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Reston Spring

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Commentary: For the Reston P&Z Committee--Planning Development in Reston TOD Areas, Bill Penniman, February 27, 2012

February 27, 2012

To: Reston Planning & Zoning Committee
From: William Penniman
Re: Planning & Zoning Principles in an Era of TOD

As many of you know, for the past two years, I have been actively engaged in the Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force, including co-chairing the Wiehle (Reston East) Subcommittee and serving on the Steering and Vision Committees.

By this memorandum, I offer my views on several key issues which your committee should consider whenever it assesses proposals for major new buildings in Reston. It is an expression of my personal views as a Reston resident, but my views are the product of more than two years of discussion and analysis as part of the Task Force process. It is not a comment on a specific project, but on a host of proposals you are likely to see in the future.

Regardless of how the P&Z Committee may have reviewed proposals in the past, it is important that, going forward, all proposals be viewed within a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) planning framework to the maximum extent possible. Successful TOD is critical to the future of Reston and to the community’s investment in the transit system. Absent very special benefits or other unique considerations, proposals for large commercial or residential developments that detract or diverge from TOD should be rejected or delayed to the extent permitted by law.
Briefly summarized, the guiding principles for new building projects in Reston should include:

Major development should be concentrated close to the new transit stations with height and density generally tapering off as one moves away from the station. The greatest densities should be within ¼ mile and next greatest within ½ mile. Concentrating new development within the TOD areas is important to mitigating traffic, to encouraging pedestrian activity, and to creating centers of commercial, cultural and social activities which will make each of the station areas attractive to prospective employers and residents, as well as to other Reston residents.

Residential development should be mixed with other uses throughout the new transit station areas. The Wiehle Subcommittee recommended that development closest to the station and north of Sunrise Valley Drive be permitted (broadly speaking) to reach 60:40 office:residential closest to the station, transitioning to 40:60 outside ¼ mile, with 25:75 office:residential in the Isaac Newton Square area. The Town Center Subcommittee recommended that there be a 50:50 split of residential and commercial development on a square-footage basis throughout the ½ mile TOD area. Proposals with higher percentages of residential would be welcome by both committees.

It is important to focus large-scale development within a half mile from the Metro stations at least until the stations have been open for a reasonable period of time (perhaps until 2030 or beyond). Allowing large developments outside the TOD areas before the TOD areas have developed could sap commercial and residential demand, thereby delaying TOD development. That would hurt Reston. Thus, outside the TOD areas, large-scale development should be restrained. However, if exceptions are made due to special circumstances, even those projects should be expected to support TOD and community goals with proffers such as linked streetscapes, bus service to the stations, community amenities (e.g., publicly-accessible recreation), traffic-mitigation plans, etc.

Developers should be required to achieve the minimum residential goals either by themselves or by coordinating their plans with other developers within the TOD area. If a builder cannot achieve a balanced mix of residential/nonresidential by itself or with others, then the default should be to build residential.

Only high-quality, high-density projects should be approved within the TOD areas. Effective TOD and maximum transit usage will not be achieved if land near the stations is tied up with low-density projects, which will occupy the space for 50 years or more. A tall, “urban” profile with commercial and cultural attractions is highly desired near the stations. Weak projects or even the perception that weak projects will be approved will discourage investment in high-quality projects. Town Center has been successful in part because high quality was required and that, in turn, attracted more high-quality projects.

TOD project proponents should be required to contribute to a unified streetscape with wide sidewalks and “complete” streets. Coherent and attractive streetscapes, sidewalks and trails cannot be achieved unless all builders contribute. Builders should also contribute to meeting the public open-space and recreational needs of the community, including parks and trails, as well as to meeting the community’s cultural, educational and affordable-housing needs. Diverse restaurants and retail are needed near each station. The Task Force’s Vision, Wiehle and Town Center Subcommittees have recommended guidance on the types of architecture, open spaces and streetscapes that are needed in the TOD areas. The three reports (available online) contain similar themes, and their recommendations largely overlap.

Except for Lake Anne Village Center, which has a unique importance to Reston and has already gotten approval for new development, increased density at the village centers should have a lower priority than development near the station areas at least until the station areas have had an ample opportunity to develop effective TOD.

In sum, the P&Z Committee should adhere to a big-picture plan for Reston. It should be firm and patient in insisting that, for the foreseeable future, major new development must be high-quality, mixed-use TOD, with a coherent form, unified streetscape, and ample proffers to meet Reston’s evolving needs. The Committee will inevitably get many requests for exceptions (“this project is different or special”), but the P&Z Committee should do what it can to focus major development near the stations and to resist inconsistent proposals, at least absent exceptional circumstances and benefits.

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