Op-Ed: The County’s Reston Transit Station Area Planning Deception

This is an op/ed submitted by Terry Maynard, co-chair of the Reston 20/20 committee. It does not reflect the opinions of Reston Now.

Our County Board of Supervisors, led by Chairman Sharon Bulova, is in the process of overbuilding and underserving residents in Reston and across the county. The result will be the eroding livability of Reston and other county areas facing urbanization.  

And this is being accomplished by a simple arithmetical trick: Overstating the amount of space new housing and office space require to accommodate residents and workers. Very simply, county planners continue to overstate the space needed for office workers as 300 gross square feet (GSF) per worker when studies globally over nearly a decade show it is now under 200 GSF/worker and could be headed to 150 GSF/worker.  

At the same time, as it started to plan for Tysons’ redevelopment nearly a decade ago, the County raised its planning assumption for the size of station area dwelling units (DUs) from 1,000 GSF/DU to 1,200 GSF/DU. Nonetheless, a County planning study for Tysons showed then (2007) that the average size of Tysons residents was 1,100 GSF, mostly in garden apartments before the recent advent of massive high-rise residential development there. Now, the average high-rise DU size is shrinking well below 1,000 GSF/DU, more than offsetting the few mid-rise and single-family attached DUs in station areas, as some recent Reston development proposals show:

  • JBG/Wiehle and partners plan for 1,300-1,500 residential units in 1.2 million GSF of development in two 5-story buildings, or 800-925 GSF/DU;
  • Golf Course Plaza proposes 413 DUs in a 392,600 GSF multi-family building or 950 GSF/DU, also in 5-story structures;
  • Faraday’s proposes redeveloping the area just south of Wiehle Station with up to 500 apartments in two buildings with about 487,000 GSF of residential space that will reach about 975 GSF/DU according to its plan submission.
  • Lerner Enterprises is planning a 457-“luxury apartment” complex called Excelsior Park with average unit size at about 1,050 GSF in 423,587 rentable square feet (RBA), which equates to 481,350 GSF.

That’s nearly 3,000 DUs, including luxury apartments, whose average GSF is about 925 GSF/DU — nowhere near the County’s assumed size of 1,200 GSF/DU — and suggesting the number of future residents and DUs in Reston’s station areas will be nearly one-third greater than planned under existing allowable densities. This is consistent with national data: A study of apartment sizes over the last decade shows that their average size has shrunk — not expanded — from 1,015 square feet to 934 square feet.  

The impact is straightforward: The resulting planned densities (total GSF of development divided by the square footage of the lot on which it sits) will allow half-again as many office workers and 28 percent more residential units than the County plan officially intends. Yet developers and the County are only planning to provide services — improved roads, schools and parks, and more — based on the lower count envisioned in the plan. The result will be reduced services and higher taxes.

So what does that mean for “real people?” Based on GSF information provided by FCDOT to the Supervisors serving as the Board Transportation Committee, the current Reston station area plan offers the potential for 76,280 added residents (at 2.0 residents/DU) and 29,059 added office worker jobs (at 300GSF/worker) in the next four decades.  

If instead of using the County’s faulty planning assumptions, we use real world experience, we can anticipate that the allowable development could result in an addition of 101,492 total residents in 50,746 DUs and 78,559 office workers, including retrofitted office buildings, market conditions permitting.  More specifically, it suggests an order of magnitude explosion in residents (11,720 in 2010 vs. 113,212 then) and more than twice as many office employees (69,941 in 2010 vs. 148,500 then) in Reston’s station areas. Overall, Reston can expect twice as many people living and working in the station areas as is anticipated by the Reston plan.

Let’s take a look at some areas where this will affect Restonians and others similarly affected by these false development assumptions.

TRAFFIC: We are near the end of the painful two-year RNAG experience, a truly dysfunctional FCDOT-managed, Board initiative based on false assumptions about an alleged “funding gap,” to address the worsening traffic conditions that will come with the urbanization of Reston’s station areas. Already the County has reduced the standard for intersection traffic service levels to a new “urban standard” in which “unstable flow, operating at capacity” is good enough, and Reston’s station area streets don’t have to try to meet community needs for traffic from, to, and especially through the station areas, including Dulles Toll Road users.

