Op-Ed: Will Reston’s Village Center Redevelopment Be Unchecked?

Hunters Woods Village CenterThis is an op-ed from Terry Maynard of Co-Chair of Reston 2020, a citizen advocacy group.

(Updated at 6:05 p.m.) Having recovered from the December holidays, I finally read the second draft of the Phase 2 Reston Master Plan last week in preparation for the community meeting this Thursday, 7 p.m., at RCC Lake Anne’s JoAnne Rose Gallery Room.  It’s an open meeting with substantial opportunity for public participation.  I encourage you to be there because …

What I found in the draft plan regarding Reston’s Village Centers was language that allows virtually unconstrained redevelopment of these critical neighborhood “gathering places.”

First, and maybe most importantly, there are no meaningful constraints on density — the actual amount of building that could be done at the Village Centers. Typically, including the Phase 1 plan for Reston’s urban areas, planning guidance indicates a maximum density measured by floor-area ratio (FAR) that, as the phrase suggests, measures the ratio of the volume of square footage of allowable for development to the area of the property.

The current Reston Master Plan allows a FAR 0.25 density in the Village Center mixed-use areas (the retail strip malls we now have). That means their total development cannot exceed one-quarter of the lot’s total area, and that is pretty much what we have across the four village centers beyond Lake Anne.

The words “floor-area ratio” and “FAR” do not appear in the section on Reston’s Village Centers in the latest draft plan. The only density-linked phrase is “neighborhood scale,” which is undefined in any County planning document. Are we talking the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan or development scaled to the suburban Reston neighborhoods that surround the Village Centers? The draft plan offers only this:  “The specific amount of additional density that will be appropriate for future redevelopment will be determined as a part of a community-engagement process . . .”

No density limits, just a County-controlled process. Given that both the County and developers stand to generate greater taxes and profits respectively from greater density, why limit development by a density cap when they can control the “community-engagement process.”  We saw how well that worked in Phase 1 in the developer-dominated task force.

The other critical issue that the draft plan goes very soft on is boundaries: both the boundaries within the Village Center between the mixed-use area the residential area AND the boundaries defining the edges of the Village Center.

The RCA Reston 2020 Committee, of which I am a member, has sought to limit potential redevelopment to the mixed-use areas, those strip malls we so often use (except Tall Oaks), and leave the associated residential areas alone as is generally the case with Reston’s neighborhoods. There is no legitimate justification to treat Village Center residents differently from the rest of us.

But that is not what the draft plan offers. Instead, it says redevelopment should be “focused” on the mixed-use areas, but does not limit it to those areas. In a discussion I had with a DPZ staff member on this, he specifically noted that there may be a need to redevelop some residential areas to make a Village Center economically viable. Boom! There’s the opportunity to roughly double the commercial size of each Village Center and drive out hundreds of neighboring families, some in single-family homes, substituting denser and more profitable mid-rise or even high-rise (absent density constraints) condos and apartments in their place.

And still that is not enough.  First, the good news:  The draft plan does state, “Maintain the boundaries of Village Centers.”  Yet, in my discussion with a DPZ staff member on this draft plan, he stated that the fixed boundary statement “had been brought into question” during staff discussions.  In particular, he noted that the Tall Oaks Village Center may be too small to be economically viable and the boundary may need to expand.

Whoa! Reston residents need to make sure that the fixed boundary language stays in the plan as it goes forward and make sure that DPZ, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors understand that we do not want the Village Centers to become a cancer eating our neighborhoods.

When queried why the DPZ was pursuing such loose language for the Village Centers, the response was that no developer has presented a proposal for redevelopment and DPZ did not want to constrain their options. Said another way, DPZ doesn’t know what developers want so it will give them carte blanche.  On the other hand, they have no apparent compunction about undercutting residents’ options or their property’s value.

A plan, especially the Reston Master Plan, is supposed to provide guidance on what the community should become in some future timeframe, typically a couple of decades. This draft plan offers no vision, no guidance, and no constraints; it just offers largely unchecked redevelopment opportunities.

My reaction:  If DPZ doesn’t have a concrete plan of what Reston’s Village Center should look like in the years ahead–maybe even one for each Village Center since they clearly face different opportunities and challenges–it should stick with the plan we have. At least the current plan defines limits for density and boundaries no matter how ugly or uneconomic some of our Village Centers are.  The new draft plan basically opens the door to unlimited, undefined redevelopment.

Your first opportunity to address these flaws (and others) in the second draft of the Reston Master Plan will be this Thursday evening at the JoAnne Rose Gallery in RCC Lake Anne.

Based on my conversations with DPZ, I understand they will make a short overview presentation and the rest will be question and answer period. And then you will only have only until Feb. 12 to send written comments before the draft plan is finalized for rubber stamp County Planning Commission and then Board of Supervisors consideration.

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