Reston Spring

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Office Space and Reston's Planning, Colin Mills, Reston Patch, July 31, 2013

At last night’s Reston Master Plan Task Force meeting, we learned about the latest iteration of the Comprehensive Plan revisions proposed by County staff.  Among the items discussed was an issue that RCA’s Terry Maynard has been discussing for some time: the plan’s assumptions about the number of gross square feet per office worker.

Wait a minute.  I can already see your eyes glazing over.  Colin’s not going to subject us to a whole post about office square footage numbers, is he?  I’d rather read about Reston getting yet another frozen yogurt shop.  I understand that the debate may seem academic, but it isn’t.  In this post, I’ll explain what the difference in square footage assumptions means, and why it matters as we plan for the future development of Reston.

In order to figure out how much office and residential development should be planned, the Master Plan Task Force looked at forecasts of the expected number of new residents and workers in Reston over the next 20 years, and then planned to allow enough office and housing development to accommodate that growth.  (Actually, the plan allows for more residential growth than the forecasts suggest, in an effort to encourage construction of housing in the station areas, since there’s very little of it now.) 

The Task Force is using 300 gross square feet (GSF) per worker as a baseline for the amount of office development allowed under the new Comprehensive Plan.  So if the forecast calls for 30,000 jobs added over the next 20 years, the plan will allow approximately 9,000,000 GSF of new office space (30,000 x 300 GSF per worker).

What Terry has argued, in letters to Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors and the Department of Planning and Zoning, is that 300 GSF per worker is a serious overestimate given the trends in office planning.  As you’ve probably noticed if you’re an office worker or a regular reader of Dilbert, companies are allowing less and less space for workers these days.  Private offices have given way to cubicles for a lot of employees; in some cases, cubicles are giving way to open-plan offices, working from home, and “office hoteling” (where workers don’t have assigned workstations, instead reserving office space as needed on the days they come in).

Terry’s sources indicate that the current space-per-worker allotment is around 200 GSF, and that figure is trending downward, possibly as low as 100 GSF per worker in the coming decades.  This trend isn’t limited to private employers, either; the GSA has reduced office space requirements for government workers below 200 GSF.

Okay, you might be thinking, so 300 GSF sounds high.  But what difference does it make?  It makes a big difference, actually.  Throughout the planning process, RCA has fought for a balance between commercial and residential development.  If jobs and housing are in balance, it’s easier for people to live, work, and play in the same place (sounds familiar!), which means they’ll spend less time in their cars.  Overestimating the space per worker means that we’ll actually be allowing more jobs than we’re planning for, which would disrupt that balance we’re working to achieve.

To give you an idea of how this works, imagine that your child is coming home from college for the summer.  You’ve put sheets on the bed, stocked up the fridge… everything’s ready.  But then your kid shows up with three friends, who are also going to stay at your place.  Hey, the bedroom’s big enough; they can just crash on the floor!

But bedroom space isn’t the only issue.  You’ll need to buy more food and do more laundry, the kids are going to monopolize the TV and the hot water, and on and on.  It’s no surprise that you’re gritting your teeth and counting the days until September.

The same thing applies in this planning scenario… only the extra workers aren’t going away come fall.  Let’s use the numbers from earlier as an example: If we’re planning for 30,000 new jobs at 300 GSF per worker, that’s 9 million square feet of office space.  But if companies are only using 200 GSF per worker, that means we’d actually see 45,000 jobs in the office space we planned.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the additional traffic those extra jobs would generate.  And that’s going to mean longer backups, harm to the environment, and more taxes to pay for more transportation infrastructure.

Given all that, why is the County sticking to its guns on the 300 GSF assumption?  Responding to Terry’s letters, Planning Chief Fred Selden cited historical data supporting that number, and said that “it is best to base our assumptions on present conditions and past experience rather than predictions of future changes in the office market.”  And in fairness, future predictions can be wrong.  But the trend toward less office space is already happening!  It’s been underway for at least a decade.  And if we’re planning for Reston’s future, shouldn’t we look forward rather than backward?

At last night’s meeting, County planner Heidi Merkel noted that the market will build to meet demand; if there’s less demand for office space per worker, then we’ll simply have less office construction.  Hopefully that’s the case.  But there’s nothing in the plan to limit the number of workers we can add around the stations, just the amount of office space.  Setting reasonable limits on the amount of office construction is the only way to prevent the excessive traffic that a jobs-to-housing imbalance would create.  If we’re not using the right numbers, we won’t be able to strike the right balance.

I hope this primer has demystified the issue a bit, and helped explain why Terry and RCA are so concerned about this issue.  When it comes to planning for Reston’s future, we’ve got one chance to get it right.  And RCA is crunching the numbers to make sure that the new development rules won’t keep Reston from being a great place to live, work, and play.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How effective are office building LEED standards? Maybe not so good....

