Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Are Fairfax County and Reston "fraying around the edges" or "elite"?

In an April 2 article, Washington Post reporter Antonio Olivo writes:
For decades, Fairfax County has been a national model for suburban living, a place of good governance and elite schools that educate children from some of the country’s richest neighborhoods.
But Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges.
A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services in what is still the nation’s second-wealthiest county, even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream.
Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. They now say that there is no fat left to trim.
Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes, draw new businesses and revitalize worn neighborhoods. Their effort mirrors the struggle of aging suburban communities nationwide, as a turn-of-the century economic boom settles into a sluggish post-recession status quo. . . .
We strongly recommend you read the full article.  

We agree that Fairfax County's economy is sluggish although Reston appears to have slightly higher economic growth than the county as a whole.  We also doubt this situation will change significantly anytime soon and it could last a decade or more, especially if local taxes--inevitably dominated by property taxes--continue to rise.  Fairfax County relies on the federal government for its strength and growth, and there is little sign that there will be growth in either federal government employment or contracting.

The primary reason Reston has grown marginally more than the county has as a whole is based on its location--as in "location, location, location." The arrival of Metrorail, despite its poor operating condition, is a relative strength as is our location near Dulles Airport.  The recent revision of our community plan to encourage huge new growth around Reston's stations offers a solid reason for businesses to locate here--if they have a reason to locate in the Washington area at all. And residents will have a much-expanded option to live in high-rise dwellings if they choose.

That said, new office demand is extremely limited across Northern Virginia with vacancy rate of 18.2% per CBRE data as of yearend-2015 (Reston has a 16.1% office vacancy rate according to the same source), and the recent blooming of near-vacant high-rise residences in the Silver Line station areas and generally stagnant suburban housing market has shown that housing demand is also constrained.  (Zillow reports a 1.2% drop in Fairfax housing prices over the last year as of January 2016.)  In particular, we believe developers in the Silver Line station areas are too taken with their own marketing language about the attractiveness of their Reston and Tysons locations and so they continue to overprice their business and residential opportunities--and their vacancies remain unnecessarily high.  A prime example:  A Reston Town Center spokesperson said, Reston Town Center thinks it is "elite."

For Reston, the last thing we need to be called is "elite."  Bob Simon's vision for Reston was anything but elitist.  It was as egalitarian and diverse--and still economically successful--as any community vision in the country.  And it remains so.  An attempt to make the community--or any significant part of it--into an elitist colony will undermine the community and likely impede its overall growth.  We have a great community founded on great planning principles calling for, among other things, racial diversity, affordability, inclusiveness, and recreational and cultural opportunity.  We shouldn't be imperiling that foundation by trying to become some version of Palo Alto, the snobbiest small city in the US, or even Chicago's Magnificent Mile. 

That is the other side of the growth story:  It seems everyone except the business community has recognized that regional, much less Reston, growth is sluggish.  So while developers go looking for handouts from the County and the County imposes more taxes on homeowners and others, they are acting as if the boom of the last decade is back.  It's not--and it will not be for quite some time even around the Metro stations.  And, at the same time, homeowners are no better off than they are, so shifting the costs of their initiatives (starting with road, school, emergency service, and other public improvements to sustain service levels) to them is both unfair and inequitable.

Reston may not be fraying at the edges, but it needs to focus on its founding vision to continue to be one of the premier planned communities in the world, not some haughty elitist self-delusion.  

1 comment:

  1. Posted by Reston 20/20 on behalf of Dick Stillson:

    Do outsiders consider Reston elitist? Yes, and for good reason. Although the intent of Reston planning is for diversity in race and income, the most visible group in Reston to outsiders is primarily white, upper middle class and very full of itself for living in and developing Reston as the first “new town.” And the near hero worship of Bob Simon, the many events honoring him and extolling the wonders of Reston, along with Wingert’s Reston movie, add to the impression of elitism. Also, although Reston is in fact quite diverse in terms of race and income, it seems as if it is a set of segregated communities rather than fully integrated. For example, if one looks around at the various planning and local activist meetings, one sees few Hispanic or black faces although there are substantial communities of Hispanics and African Americans in Reston. I know there are several outstanding exceptions to that statement, for example Cathy Hudgins, Ellen Graves, Bill Bouie and Beverly Cosham, but they are a few exceptional leaders and there is not near the numbers of these groups that one would expect in meetings I have attended.

    Marion and I have lived in Reston for 43 years and we love it here. But it seems to me we should cool down our loud exclamations of how wonderful, diverse and progressive Reston is and work on ways that better integrate the diverse communities that live here.

    Dick Stillson


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