear tonight and am speaking from my perspective as Co-Chair of the Town Center Committee of the Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force.
At the outset, I want to thank Rick Whealen and his team, who generously offered to meet with me not once but twice to provide background on their proposal. That proposal has elements that should be lauded and I do not wish to minimize those – including the green rooftop space, the concealed parking, the likely gold LEEDS achievement, and the earnest attempt to create a world-class design. The proposal, however, is materially inconsistent with the Town Center Committee recommendations:
1. The lack of any residential component is at odds with the Committee recommendation that every zoning application be at least 1:1 SF res:office (and, outside the urban core, which this site is, a ratio even more favorably balanced toward residential should be encouraged): This 1:1 requirement has received a good deal of attention and I’ve talked about it at a prior P&Z meeting. It is at the heart of the Town Center Committee’s vision for a greater mix of uses with a stronger residential component to continue Town Center’s build-out as both Reston’s downtown and a regional destination. Worth noting:
a. The Committee unanimously rejected a Whealen Team request to be exempted from the residential requirement. Page 31 of the report speaks to the “form[ation of] an important and essentially residential collar around the extended urban core (with supporting retail),” adding that in these areas “development that moves the Town Center District beyond the minimum 1:1 ratio we are recommending . . . should be encouraged.” In response to a Whealen Team request the Committee very specifically and unanimously declined to exempt the Office Building Site from this approach:
“We include within this reference the so-called Reston Office Building parcel that abuts Reston Parkway and is otherwise surrounded by the Spectrum parcel. This parcel is not currently within the Town Center District boundary. We think that parcel should be allowed to redevelop in ways that are consistent with and complement the approved Spectrum concept plan (if/as it may be amended) and the Committee’s recommendations for an essentially residential collar (with supporting retail) around the extended urban core.” (emphases added)
Simply put, this proposal is not consistent with that recommendation.
b. The Committee extended the 1:1 or better requirement to all “zoning applications,” thus providing smaller sites a partnering opportunity to achieve the desired balancing. The Committee felt strongly that the residential requirement must extend to all lots consistent with a philosophy that “we are all in this together” and that all new development must share in the responsibility of bringing better residential:office balance to Town Center. It recognized, however, that this could create challenges, especially for smaller lots with existing and profitable commercial buildings or development rights. The Committee also heard from County Staff about compulsory joint zoning as a method used in some other areas in the County. The Committee had concerns that compulsory collaborative zoning might hurt first movers. Thus we recommended a different approach: the 1:1 or better requirement would extend to “any zoning application.” This essentially incents a collaborative or partnering approach if owners feel individual lots could not easily meet the balancing requirement or that shifting the balancing over a broader area (and thus permitting some single or near-single uses on individual lots) could produce better outcomes.
That opportunity clearly exists here, most obviously with the adjacent Lerner (Spectrum) property. (Indeed, with both Lerner and Whealen spending money now on concept plans, the first mover challenge some see with compulsory joint zoning is not extant.) And if a Whealen-Lerner partnership is not possible for business or other reasons, there are other sites nearby (including the Inova site in Town Center North) that provide partnering opportunities.
Enforcement of this strong encouragement to partner could have powerful benefits for the community. Not only does it ensure that all lot owners are part of the residential balancing vision, but it also opens the door to more creative and powerful concept plans. Taking off my Committee hat and speaking now personally, a number of Town Center residents are not enthusiastic about the proposed Spectrum concept plan. We feel the original Lerner proposal – with a central boulevard bisecting that lot around which retail, open space, residential, and office could be clustered – was a much more interesting outcome than what has been approved. But that proposal would implicate the Whealen parcel, requiring collaboration between the two land owners. Although that outcome could not be forced under the Committee approach there would be consequences to going it alone: neither would be able to get out from under the residential requirement (and the Spectrum proposal I believe meets the test with something like a 1.3 or 1.4:1 res:office ratio). The proposal before you has no residential component and will, therefore, materially dilute and make more difficult the overall balancing the Committee report contemplates. Simply put, that would not be allowed under the Committee approach which, if strongly enforced, would change development behavior over time.