The New Republic reports, "Bank of America's Toxic Tower: New York's "greenest" skyscaper is actually its biggest energy hog."  Here is what it has to say:
When the Bank of America Tower opened in 2010, the press praised it as one of the world’s “most environmentally responsible high-rise office building[s].” It wasn’t just the waterless urinals, daylight dimming controls, and rainwater harvesting. And it wasn’t only the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification—the first ever for a skyscraper—and the $947,583 in incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. It also had as a tenant the environmental movement’s biggest celebrity. The Bank of America Tower had Al Gore. . .
Gore’s applause, however, was premature. According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan. It uses more than twice as much energy per square foot as the 80-year-old Empire State Building. It also performs worse than the Goldman Sachs headquarters, maybe the most similar building in New York—and one with a lower LEED rating. It’s not just an embarrassment; it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.
Buildings contribute more to global warming than any other sector of the economy. In the United States, they consume more energy and produce more greenhouse gas emissions than every car, bus, jet, and train combined; and more, too, than every factory combined. . . .
Click here for the rest of this article.

While there has long been reason to be skeptical about LEED standards--by the fact that they are a compromise between environmentalists and builders, and guess who wins--this article pretty well eviscerates the LEED's ultimate standard--Platinum.  Imagine how inadequate the lower standards are.

And Fairfax County doesn't even begin to "go for the platinum."  It sort of aims at the Gold standard, but gives a huge variety of outs for developers--including, of course, money.

Just another reason to be wary of seemingly well-intentioned plans for Reston's further development. 

In case you were wondering: Why mega-projects (like the Silver Line) have huge cost overruns.

In an article entitled, "Why Mega-Projects End Up Costing Way More Than Expected," Eric Jaffe, The Atlantic CIties, summarizes some recent research by Brent Flyvbjerg that shows mega-projects consistently and hugely cost more than forecast--and some reasons why.  Here are some excerpts from Jaffe's article with links:
. . . So how did it get to the point where the only thing we can confidently expect from a big infrastructure project is that it will cost way more than expected?
One thing's for sure: the people who predict the cost of urban mega-projects do a terrible job. Several years ago the University of Oxford scholar Bent Flyvbjerg, who's made a career researching mega-project mismanagement, analyzed 258 transportation infrastructure projects from around the world and found that nine in ten exceeded their cost estimates. The overruns were greater on rail projects (Whoops!)  than road projects but averaged 28 percent across the board.
What struck Flyvbjerg most about the problem was how very un-random it was. If people were simply very bad at estimating the costs of huge projects, then one might expect some projects to come in under budget and others over. But an under-budget mega-project is about as rare as a dodo riding a unicorn. Instead, wrote Flyvbjerg and some collaborators in 2002, it's more likely that when it comes to mega-projects, public officials engage in "strategic misrepresentation" — aka lying (emphasis added):
The policy implications are clear: legislators, administrators, investors, media representatives, and members of the public who value honest numbers should not trust cost estimates and cost-benefit analyses produced by project promoters and their analysts.
Flyvbjerg's explanation is no doubt true in some cases, but there's also a less sinister reason why people associated with a project might be bad at predicting its costs. From a psychological standpoint, people are saddled with a cognitive bias that causes them to be unjustifiably upbeat (some might say delusional) about the prospects of their own plans. So they do whatever it takes to get them approved — certain that whatever problems have plagued others in the past will be avoided. . . .
I would add one point not included in the article:  Standard engineering modeling techniques do not--and I think "can not"--capture all the complexities of a major construction project, especially one that is relatively novel.  Hence, the Phase 1 Silver Line costs hugely exceeded forecasts while Phase 2 (with the experience of Phase 1 behind them) looks like it may come in relatively close to cost forecasts--but that's not yet certain.

How much does this sound like the Metrorail Silver Line?  It was forecast in 2004 to cost less than $2 billion; now the projected cost stands at $6 billion.  And, of course, DTR users will be picking up more than half the cost.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Board of Supervisors still looking at tolling Fairfax County Parkway

of the Washington Business Journal reports in an article entitled, "Tolling, HOV eyed as part of Fairfax County Parkway study," that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is still considering tolling the Fairfax County Parkway as well as the Franconia-Sprinfield Parkway.  Here is how the article begins:
From new interchanges to toll lanes to bus rapid transit, Fairfax County leaders want the state to study potential solutions to traffic congestion on two major county roads.
The Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday to launch a detailed analysis of traffic relief options on the Fairfax County and Franconia-Springfield parkways. First, the board will ask the Virginia Department of Transportation to tackle the $1.5 million job, and if it refuses, the county will pay for the work itself.
The study would cover the Fairfax County Parkway from Route 7 to Route 1, and the Franconia-Springfield Parkway to Beulah Street. . .
Apparently, Supervisor Jeff McKay, Providence District (where neither of these parkways runs), is the driver behind the proposed study which, as we all know, will return the answer the Board is looking for.  Yet, McKay notes:
While the study’s proposed scope of work includes tolling, McKay said the board has endorsed no concept and, likely, supervisors wouldn’t have the appetite for charging commuters to drive either parkway. . . .
Yeah, right!  They never say their mind is made up until it is too late to stop stupidity.  This is pretty much the same Board that mindlessly forced Fairfax County's DTR users to absorb more than half the cost of the $6 billion Silver Line through massive toll increases. It is a Board that believes in the money tree comprising its residents and workers.  If it keeps on this course, it will begin to lose both to other areas of the metropolitan area that don't pursue such nonsensical policies.

