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Reston: At a Crossroads

The 42-year-old planned community grapples with questions of redevelopment while trying to stay true to founding values.

With more than 40 years in the history books, a place called Reston has blossomed into a beacon of community and economic success.

As one of the most prominent commercial centers in the country as well as a residential community dedicated to open spaces, preservation of nature, and plentiful and nearby recreational and cultural activities, the planned community has begun to reach the furthest most boundaries of Founder Robert E. Simon Jr.’s original vision.

Trying to preserve the values on which Reston was built, residents now grapple with difficult decisions about moving forward with redevelopment and growth. With Simon’s design filed in the archives, upcoming decisions will have a dramatic affect on the Reston of tomorrow.

NOWHERE IS THE CULMINATION of Simon’s vision more obvious than the current debate on Reston’s density.

Most of Reston, roughly 6,200 acres, was zoned as a planned residential community (PRC). The ordinance includes a maximum density stipulation or “cap” that limits residential density to 13 persons per acre. County officials said earlier this year that density levels are fast approaching the cap.

After extensive analysis, the county reported that Reston has room for an additional 4,106 high-rise residential units. Development applications in the pipeline could cut that number in half.

If the ordinance is not changed, additional residential development could soon be prohibited.

Responding to a situation that would shut down Reston’s residential development, the county initiated a process this summer to change the ordinance, re-defining how future development would take place. Officials will also enter a second dialogue with the community to gauge whether or not residents want to retain, eliminate or increase the cap.

As the process unfolds throughout the year, residents will have the rare opportunity to influence the revision of a strategic policy that will affect everything from the recent surge in high-rise condominium buildings, increased traffic congestion and the rising burden on public services.

HOW RESTON FACES these challenges has also been an ongoing focus.

A citizens’ movement to incorporate Reston was revived a few years ago to combat what has been perceived as a lack of local control and representation.

Seeking a stronger, more unified political voice for the community, the Reston Citizens Association (RCA) is leading this most recent reincarnation of helping Reston become a town, which failed once before by referendum in 1980.

Called “Res-TOWN,” RCA’s goal of township centers on gaining control of Reston’s planning and zoning, which is now under the county’s authority.

Pointing to past development decisions — including the extension of Metrorail through Reston — advocates of incorporation say Reston hasn’t received the same influence as neighboring towns of Herndon and Vienna, which combined have fewer people than Reston.

Another reason this effort has resurfaced is because, as the RCA leadership argues, Reston is being split in two. Currently, citizens participate in one of two separate homeowners associations, the Reston Association or the Reston Town Center Association. RCA officials say the division complicates local governance and produces a divergence in Reston’s development.

Opponents to the idea have argued that township will cost more and be more restrictive on development. Many people in the Reston business community, which opposed town status in the past, see township as another layer of government and taxation.

If town supporters have their way and Reston achieves town status, which is uncertain since the process is so laden with obstacles, it would have a mayor and town council leading important development issues.

ONE SUCH DEVELOPMENT issue is what will happen at the historic Lake Anne Village Center. Since 1998, efforts have been underway to revitalize the area considered by many to be the symbolic heart of Reston.

Based on Simon’s vision, the village center was the first to integrate housing, shopping, offices, open space and recreation into one place.

At its core is Washington Plaza, which runs alongside the north shores of Lake Anne and overlooks the lake’s signature fountain. A bronze statue of Simon sits on a bench, welcoming visitors with a friendly smile. And, in the summer on Saturday mornings, the village center hosts the Reston Farmers’ Market.

With all its tranquillity and beauty, business owners worry about long-term viability because of insufficient foot traffic, especially in the winter, and have supported greater density to better sustain business.

Last year in March, a study assessed the infrastructure and economic needs of the aging village center. A few months later during the summer, the views of stakeholders were heard in a series of focus groups. A large, three-day community charrette was also held last summer to formulate revitalization plans based on community input. Each of the plans offered various increases in mixed-use density for the village center.

Early this year in an effort to preserve affordable housing, the county bought the nearby, 181-unit Crescent Apartments for $49 million. During last year’s charrette, several participants worried that the property’s affordable housing would be lost to redevelopment.

In addition, the county recently hired a consulting group to work with a community task force to develop design guidelines for the revitalization district. How change ultimately occurs depends on how the village center’s property owners decide to move forward.

AS PART OF BRINGING Metrorail to Dulles International Airport by 2015, the Dulles Rail Project plans to first run service from Tyson’s Corner to Wiehle Avenue by 2009.

The county-owned property on Wiehle Avenue just north of the Dulles Toll Road, which serves as Reston’s main commuter bus stop, will become a Metro station and could infuse the area with higher residential density and other mixed-use development.

Opponents say the new rail stop and the added density will create more traffic and noise near the area.

Dulles Rail advocates say conversely that the project will help alleviate traffic. In addition, they say rail will provide better connections to Tyson’s Corner and Washington, D.C. to the east and to Herndon, Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County to the west.

While the arrival of Metro remains on schedule, added residential density at the Wiehle site is far from certain. An obscure but active 45-year-old covenant restricts any residential development along the Dulles Corridor through Reston.

For the past few years, a resident task force has sought to overturn the covenant, but to do so requires what many say is an impossible threshold that requires approval from owners of 90 percent of the land. To date, the task force has received approval to overturn the covenant from owners of 77 percent of the land.

THE AREA AROUND the Reston Town Center has added or is in the process of adding new high-rise condominium and apartment buildings as well as office and retail space.

The county recently approved a plan to build two high-rise buildings with more than 450 condo units on the Oracle campus adjacent to the Town Center area at the intersection of Sunset Hills Road and Reston Parkway.

Equity Office Properties Trust has plans to build a complex at the corner of New Dominion and Reston parkways, on what is now known as the Ruby Tuesday parking lot.

The developer already has approval to build 250,000-square-foot office building on the site, but they are asking for permission of an option that would include residential. The option would also include some ground-floor retail.

Boston Properties has begun construction of 500,000 square feet of office space and 60,000 square feet of retail on what was a surface parking lot bounded by Market Street, Library Street, Explorer Street and Bluemont Way.

Across the street from Reston Town Center, a proposal to add 796 housing units at the intersection of Reston Parkway and Temporary Road continues to make its way through the approval process. The proposal, previously called Summit Apartments, contains two 16-story condominium buildings, which could reach taller heights than buildings at Reston Town Center.

Although very early in the planning process, Lerner has proposed redeveloping the Spectrum Center to include four, multi-story office buildings and four high-rise residential buildings with a total of 1,443 units. The preliminary plan also includes extensive ground-floor retail.

TRYING TO KEEP UP with the changing times, the Reston Association successfully passed changes to its 22-year-old governing documents, which articulate the rules and regulations for the Association’s governance.

In a drawn-out, sometimes controversial process, the revisions went to referendum in February. The changes were approved by 70 percent of voters and received the required 40-percent turnout.

Some of the signature changes include a modification to the maximum assessment cap to allow greater financial flexibility, the addition of a $250 resale fee each time a home is bought within RA’s borders, and a provision that requires clusters to purchase limited liability insurance.

Despite improving its financial forecast with the passage of the documents, RA has started a review of a consultant’s report released last summer that advises the closure of two Reston pools: Tall Oaks and Shadowood. A committee created by RA to assess the report’s recommendations will submit formal advice to the RA board of directors later this year.