Lake Anne Village Center, where density helps foster community. Image by Payton Chung licensed under Creative Commons.

Reality took a back seat at a recent public meeting in Reston, as livid residents turned out en mass to protest increases in density, the allowance of more mixed-use buildings, and frankly, the addition of new neighbors.

There was a lot of new anger at old decisions, but it was hard to tell if anyone was paying attention to what was actually proposed–carrying out the already agreed-upon Master Plan.

Here’s what’s being proposed in Reston

In May of this year, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors proposed raising the zoning cap on how many people can live in the Planned Residential Community (PRC) District. The overall density limit for the Reston PRC is 13 people per acre. The new limit would be 16.

What is more, the proposed amendment only affects a few particular places, and medium- and low-density areas in the PRC district are exempted from changes entirely. The affected areas are along the Silver Line Metro corridor and what are called the Reston Village Centers, which are typical one-story shopping centers. Most include a grocery store and some businesses surrounding a large parking lot.

Only the areas in orange are actually changing. Image by Fairfax County.

What that all means is that even though it's an area-wide density change on paper, the only places where changes will actually be seen are either close to Reston's existing and future metro stations or inside the village centers, where you may see housing built on top of a center's retail.

Because this density increase covers the whole PRC area, it does mean nearly another 25,000 people could eventually live in Reston, bringing the total population up close to 100,000 people. That's a big change, but it won’t be nearly as big as what some opponents have said. Some have falsely claimed it could double or triple the population.

There has been a firestorm of pushback to this proposal. Opponents, organized primarily by a group called Reston 20/20, are against what they see as too many people and too much density.

The first public meeting to discuss these changes became so overcrowded it was canceled due to fire-code concerns. Several hundred returned for a recent meeting at South Lakes High School on October 23rd and let loose their full ire. Most seemed already set against the changes even though the meeting's purpose was informational, not to debate.

After an initial presentation by county officials, the night turned to questions–and complaints–about development, traffic, and infrastructure.

County officials say they are simply enacting necessary changes to comply with the city’s master plan

Part of this debate is about if the proposed zoning changes stray from the original design of Reston as a master-planned community in the 1960s, or if they are actually hewing closer to what founder Robert Simon envisioned.

County officials say it is the latter, and that they are simply carrying out changes that were agreed upon as far back as 2009, when the Reston Master Plan was first updated. A master plan is meant to serve as a general guideline, and this master plan update didn’t wrap up until 2015 because Fairfax County wanted to be thorough and to ensure many people were heard. Officials are just recently beginning to make the technical changes required to fit the master plan's vision.

The biggest shifts in the master plan deal with the office buildings located close to existing and future Metro stations. Their expansion means an opportunity to grow the area's population without adding to the region's traffic problems. This is different than the 1960s vision for manufacturing and industry in what's now known as the Transit Station Areas. Of course, the original vision did not anticipate the addition of the Silver Line.

The master plan also envisioned changes in Reston's “Village Centers,” or the areas where local Restonians do their shopping and errands. Recent master plan meetings simply reaffirmed that these village centers may be redeveloped to include denser housing on site. In fact, Robert Simon's original hope for all of the area's village centers was only realized in his lifetime at the Lake Anne Village Center, which includes plenty of housing and mixed-use buildings.

Although it was largely lost among the shouting and boos at the October 23rd meeting, this is at the core of the zoning proposal–increasing the density cap so these village centers can include more homes. There may not be (much) housing at today's village centers, but that is because of choices made by the original developers of those properties rather than any deliberate zoning-based decision.

Opponents are confusing this issue with false claims and outrage, and now want to turn back the clock

Officials at Oct 23rd’s meeting attempted to focus the conversation on what actually is happening with this zoning proposal, but their words didn’t seem to penetrate. Fairfax County's head of zoning Fred Selden emphasized that this change is not a rezoning of any current area, but merely an add-on of what is already allowed. Any of the Safeways or Giants in Reston already can be redeveloped to include apartments on top of stores, even without this zoning change.

Changes in PRC limits may provide a slightly higher maximum, but that doesn’t mean that the maximum will always be reached. Selden noted that few properties in Reston have been built up to maximum-allowable limits.

Potential Changes in Reston. Remember, these are what is allowed rather than what is predicted. Image by Fairfax County.

In fact, as a result of the master plan, many existing neighborhoods had their zoning changed to match the lower-density character of the neighborhoods. That means a lot more of Reston has already been down-zoned than in proposed to be up-zoned in the future.

Beyond the basic number change, the rest of Reston's development process won't change. Reston has an involved design review process that affects every property, and that will still be the case in the future. Developers will still have to respond to community concerns like they always have had to do in order to get approval to build anything.

Most of the people who spoke against development apparently weren’t paying attention throughout this master plan process, because they were mad about changes that have been allowed since it was updated. Now there appears to be an attempt to delay this zoning update until the sections of the master plan can be revisited.

This meeting could have gone better

The vitriolic response seemed to shock county officials, as well as few fellow Restonians who spoke up in favor of the changes (or who were merely cautiously optimistic about them). Officials and neighbors were routinely booed and shouted down, including Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, who concluded the meeting by saying that some of what she heard gave her “chills.”

The meeting could have been an opportunity to allay fears about what was changing and to set the record straight. Unfortunately, many speakers seemed unconcerned about the specifics of the plan, and just wanted to air grievances at the county officials who are merely working on implementing changes that were already agreed upon.

That is unfortunate, because some of the changes in Reston can be very positive. Adding housing to the existing retail space in Reston's Village Centers is a great way to strengthen the community and support the existing businesses. More people at the village centers means a larger customer base for Reston's businesses, more ridership for the area's extensive bus system, and other improvements.

Meanwhile, current Restonians can enjoy the village centers like they always have. That's actual community, and it fits exactly within the vision of Reston as an inclusive place.

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Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.