For Restonians, the prospect of tolling the Fairfax County Parkway means that the two key highways in Reston--the Parkway and the DTR--will all be tolled.  Everywhere you drive--north, south, east, or west--you will pay a toll.  That's pretty typical of the way the Board has treated Reston for years. 

In a supremely stupid game of traffic "whack-a-mole", it also means that a large part of the traffic that now uses the Fairfax County Parkway to reach the DTR will divert to Reston Parkway or Wiehle Avenue to save on tolls, taking DTR-bound traffic through Reston's transit station-area urban centers.  This will add to the already massive peak period congestion in those areas at a time when we are trying to reduce congestion there.  And, of course, the diverted traffic will mean more wear and tear on Reston's two key north-south routes, which will either drive up road repair expenses or (regrettably more likely) result in even worse road conditions than are currently experienced.

The only word that can begin to adequately describe this idea is "boneheaded."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Overview of Jeff Speck Presentation and Panel Discussion, July 22, 2013

Understanding Urbanization: Building on Reston’s Past to Create Its Future

Monday, July 22, 2013
Reston Association Headquarters, Reston, VA

Introduction of symposium and opening thoughts:

Supervisor Catherine Hudgins:
80+ attendees; goal of evening is to improve walkability in Reston.  About 60 thousand people live in Reston of which 30 thousand (½ ) live, work and play in community.  CH is not concerned with worries about congestion and thinks that there are ways to deal with it.  She thinks that now is opportunity to explore ideas.  She thinks change is good.

RA Acting Executive Director Cate Fulkerson:
Jeff Speck is an advocate of sustainability, walkability and smart growth.  He lectures on this around the country and lives currently in Washington, D.C.  He is currently a huge fan of Coalition for Smarter Growth, a local organization.


Presentation by Jeff Speck

UPDATE:  Mr. Speck's presentation has been placed on the County's Reston Master Planning website.  It is available through this link.  It is a large PDF file. 

“Jeff is a city planner and architectural designer who, through writing, lectures and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design.”  (from blurb on symposium program.

