A post apocalyptic vision of Reston's future. Image by Stephen Rees licensed under Creative Commons.

Fairfax County's population is growing, but that isn't stopping some Restonians from organizing against the inevitable. Will fears of mixed-use buildings in Reston mean fewer opportunities for people to live close to transit and jobs?

Reston was designed to be inclusive

Reston is a unique development. It was pioneered by founder Bob Simon as a place where individuals and families could live, work, and play without the need to drive everywhere. That was a radical notion in the 1960s when the prevailing wisdom was to take advantage of the country's new highway system, but it seems prescient today.

Decades later, Reston benefited with its strategic position between Dulles Airport and Tyson's Corner. Since it's smack dab in the middle of strong job and population growth, Reston is well-suited to handle new neighbors. That's doubly true when considering the planning done decades earlier, which avoided many of the development and transportation mistakes other suburban areas made when they ignored pedestrians, cyclists, or transit when designing communities. (Case in point: Tysons Corner.)

Now Fairfax County wants to change Reston's zoning (known as Planned Residential Communities or PRCs) to allow more people to live in Reston. It's a modest proposition: the average limit will be raised from 13 people per acre to 16, and places explicitly designed at higher or lower levels won't be changed.

Only the areas in red will change. The biggest red area is Reston Town Center.

Many of the changes in Reston's PRC areas are in or near Reston Town Center, which is a dense urban area that is designed to draw people from all over the region. There are already tall new buildings being built here, and that construction pattern will continue as other surrounding parcels are redeveloped.

Changes may also come to some suburban shopping centers deeper in Reston's heart known as Reston's Village Centers. This is where most Restonians do their grocery shopping and run other errands, and these Village Centers may be renovated and redeveloped to include some housing. That's the case at Tall Oaks Center off of Wiehle Avenue, where townhomes will be built and integrated with existing commercial and retail space.

These single-story town centers could have homes, but some in Reston think that is too much. Image by David Whitehead.

Image by David Whitehead.

Image by David Whitehead .

However, opposition to new housing in Reston can be fierce–and it's no different for changes to the PRC limits. One meeting recently had to be postponed because the room selected was too small for the throng of people who showed to voice their opinion on the matter.

How urban should Reston be?

Common arguments against redeveloping the village centers are based on how urban Reston should be. Simply put, they say, Reston is full. To put apartments on top of a Giant or Safeway would overwhelm the “neighborhood scale” of the village centers and make life too hard for current Restonians.

There's just one problem: the prediction of a Village Center overwhelmed with people is wildly disproportional to what is proposed. Adding an additional three people per acre in some areas won't usher in an era of sardine-like crowding in Reston.

In fact, many elements of the proposed changes are already here. Placing housing close to retail is pretty standard for the area, not just at the Town Center but in the Village Centers as well. Tall Oaks Village Center is slated to begin this type of mixed-use development soon, and other Village Centers will likely begin this process organically over the next few years as leases expire and buildings need renovation anyway.

An example of a mixed-use area in the Lake Anne district of Reston. Image by David Whitehead.

Living close to shops and grocery stores wouldn't overwhelm the area's neighborhood scale. That was an explicit design criteria for Reston when it was originally planned, and it is an explicit selling point for the area today.

Keeping zoning limits low won't stop the job and family growth that brings people to the region at large. Letting people live where they can walk, bike, or take transit to their jobs or errands–rather than force them to drive for every trip–is a far better method to accommodate that growth.

The new meeting to discuss changes to the PRC is on October 23rd at South Lakes High School. Opposition to the changes will still be fierce, but it is important to remember that what is being proposed is modest–and Reston can handle it better than almost anywhere else in Fairfax County.

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