Walter Alcorn is a former member of the Fairfax County Planning Commission and a former chairman of the Planning Commission’s Tysons Committee.

We have a planning impasse in Reston. Residents are concerned about unchecked growth overwhelming roads, and county officials and staff want to protect the integrity of the planning process that produced a new Reston Plan in 2015. But the real problem is that our “new” plan is not fully baked. 

After a six-year study and hundreds of meetings, in 2015 Fairfax County approved the transition from Bob Simon’s original development plan (the “Reston Master Plan”) to specific guidance on Reston’s long-term development, open space and public facilities in Fairfax County’s Comprehensive Plan. That was a huge lift and a major accomplishment. Thanks to the dedicated effort of hundreds of citizens, we have nearly completed that transition from the build-out dream of our original developer to a Comprehensive Plan reflecting the reality of our growing and diverse community of more than 60,000 souls. But the work is not quite done. 

 

First, two things to avoid. As specified in the adopted Comprehensive Plan, let’s keep “as-built” densities planned for our residential neighborhoods. And let’s keep the transit-oriented development guidance around new Metro stations. 

 

But as a community, these four items need expedited review:

  1. Pull densities from village centers. The Reston Comprehensive Plan should acknowledge the unique situations of each village center with future redevelopment planned through future Comp Plan amendments, not lock in all of Simon’s original density in those village centers. That I and many others did not point this out earlier was an oversight, and for that I apologize. But this is fixable.
  2. Put the buildout population in the Comp Plan, not the zoning ordinance. The proposed amendment to the Planned Residential Community (PRC) zoning district to increase the limit of 13 residents per acre (on average) is a historical anomaly that does not apply to all of Reston’s land area. In fact, if not changed, the PRC district will soon become irrelevant for new applicants becuse developers can use other zoning districts, such as Planned Residential Mixed-Use, which is already happening. As a “density cap” it doesn’t just leak; it is more like a lawn sprinkler. Better to put the buildout population target in the Comprehensive Plan, where it would apply to all of Reston regardless of zoning district. And should the ultimate population of Reston be 120,000 as proposed by the Coalition for a Planned Reston? That seems a bit high to me, but that’s a community-wide discussion we should have.    
  3. Add guidance on retaining affordable housing and historically significant places. New plan language on retaining existing affordable housing is sorely needed. The best approach may not always be redevelopment at three to four times current densities.  And let’s give everyone one more opportunity to identify historically significant structures and locations not already flagged in the Comprehensive Plan.
  4. Review plans for transportation infrastructure and the phasing plan. The list of future transportation and other public facility improvements and how development will be phased to that infrastructure is a core planning technique. These need public review as well.

Increasing the PRC district average density cap (aka Reston’s Maginot Line) is now at the center of community concern. Citizens’ worries about quality of life are legitimate. And anything that might threaten Reston’s diversity and inclusionary history is and should be resisted. But if we are not careful, we could end up blocking a technical change that really could be helpful or wind up with a gentrified Reston that none of us recognize.

 

In my 16 years on the Fairfax County Planning Commission and four years chairing its Tysons Committee, we would tell speakers the Comprehensive Plan was the people’s plan. And that is still true.

 

But people change, and times change — sometimes faster than we expect. Yes, we need to fix the PRC zoning district but maybe not as currently conceived. We also need a focused, expedited review of Comprehensive Plan to truly make it the people’s plan. Let’s do both at the same time.