In addition, he is author of following books: 
Suburban Nation: the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
The Smart Growth Manual
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Speck’s opening remarks:
  • As he speaks once per week around nation, walkability is what people are looking for.
  • Demographically of the 100 million households that will be formed in the next 25 years only 12% of families will have children and will look for a big house, a big yard and schools. The biggest market will be young people pre-children and baby boomers that are looking for a retirement lifestyle.
  • New Urbanism: is defined by pedestrian culture.
  • He works with both existing communities such as South Beach in Florida and new communities such as Kentlands in Gaithersburg, MD.  In doing this work, he looks back in history to see which old regional communities closely match current client; Kentlands was modeled after Georgetown in Wash, D.C.
  • In addition to his client work, in his function as Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, he oversaw the Mayor’s Institute on City Design.  In this effort, every 2 months he gathered 8 mayors and 8 design professionals who worked together for 2 ½ days to solve urban design problems.  One Mayor stated that people wouldn’t remember him for balancing the budget but would remember him for adding a park. The mayors wanted to see more people out walking. They concluded that a sustainable city is a walkable city. The resulting solutions are included in his books.
His presentation was a synopsis of the last book according to his comments.
  • “Walkable City” deals with how to get people to walk.
  • Costs of owning a car: 80% is owning the car; 20% is driving the car.  So owning a car means once you own one, driving it more, costs less/mile.  But the costs of driving are unequally shared by taxes for roads paid by drivers and non-drivers alike.
  • Back in the 19th century people lived adjacent to factories that emitted a tremendous amount of fumes causing health problems among the populace.  Some people suggested separating the homes from the factories immediately drastically improving the life span of the people. These people became known as the first planners and were regarded as heroes. This was the start of Euclidean zoning and resulted in separation of large areas of land into single uses such as housing, retail and office.  Despite all you hear about mixed use and smart growth when Jeff goes into a community to plan a new development, he finds that there have been many years of single use development to deal with.
  • There are only 2 tested ways to build neighborhoods, traditional and suburban sprawl.  Traditional is defined as compact, diverse and walkable, Suburban sprawl .is characterized by super sizing and results in large public facilities such as schools and parks located beyond walking distance of residents.
“Walkable City” has four main parts:
1.  Reasons to Walk
2.  Safety: Real and Perceived
3.  Comfort When Walking
4.  Interesting Walk is Imperative.
1. Reasons to Walk
  • Must have a balance of uses
  • Must have diverse mixed uses
  • Prefer traditional neighborhood model vs. urban sprawl model
  • This includes live, work and play in same neighborhood.
  • Comfortable grid of streets helps shorten journeys.
  • Mass transit is needed for a walkable city or region.
  • Walking is much healthier than driving.
2. Safety: Real and Perceived
  • Pedestrian must feel safe and not worry about getting hit by vehicles. Crime is not as big a threat to safety as vehicles.
  • Block size is super important; Portland has great size @ 200’ long vs. Salt Lake City @ 600’.  The longer the block, the wider the street which makes crossings more dangerous.  In California 24 different cities were categorized by block size. As block size doubles the non-highway fatal crashes almost quadruples. Reston Town Center is so good because its block size is smaller. This is a walkable model. Just south of Reston Town Center (between the W&OD Trail and the Dulles Toll Road) you have large blocks making it the driving model.
  • Congestion is a problem caused by planners who build more lanes in anticipation of more traffic.  With increased capacity, comes more traffic as people are then able to live further and further away from jobs which leads to sprawl. This is known as induced demand. Free roads exacerbate this problem. Reducing lanes reduces the accident rate while often maintaining the same vehicle capacity.
  • People drive faster on wider streets.  12’ lanes are too wide; 10’ are 30 mph lanes.
  • Bikes being separated from cars by reducing lanes provide dedicated bike lanes.   Proper street design allows the same amount of traffic to be accommodated despite reduction of lanes. Also known as ‘road diets.”
  • A road diet reduces a road from 4 lanes to 3 lanes with the center lane used for turns. Before a road diet, the 4 lane road is very dangerous because the center lanes, the fast traffic lanes, also become the left turn lanes.  When this occurs, center lane visibility may be blocked by vehicles in the center lane on the other side of the intersection. It is better to skip the center lane and add bike lanes or parking. Road diets are generally found to handle the same vehicle capacity as the 4-lane version with a greatly reduced accident rate.
  • Biking is a huge revolution currently in this country.  If bike lanes are built, people will use them.  IF bike lanes can be separated from vehicle lanes, women and children will increase bike ridership even more. Portland dramatically increased the number of bicyclists from just the same to 15 times the rest of the country by spending 2 million per year on bike lanes
  • Parallel parking makes pedestrians feel safer; puts a line of steel between pedestrians and traffic.
  • Bike lanes located beside curb protected by lane of parallel parking provides absolute best safety for all users; walkers, bikers and drivers.
  • Trees along streets are essential to making pedestrians feel safer. Trees along roadways also make drivers slow down making them safer. 
  • The tighter the corner radius, the safer the street will be; a wide radius encourages cars to travel faster.
  • Tunnels under intersections also encourage faster traffic as well as separate neighborhoods.  Bridging sunken highways with wide bridges that provide space for buildings as well as traffic (air rights?) helps to link neighborhoods together and provide wider walkable ranges.
  • All details matter:  This includes even the height of curbs.  Super tall curbs impede walking.
3.  Comfort When Walking
  • Human requirements for feeling comfortable haven’t changed in thousands of years.
  • The prospect for what a person is walking toward must be obvious.
  • Refuge from danger must be available.
  • Walkers want to feel contained.  Therefore a ratio of 1:1 of vertical to horizontal space is ideal.  A ratio of 1:6 is too big.
  • Current zoning codes are a problem as they are mute as to what is good vs. what exists now.
4.  Interesting Walk is Imperative
  • Walkers want to know that other humans are around.
  • Walkers do not want to be bored.
  • Therefore, hide parking.  5 levels of parking can be hidden by a 3 story building if garage screened properly.
  • Also garages with ground level retail and other uses provide interest for walkers.
  • Hiding the surface parking in the middle of the block will help to keep the walk more interesting.
  • Walkers require interesting facades. Speck encourages city planners to vary architectural styles to do this and eschews blank walls and minimalistic themes.
  • Walkers want architecture that rewards them as they get closer.
Speck stated that he was not employed to work specifically on Reston problems, but that he realized several Reston features that would figure into how to make village and town center areas more walkable. 
  • Reston is way ahead of most other communities because it was master planned.
  • However some sections are definitely suburban (attractive and desirable with curvilinear streets and yards that people want) and would never be termed “walkable” in terms of allowing cars to be abandoned.
  • Pathway system throughout community does promote walking and biking.
  • Town Center and village centers do provide areas that are walkable to some degree.
  • Proximity to transit is a problem/opportunity for walkability but contains problems of how to segue transit to existing development around Metro station areas.
  • Town Center is separated from transit by a section of non-walkable development south of TC including large blocks, wide streets and fast traffic.  In order to correct this, redevelopment of this area is necessary into grid of narrower streets and smaller buildings/blocks.
  • Wiehle is completely unsatisfactory as no residential exists close to station areas and pedestrian/biker access to station is terrible.  Grid of streets is missing and existing streets are too wide/fast.  Walkers are not safe.
  • Most of Reston won’t change and can’t change. Many people will opt for the automotive environment. But there is this opportunity to create a walkable environment between stations that should not be ignored.
Panel Discussion:
Participants: Greg Trimmer of JBG; David Whyte, TOD and street design expert, and Heidi Merkel, Fairfax Co. staff lead for Reston master planning special study.
Greg Trimmer Comments:
  • He favors walkable, mixed use development that promotes biking
  • JBG invests only in TOD development (Comment:  The Fairways Apartments complex being re-developed by JBG is not “TOD development” despite what Mr. Trimmer says.It has invested in property in proximity to all three Reston Metro station areas.
  • There is a very highly educated workforce in Reston that favors mixed use development.  (Comment:  The same educated workforce also opposes excessive density that will undermine Reston’s planning principles--transportation, environment, etc. These are not mutually exclusive, although developers would like people to believe so.)
  • In the Reston Heights project, JBG has attempted to facilitate easy access to Town Center Metro Station, but current VDOT rules have thwarted every solution proposed.  Luckily Supervisor Hudgins interceded on JBG’s behalf and provided a “slip sheet” which is a special waiver to allow plans to proceed without hold-up until VDOT allows solution.  JBG is willing to pay for solution at future date.

