Independent Progressive/Master Plan for Transit Station Areas — Outgunned

It never looked like a fair fight. In the fall of 2009, when Hunter Mill Supervisor Cathy Hudgins assembled her Task Force of 25 or so to prepare a Comprehensive (Master) Plan for the Dulles rail corridor, it was clear the community was at a disadvantage. A handful of Reston volunteers faced a phalanx of hired gun slingers, men (100 percent men!) representing commercial developers and their lawyers. The gunslingers were pros doing their jobs, unified in a clear sense of purpose — to maximize profit. Most had worked “community” task force gigs before and knew the county staff advising the Task Force. None lived in Reston.

The civilians, volunteers representing community organizations including the Reston Citizens Association (RCA) and Reston Association (RA), had only a vague sense of mission — to plan development consistent with their Reston values. They would do the right thing for their community, but they were new to the game. The Task Force was to complete the Plan in one year. It took four years. It was approved by the County Planning Commission just last week.

It goes to the Board of Supervisors for a likely rubber stamp public review on Jan. 28. The product bears the gunslingers’ heavy imprint, but is not as terrible as I expected. A central issue, of course, was density. The final stage Plan calls for a lot of high density, especially closest to the stations. The densities, however, are generally appropriate to an urban core, which is what the rail corridor will be. Unfortunately, the type of development reflects the composition of the gunslingers team — that is, far too much commercial vs. residential development. And, it means greater traffic gridlock and less character.

A major difference from our Reston tradition may be the loss of excellence in design and environmental standards. While there is a lot of verbiage about the importance of quality design, the Plan is filled with platitudes and lacking in standards and an institutional mechanism to enforce them. This was made far worse by Ms. Hudgins’ planning commissioner who struck the requirement for design review by the Reston DRB, and substituted developer preferred weasel-wording in its place.

The LEED Gold Standard for environmental excellence in buildings was lowered to the modest silver standard in the final draft of the Plan.

Open space and recreational amenities serving all ages are a hallmark of Reston. They have been sharply de-emphasized as favored by the gunslingers. For example, the county Park Authority’s own standards call for a minimum of 12 athletic fields to serve the 40,000 new residents in the corridor. The Plan going to the Board of Supervisors calls for only three. The spillover demand will simply go to other areas of Reston, where demand for fields already outstrips supply.

The Plan calls for new construction to occur simultaneous with the installation of essential supporting infrastructure — like roads, schools, sidewalks. But, it is only a goal not a requirement. The lack of assurance that it will be done underlines another major failing of the Plan. There is, in fact, no entity responsible for implementing the Plan. It seems left to chance and the good will of developers.

In sum: Although the urban densities foreseen in the Transit Station Areas may be appropriate for our future urban core, the plan provides no assurance that said urban core will function. It is almost certain to lack the design excellence and overall quality Restonians expect. Still, I shudder to think how much worse the Plan would likely be but for the amazing efforts of community volunteers, especially the dozens working with RCA and Reston 2020 whose well-researched analytical inputs and dedication might have carried the day on a level playing field.