More tall buildings like these ones already in Reston may be coming. Image by Payton Chung licensed under Creative Commons.

Reston is a special place in Fairfax County, but plans to let the area reach its full potential are under threat. Organized opposition may freeze development in Reston in a bid to “save” the area from the very things that make it great.

Reston is a community in Fairfax County notable for its master plan, which outlined a community where people could live and work for their whole lives. Founded by Robert Simon, the area has always had a strong identity within Fairfax. Job growth–thanks to the development of Tyson's Corner and the Dulles Airport corridor–has made it a desirable place to live and work. Reston was also able to profit early from people's desire to live in walkable areas in the suburbs.

Will fear of tall buildings (and another three people people per acre) keep Reston out of reach?

Metro's Silver Line is bringing changes to the area as well. One station is already open in Reston and two more are on the way as the line is extended towards Dulles Airport and Loudoun County. That means many new opportunities for Fairfax County to make room for a growing population without adding new traffic congestion.

Along these lines, Fairfax wants to raise the zoning cap on how many people can live in Reston. Known as a Planned Residential Community (PRC) District, these rules are broad guidelines for how dense Reston is supposed to be. The current overall number for the Reston PRC is 13. Fairfax County zoning officials want to bump that number up to 16.

That has led to a lot of pushback and even forced the recent cancellation of a meeting to discuss the changes. Opponents to raising the PRC limits are afraid that allowing too much density in Reston would harm the lifestyles of the people living there, and worry Reston's infrastructure is not set up to handle more residents. Citing a “significant increase in high rise buildings,” one group known as Reston 20/20 has organized to put a stop to the changes.

What's actually happening in Reston

Despite claims that the changes could lead to a tripling of Reston's population, what's actually proposed isn't so dire. The overall density limit for the Reston PRC is 13 people. The new limit would be 16. Moreover, that new limit would only be raised in a few areas, and areas that are currently classified as medium and low density are exempted from the PRC changes entirely.

If you live in Reston today, what you see out your window probably will not change should these changes go through.

What's actually changing in Reston.  Image by Fairfax County.

The biggest area due for changes are the shopping centers and office buildings that surround Reston Town Center. Changes to those places will basically grow the footprint of Reston Town Center organically and help the area feel lived-in rather than an island of walkable urbanism.

The rest would mostly be at or near Reston's various shopping centers, places that currently have no housing on site but could be redeveloped with housing on top of existing stores or nearby. True, that would mean taller buildings in some areas, but they would be in places that already see a lot of people coming and going because of the stores. Letting more people live close to their day-to-day needs is exactly what Reston was envisioned to be.

New PRC Limits are only going in places highlighted red. That includes Reston Town Center.  Image by Fairfax County.

What about the infrastructure?

One big argument against increased density is that Fairfax is allowing new density to move forward without an increase in new and improved infrastructure.

However, anyone traveling to Reston will see new infrastructure being built across the entire area. The most prominent example is the Silver Line, which is already running in Reston. There are more stations coming, putting most of Reston a short trip from several metro stations.

When the Silver Line opened in 2014 there were also a slew of bus changes that added new routes and frequency. Reston also gets the RIBS bus service, which provides local bus service similar to the DC Circulator. Capital Bikeshare has been running in Reston since last year to complement the area's extensive trail and bike lane network that is still growing. That includes road diets for roads like Colts Neck which do not have the traffic numbers to justify four lanes for cars.

A growing area does need the infrastructure to support it, but in Reston a lot of it is already in place. That is expressly because of planning done in the past to ensure a future where Reston could grow.

What is right for Reston?

Reston is a cherished place. It's a rare example of a community built in the twentieth century that was meant to be inclusive and a place where someone could enjoy every stage of life.

That has also meant that Reston has always been adaptable and able to grow. You see that as you can track the development history through the area's architecture from the buildings at Lake Anne, to high rises in Reston Town Center, to new development reshaping the office parks near the Metro stations.

Plans to expand Reston Town Center is what the PRC is about. Not bulldozing other neighborhoods (note: North is to the right in this image).  Image by Fairfax County.

The language used by groups like Reston 20/20 says the exact opposite, aiming to preserve a level of development that freezes as much of Reston as it can. That's unfair to the vision behind Reston, and such a plan would not work anyway.

Changes are coming to Reston no matter what. The region as a whole is growing, and Reston is right in the middle of a nationally-recognized jobs hub that forms the backbone of Northern Virginia's economy. People that don't move to Reston will move elsewhere, likely to places where transit service isn't as robust and where it is harder to walk or bike. That will mean more driving and more congestion on the areas roads like Fairfax County Parkway, despite slower population growth in Reston itself.

Fail to let Reston grow, and you don't prevent any of the problems envisioned by groups like Reston 20/20– you just ensure the visible effects happen elsewhere. People may dislike the sight of tall buildings, but “Height-itis” in Reston is already ridiculous when tall buildings have been part of the plan since the beginning.

I take this personally

I recently moved to Reston. My family is renting right now, but we hope to be ready to purchase a home in the next few years, even though we mostly rely on one income. I would love to buy in Reston precisely because of the opportunities and amenities here compared to other parts of Northern Virginia.

However, if lower caps on development are preserved, then it will be that much harder for my family to find what we need at a price we can afford. Reston will continue to grow no matter what, but if the area is to grow in the best way possible, then the rules need to consider new residents and families like mine.