David Whyte Comments:
  • There are a few pockets around the village centers that may undergo change but most of the area will remain unchanged.  (Comment:  Wait a minute!  That’s Phase 2 of the master plan planning effort.  So has the future of the village centers already been cooked?)
  • Streets in Reston need to regulate usage.
  • Through traffic by out-of-area commuters has to be curtailed.
  • This can be done be re-designing streetscapes.

Heidi Merkel Comments:
  • Reston is undergoing an evolution in form around metro stations.
  • The ½ mile radius for increased allowable density around the metro stations will not extend south of Sunrise Valley Drive.
  • Goals around the stations are diversity of housing, environmental stewardship, and making sure green natural areas are integrated into the area.
  • This includes planning parks, plazas and meeting spaces.
  • VDOT has had an epiphany regarding street design and has designated Fairfax County as the prototype area to experiment with new street designs.
  • Urban Design Standards are very, very specific about what is required around each transit station area.
  • Zoning will be tool to get it done.
  • Goal is to “live, work and play” without getting into a car.
  • Village centers in Reston already have a strong walkable connectivity.

Questions and Answers: 

  •  Q. With single narrow traffic lanes how do you handle double parked delivery trucks that block traffic?
  • A. This is a management problem primarily.  Parking delivery zones need to be established in each block. Also delivery time periods may be established.
  • Q. Lives within 3 blocks of grocery store but does not choose to walk to store in bad weather.
    A. Can’t control the weather. Some people may choose to walk in bad weather but driving 3 blocks is not likely to cause traffic congestion.
  • Q. Notice that building construction near Reston Parkway comes first. Traffic mitigation comes second.  What are plans to change this? (audience applause)
    A. Hoping to provide more housing in this area. Also, people who take the Metro may stop driving to work.
    A2. Most of the traffic is not going to the new building.  Adding a lane will simply move the congestion further away.  Also, shouldn’t have to subsidize through traffic.
  • Q. Question on bicycle planning.
    A. There are a lot of different markets for bicyclists. In general, they are trying to separate bicycles from pedestrians. In the case of Reston Parkway over the Toll Road it is unsafe for bicycles to ride through an interchange. The bicycle lanes will be placed off the roadway for their safety.
  • Q. In Europe people walk their dogs in the streets and inside and outside of buildings. What provisions are being made for dogs?
    A. There are plans to add dog parks in the transit areas. The point was made that there are more American households with dogs than with children.
  • Q. Considering sameness, how do you think this will work with the Design Review Board?
    A. Rather than rules, the answer is to have a multitude of designers.
  • Q. Will the zoning code be changed to incorporate form-based development?
    A. Don’t plan to do this. There is more concern about usage rather than form.
  • Q. How do you plan to handle traffic trying to reach the 3700 car parking garage for Metro (2,300 public, 1,400 for center employees)?
    A. Improving pedestrian and bicycling facilities. Hope to get some relief from Reston Station Boulevard. Phase 2 will help in 10 years. Roads will not be narrowed near Wiehle station. There will be problems that can’t be solved for several years.

Ken Plum

Reston is among the most successful planned communities in the country. Businesses compete to come here, and there will be growth with the addition of metro. That leaves us with a challenge. Look at Arlington and notice that they left traditional family housing intact while doing a phenomenal job of transit oriented development. How we take advantage of this opportunity, through good planning, will make change work for us. 

(Comment:  Arlington succeeded, in part, they used smaller TOD circles—1/3-mile, they possess an underground rail system that enables a full surface grid of streets, they planned for smaller dwelling unit and office work space size (& recently reduced their planned workspace size further), they have a robust bus transit system, etc.  Fairfax County has none of these, not even in Tysons.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It's back again! RA Board to ask FCPA to include INDOOR TENNIS in proposed recreation center.

In a last minute move, the RA Board of Directors has added indoor tennis as item to their agenda for tomorrow, July 25, 2013.  (See documents below.)  The move comes as part of an RA effort to rejuvenate its agenda for the Reston Master Plan Task Force in 2010 to have indoor tennis included in the task force’s consideration as well as other RA efforts to try to build indoor tennis courts.

Including indoor tennis ONLY in its proposed letter to the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) endorsing the construction of a recreation center at Baron Cameron Park does two things:

  • Ignores the dozens of other recreation facilities requiring more than 100 acres of new space the FCPA, RCC, RA panel recommended be included in the Reston Master Plan to meet the needs of the Reston community.   See this letter from FCPA to DPZ noting the entire list of parks and recreation requirements for the new Master Plan, none of which have yet been picked up in the draft Plan language.    Why is indoor tennis more important than playgrounds and sports fields for kids?
  • Places the entire financial burden for the tennis courts and the whole rec center on Restonians through property taxes in Reston's special tax district under the current RCC proposal.  If placed in the Reston Master Plan, these recreation facilities (and many others) might well be made available through proffers from developers or even general county-wide tax revenues—just like the rest of the County got its recreation centers (although without indoor tennis).   The 2009 Brailsford & Dunlavey feasibility study (Exhibit D) on the then-proposed recreation center put the cost of four indoor tennis courts at $3.5 million.  That would probably cost $4-$5 million now.  Are you ready to pay one million dollars or more each for four indoor tennis courts? 
Whatever your views, Restonians need to attend the July 25 RA Board of Directors meeting at RA headquarters and express their views on the matter.  It’s your community, your taxes, and your Board of Directors.  