2. The proposal is inconsistent with the tapering of heights and densities the Committee recommends: The Committee unanimously recommends tapering building heights and densities moving north away from the envisioned Metro Station:
“These areas [to the north outside the urban core] are currently zoned at 50 dwelling units per acre. Residential development that moves the Town Center District beyond the minimum 1:1 ratio we are recommending for Metro North should be encouraged. Among other incentives the County should consider are permitting density increments above those currently allowed (staying within the tapered approach we are recommending, with highest densities adjacent to the Metro Station and gradually tapering off as one moves north). Any such incremental increases should be used primarily to encourage additional residential (with supporting retail as needed) to continue to shrink the current disparity between available jobs and resident potential workers.” (p. 31 of the Committee Report, emphases added) The Committee then added that building heights should not be static in particular areas, providing a variegated look and feel.
Very specific guidance was given for Town Center North, which is on the same longitudinal plane as the Office Building Site: “consistent with our view that TCN should be a transitional space (not an extension of the Town Center urban core), a consensus emerged that building heights across TCN should not be permitted to exceed 200’ above grade.” (p. 36)
I think there is a material question as to whether the current proposal is proportional to its surroundings (it is materially higher than anything in the proposed Spectrum redevelopment). And at 23 stories and a 4.08 FAR this would I think exceed the height and massing the Committee recommends for this area.
3. The proposal undermines TOD (transit-oriented development) objectives the Town Center Committee sought to emphasize: All data the Task Force has seen emphasizes that the number of people willing to walk to a job from a transit station dramatically declines for jobs located outside the station’s ¼ mile radius, and declines again when one moves outside the ½ mile radius (as the Office Building site is). This was among the principal reasons that the Committee recommended congregating the greatest office densities nearest to the station and increasing the residential component in the collar surrounding the extended urban core – to encourage greater TOD. The proposal before you argues for putting +/- 2,000 jobs in an essentially single-use (non-residential) development outside the ½ mile radius. The impacts to traffic and the overall balancing goals for Town Center are meaningful.
Worth adding here is that the Whealen Team noted in its meetings with me that this lot was originally envisioned as the “gateway” site into Town Center. Whatever may have been the vision in the 1970’s, a material change in conditions has emerged – the arrival of Metro at Town Center. There is no question but that the center of gravity in Town Center over the next 25 years will shift toward the Metro Station. And this is an essential goal of the Town Center Committee report. The Committee specifically notes that Parcel D4, as the gateway or touchdown point north of the Metro, “will be of special significance” (page 3), adding later that the “key to realizing a vision of an extended urban core will be the development of D4” (page 19). On page 18 the Committee emphasized the essential priority thusly: “The focus first and foremost should be on successfully extending the urban core south to the Metro station. Good things will follow from that.”
Whatever may have been the original vision for the Office Building Site that vision has been materially altered with the pending arrival of Metro. I do not want to be misunderstood: I absolutely believe that redevelopment of the Office Building Site is and should remain an important goal for Town Center’s future and the Whealen Team should be congratulated for thinking boldly about that future. But that vision should be consistent with and complementary to the Town Center North area and the TOD and other goals we wish for Town Center’s dynamic future.
I return where I started: there is much about this proposal that should be lauded. Rick Whealen, very much to his credit, has put together a terrific team of world-class professionals who are thinking boldly about this site and have offered some really important pieces that advance community priorities (the green space, the concealed parking, retail, the LEEDS emphasis, and the bold design among them). But the fundamental thrust remains inconsistent with the visions for Town Center that our Committee put together. (Of course the County would always have flexibility to adopt proposals that depart from the Comprehensive Plan vision if the proposal serves compelling public needs, a judgment for others to make here.)
To be sure our Committee recommendations have not yet been adopted by the Task Force let alone become law. Some recommendations are still very much in flux (for example, the density recommendations). But the big-picture concepts I have talked about tonight are, in material respects, likely to become part of the revised Comprehensive Plan.
I also understand that certain development opportunities may exist by-right on the Office Building Site. That said, there are strong community interests at stake here as well and material changes in conditions (Metro) that it seems to me have to be accounted for. My hope is that a thoughtful conversation be had, respectful of whatever property rights might already exist and perhaps involving neighboring owners, whereby an outcome that better complements the goals I’ve talked about tonight could be achieved.
I will be sending the entire Town Center Committee a copy of these remarks. I will encourage any of my Committee colleagues who feels these remarks do not accurately summarize the Committee recommendations to offer his/her own comments to the P&Z Committee. Thank you for your consideration of the Committee’s work.