In doing its planning, FCDOT has been using the forecast employment and residential data it says area in the Reston Master Plan. Unfortunately, instead of 41,455 added people, the increase is likely to be 90,955 people — some 63.5 percent greater than what FCDOT is planning.  

We all know the two major consequences of that result: Worse traffic congestion for Restonians driving near the station areas and ever higher Transportation Service District (TSD) taxes on the residents of the station areas.

SCHOOLS: There may be no single issue of greater concern to Reston families (and those countywide) than the availability of quality public school education for their children. Like traffic, the quality of our children’s education is likely to erode because of the County’s insistence on unrealistic population forecasts that under-estimate the need for classroom capacity.

Using data in a 2012 FCPS letter to the County’s Planning Department regarding the future of Reston schools, we can update FCPS’ forecast of the number of students in the decades ahead. This requires, first, updating the understated population from Scenario “G” prepared for the Reston planning task force to the plan’s expectations and then updating that to our estimate of future Reston station area population. The result more than doubles the number of dwelling units (and, therefore, the number of students) in station area schools — from 24,559 in Scenario “G” to 56,606 in our forecast.

Applying FCPS’ planning parameters for student yield ratios and mixes laid out in that letter, we calculate that Reston can expect about 6,700 new students from the station areas to be added to the 11,000 students now in all Reston’s schools over the next four decades. That’s about:

  • 3,700 elementary school kids (about five average-sized Reston elementary schools),
  • 1,000 middle schoolers (about the enrollment at Langston Hughes), and
  • 2,000 high schoolers (nearly South Lakes’ enrollment).

The current Reston Master Plan falls far short of meeting those needs. It calls for the building of two elementary schools — one near USGS and one in Town Center North — and the addition of a middle and high school in western Fairfax County to accommodate Reston’s and other area growth over the next 20-30 years.

PARKS: The County’s Urban Parks Framework and the Countywide Adopted Service Level Standards for Athletic Fields establish guidance for park size and recreational facilities. Suffice it to say that the Reston plan does not remotely try to achieve the guidance laid out in these documents based on the County’s faulty assumptions, much less our adjusted estimate of future population and employment growth.  

The prospective population and employment totals should mean the availability of more than 187 acres of parks within 1/2-mile of the Metro stations under the Urban Parks Framework. That’s about 1/8 of Reston’s total station area. Given preliminary notions of additional mid-sized parks in north and south Town Center plus one in the Wiehle station area, we think it may be possible to reach 90 acres of public and private parks in Reston’s station areas four decades from now. Bottom line: Reston’s station areas will have fewer park acres per capita than Manhattan does now.

The County master plan also sets as “a goal” the construction of 12 ballfields at 2.2 million GFA (50 acres) in Reston’s station areas, and a minimum of three. Yet the County’s population-based facilities guideline for the 113,212 people who our adjusted plan suggest may live in the station areas calls for 35 ballfields, nearly triple the plan’s most optimistic “goal” and an order of magnitude greater than its meager minimum objective for Reston.

Aside from the impact on livability and total disregard for Reston planning principles, the ruinous shortage of open space, parks and recreational facilities in the station areas will almost certainly see RA’s facilities overrun with non-RA members no matter what the price for non-member use.  

But the Board of Supervisors doesn’t care. The more development there is, the more property tax revenues it generates, and the more the Board can spend without raising those tax rates or adding new taxes on voters. Even so, however, we’ve just seen the Board add the TSD tax on Reston’s station area residents essentially because it can get away with it. It is certainly unjustified as we’ve commented here before. Will they also be taxed to provide schools or parks to meet the explosive growth?

What you need to know is that, like the new Reston station area TSD tax, Restonians (and others) are being misled by their Board and the County staff on the scope of County urbanization plans and their tremendously adverse and virtually immutable impact on our community, including your quality of life. We all will continue to be misled until we replace this cabal with responsible and responsive leaders and staffers of integrity.  

Terry Maynard, Co-Chair

Reston 20/20 Committee

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