Make them listen--and hold them accountable.  

As presented in this RCA white paper, RCA believes there are a lot of unanswered questions about moving forward with an RCC-managed Reston Recreation Center built at Baron Cameron Park and financed only by Restonians.

Why not require 3 new trees for every 1 lost to development? MoCo has decided to.

The July 23 Washington Post carries an article by Bill Turque on two new ordinances approved by the Montgomery County Council that would require developers to replace every tree lost with three new ones.  Here's how the article begins:
The Montgomery County Council passed a pair of measures Tuesday intended to protect and expand tree cover along public roads and on private property where new construction has disturbed the environment.

Approval of the bills culminates several years of bargaining between the county, builders and environmentalists. One measure requires landowners who cut down a tree along a public right of way to obtain a county permit and replace the tree at or near the site. It also requires the landowner to pay into a tree replacement fund so that the county can plant two additional trees.

State law already regulates protection of roadside trees, but supporters say the county bill, sponsored by council members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Marc Elrich (D-At Large), is more stringent.
The other measure, proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), is aimed at preventing loss of tree canopy from new home construction, especially in older downcounty neighborhoods. It requires builders to plant three trees for every one lost to construction or to pay a fee to the county. Supporters of the bill say infill development — building in the spaces within a built-up areas — has seriously eroded the tree canopy, especially in Bethesda and other older communities.
Click here for the rest of this article.

While these laws appear to focus on public roadsides and residential areas, there is no reason the same kind of law shouldn't be applied to commercial development, especially in Reston (and, preferably, the County).  Reston is already well short of County tree cover goals (despite its extensive acreage of open and natural spaces) and the County's goal is, well, modest. 

Maybe this specific idea should be included in the new Reston Master Plan if the BOS is loathe to pass a County ordinance with a similar requirement. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Who will ride Metrorail when it arrives in Reston?

Yesterday's Washington Post carries an article by Dana Hedgpeth and Scott Clement entitled, "Metro’s new Silver Line could face challenge in attracting Northern Virginia riders."  It reports that WMATA expects 25,000 average daily ridership, 15,000 of whom will be new riders.  Here's how WaPo puts that in context:

Metro expects the new Silver Line to attract 25,000 new passenger trips on an average weekday in the first year. Of those, 15,000 will be people who may now drive, and 10,000 of those will be current Orange Line riders who will switch to the Silver Line, according to Metro. By comparison, Metro’s busiest line — the Red Line —carries roughly 288,000 passenger trips on an average weekday, according to an analysis of data from Metro. The Green Line is the lightest in passenger traffic, with an average of nearly 165,000 leaving from its stations, including transfer points.
So, for $3 billion, the Silver Line will add about one-sixth the ridership of the current WORST-performing line in the Metrorail network and one-seventh the ridership of its best-performing line.  For comparison, the Dulles Toll Road (DTR) handles about 200,000 autos--virtually all with one person each--each weekday.

I had an inquiry about prospective Reston ridership on the new line a few weeks ago.  Here is what I said:
In general, I think most of the use of the Silver Line will be people who already use public transit to commute.  There are two categories of people who I would suspect would jump on the new Silver Line connection:
  • Fairfax Connector bus transit riders who have been making the commute to West Falls Church and transferring to the Orange Line there.  The Silver Line will save them the transfer, maybe some time (notwithstanding 4 stops in Tysons), and maybe some money.
  • People who have been driving to the Vienna Orange Line station to commute by Metrorail.  There are a number of people who do so, and the Wiehle station will save them a whole lot of time and some gas money. 
So far, I am skeptical that people who now commute by car will change their habits--notwithstanding the WMATA report on its survey of potential rail users.  I certainly haven't had anyone tell me they plan to switch from auto commuting to Metro when it arrives at the end of the year.  In large part, that is because their destination is not near a Metro station.  It is also a function of commuting time and possibly expense (Metro fares vs. destination parking costs). 

I can think of two exceptions to this generalization although I have not direct confirmation of these exceptions:

  • People who work at Tysons.  It is possible that a number of these Reston residents who now drive to Tysons for work will make the transition to Metrorail to save time and money, but no one has told me that.  They won't be paying the full peak period fare that rail commuters to downtown will and, on any given day, they can avoid the congestion and occasional accidents on the DTR.  
  • The small group of people who now live close enough to the Wiehle station to walk there.  There just aren't enough residences near the station now to expect that number to be substantial.  Moreover, as RCA's Reston 2020 Committee has pointed out, access for bicyclists and pedestrians from the south will be very limited--and the County doesn't have much in progress to improve that situation when Wiehle station opens. Please see these links for more information on the inadequate access preparations for the Wiehle station opening;
Over the longer term, I suspect two factors will drive a significant transition from auto to rail commuting for Restonians. 
  • Escalating DTR tolls, making Metrorail a less expensive alternative to driving for those who have ready access to Metro at both ends of their commute. 
  • New station area residential construction that will mean no need to drive or bus to the Silver Line station, just a quick walk to the gate.
Some additional thoughts on that commentary:
  • You'd think that Fairfax County would be anxious to make Wiehle station more accessible for prospective rail riders, but their approach to improving walking and biking access, much less auto access via the Soapstone connector, has been absolutely glacial and unresponsive, verging on the incompetent and incomprehensible.  One way to prevent rail usage is to make sure it's difficult for people to get there.  You end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy:  Few use rail because they can't get there conveniently and, because few use rail, there is no reason to make it more convenient.
  • Despite WMATA's twisted statistics suggesting increasingly reliable rail performance, Metrorail's record of performance--and delays and accidents--has not been a good one and appears to be getting worse despite management's apparent best intentions.  It will be hard to induce people to leave their autos for this kind of transportation service. 
  • Growing ridership on the Silver Line will be a long-term proposition.  
    • It will require a growing regional economy--which is uncertain--and residential development in Reston's station areas for starters.  
    • It will continue to depend on the balance between driving vs. rail in terms of costs (money, time, irritation).  
    • Offsetting even good economic growth will be the trend toward more remote worksites--whether home or somewhere else--that will mean people will simply commute less, maybe "going to the office" once or twice per week. 
    • It will depend on more frequent service from Reston--people won't wait 8 minutes for a train in peak periods.  
      • Near term, that will depend on adding more rail cars and trains to the Silver Line. 
      • More importantly, it will depend on building another route (tunnel) under the Potomac to relieve the tremendous congestion of three rail lines trying to use the Rosslyn tunnel. 
What are your thoughts on the the opening of the Silver Line in Reston?  WIll you use it?  If so, when and why?  If not, what would lead you to change your mind?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Does this sound like Fairfax County, or what?

In a post on, Aaron Renn writes about how Charlotte, NC, a growing and prosperous city by any measure, is being forced to raise taxes as its ability to annex new land declines and operating and infrastructure demands increase.

Instead of annexing land, Fairfax County is using densification of new urban areas, particularly Tysons and the Dulles Corridor (including Reston) to try to bail itself out of an ever-tightening fiscal bind.  And, frankly, with federal budgets tightening, resulting in less hiring and less contracting in the Metro DC area, the future does not look as rosy as the past.  There will almost certainly be less job and residential growth in the urbanizing areas over the next two decades than the County (or any of the other local governments) has planned for.  Now the County faces a future in which less hiring is combined with leasing less space for those who are hired as office sizes shrink.  That, in turn, cuts development and the "cap rate"--critical to property valuation--of commercial real estate and shrinks property tax revenues.  Homeowners will be left holding the bag of increasing property tax rates while facing stagnant or reducing services from education and roadways to parks and snow removal. 

Here is how Charlotte has dealt with the new problem:
Rapidly growing cities benefit from scale economics. As a city grows, it spreads the fixed costs of providing services across more units, thus lowering unit costs and enabling taxes to stay low. This is doubly true as cities spread into undeveloped "greenfields," where there are few legacy costs. This can make cities look well managed when in fact they are simply benefitting from growth.
The real question is what happens when the growth cycle ends and unit costs either flatline or start going up. Can the city find sustainability demographically, economically and fiscally without growth as a fuel?
One city facing this challenge is Charlotte, N.C. The Charlotte Observer recently took a refreshingly candid look at how rapid population growth and annexation had enabled the city to spend more money without raising taxes. But that free ride is coming to an end. "We are in a different universe now," Republican city council member Warren Cooksey told the newspaper. "Cities have identifiable growth cycles, and Charlotte is entering into a new one." . . .
Not only is Charlotte now limited in its ability to annex, but it is facing an overhang of capital upgrades to bring many areas of the city up to par in services. As a result, taxes are going up.
. . . Even the most prosperous and seemingly invincible cities can be undone when trends shift and growth fades. . . .
Click here to read the rest of this prescient article.  

So far, Fairfax County has refused to acknowledge its changed fortunes, and soon we will all have to pay for it.  

Are you sure "Millenials prefer condos and transit"?

Here's what the Wall Street Journal has to say about Millenials' home buying habits--if they have the money or their parents do:

The Rise of the Young Buyer

A new generation is skipping the 'starter home' and betting heavily on high-end real estate.

Two years ago, when he was 26, Matt Winter paid a little over $1 million for a four-bedroom, Mediterranean-style house in Culver City, an artsy, formerly industrial section of Los Angeles. This month, the now 28-year-old Mr. Winter, who runs his own interior design firm, paid about $1.7 million for his second home, a three-bedroom, Spanish-revival in Westwood, a neighborhood near UCLA. . . .
. . .  Mr. Winter is part of a growing group of wealthy young buyers who are making inroads in the world of high-end real estate, acquiring properties at prices, and at a pace, that brokers say they have never seen before. Real-estate agents say that young people are buying more expensive homes than previously. They are also more likely to buy several properties, and use one as an investment. Buying real estate has grown more attractive, these young buyers say, compared with the stock market, which appears riskier to a generation that entered the workforce during a market correction.
In recent years, low interest rates coupled with lower real-estate prices had also made it easier for people in their 20s and early 30s—whom demographers refer to as "Generation Y" or "millennials"—to buy.
"In the last two months, half the folks I sold homes to were young entrepreneurial types—and they were all buying homes for over a million dollars," says Michael Rankin, a managing partner at TTR Sotheby's International Realty in Washington, D.C. "A few years ago, that kind of buyer was invisible. We had young folks buying starter condos for a few hundred thousand dollars. But this new wave is skipping that step entirely and going right for the high-end home." . . .
Click here for the rest of this over-the-top article. 

Not withstanding that some of the "homes" discussed in this article are penthouses in New York high-rises at $88 million, the point here is that living in a high-rise condo next to a transit station and not owning a car is not so much a "preference" as advocates for high-density TOD would have us believe, but an economic reality for most professional Gen Yers and Millinenials. 

. . . And it certainly beats living at home with your parents.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Letter: Community Forum should deal with Reston's real urbanizing issues, Reston Patch, July 18, 2013

Dear Reston Patch Editor,

As Reston Patch has publicized, Jeff Speck, a noted Washington, DC, urban planner specializing in “smart growth,” will be the featured speaker at a “community forum” next Monday evening on “Understanding Urbanization:  Building on Reston's Past to Create Its Future.”  His presentation will be followed by a panel discussion that will include a County planner (who is coordinating the Reston task force effort), a transportation planner/engineer (behind the “road diet” for Lawyers Road—and a Reston bicyclist), and a developer (from the company that brought Reston the Fairways Apartments redevelopment fiasco).  

What’s missing from this “community forum” about Reston’s future?   People who practice what they preach about “smart growth,” transit-oriented development, public transit, walkable neighborhoods, etc.  Instead, we will be having people telling us how we should live while they live something else.

None live in a TOD area although two live within a half-mile of a Metrorail station.  None live in a high-rise condo or apartment.  None live in a “walkable neighborhood” where living essentials are within easy walking distance.  None uses public transit to commute, although one works from his home—part of the new wave of office work.  Two commute to work alone and one bicycles to the office, conditions permitting.

Although these people do not live the lifestyle they will articulate for Reston, I have no doubt that all of them are experts in urban development, transportation, and especially “smart growth” principles.  I also have no doubt that they will give an interesting, even glib, presentation and discussion.  I do doubt they will talk in depth about Reston, however, and the specific issues it confronts in urbanizing its core. 

So that they might be better able to do that, I offer these issues for them to consider:

Mobility.  Reston is a community divided by the Dulles Corridor with only two internal north-south crossings—Reston Parkway and Wiehle Avenue—that have massive congestion problems.  Some of the places we need to go—work, shopping, doctors, theater, recreation, restaurants, etc.—are on one side of the Corridor and often we are on the other.  We don’t put 7-year-olds on buses to go to soccer practice on the other side of town, nor do octogenarians ride bicycles to the doctor’s office.  With Reston’s population and employment planned to nearly double in two or three decades around Metro stations along these two corridors, what will the community need in transportation improvements to assure timely, appropriate mobility throughout the community, especially across the Dulles Corridor, and how and when will we get it?

Infrastructure location.  Aside from transportation infrastructure, the near doubling of population and employment in the station areas will require growth in other amenities and public infrastructure, including open space, parks and recreation, schools, public safety, a performing/fine arts center, and much more.  Each of these requires space.  In fact, the County has identified a need for more than 100 acres of added parks and recreation space, but has not proposed how to accommodate it.  How will the TOD areas absorb this necessary infrastructure without eroding the quality of life in the rest of the Reston suburban community?

Infrastructure costs.  Closely linked with the location of TOD-supporting infrastructure and amenities is the matter of who pays for them.  Needed transportation improvements alone will cost several billion dollars over the next two or three decades.  Restonians will not benefit financially from the prospective doubling of density in the transit station areas while a handful of developers stand to make millions of dollars annually from their investments.  It stands to reason that those who will gain financially should bear the infrastructure cost burden, not community or County taxpayers.  How should the cost of the infrastructure needed to support the new TOD development be paid for fairly and equitably?

Environmental sustainability is a vital community value in Reston, and one of its founding principles.  It is unclear how Reston’s environmental quality can be sustained, much less improved, with the proposed density, despite the alleged benefits of “smart growth.”  This is especially true:

  •  In the face of imbalances in planned TOD area development (an excessive jobs-to-housing ratio for this “regional employment center,” especially in Town Center),
  • Unrealistic County planning assumptions (a planning assumption of 300 GSF per office employee while the nation is actually under 200 GSF per worker and dropping, meaning at least half-again as many workers in Reston’s TOD areas as planned density would allow), and
  • Uncertain transportation improvement options (no decisions, no schedule, no funding), and more.  

What concrete steps must be taken to ensure that, at the minimum, there is no environmental degradation in Reston, including loss of open space, greater vehicle emissions, and more heat generated by a doubling of building density?

Reston has come a long ways in the last four years from fascination with “smart growth” to the practicalities of its effective and fair implementation.   If the forum is a success, it will give meaningful answers to these vital questions, not just allusions to the wonders of “smart growth” in an urbanizing community.  Otherwise, it is little more than a public relations gambit sponsored by those who expect to gain from Reston’s urbanization.

Terry Maynard
Reston Citizens Association Representative
Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force