Reston Town Center, one example of how Reston has changed over the years.  Image by Paython Chung.

Reston's neighborhood association is asking Fairfax County to give it more control over future growth, as residents try to figure out how to absorb new neighbors without losing community ties. In an area that prides itself on being inclusive, a contentious planning process has revealed some big tensions over increasing density.

Land use laws in Reston are set by the county, and may soon get an update. But in a recent letter, the Reston Association (a quasi-governmental board that oversees some functions of the area) requests deep restrictions on where and how future growth can happen. Among other things, the association's letter calls for preserving Reston's suburban Village Centers, and urges that population growth only be allowed in tandem with infrastructure, school, and parkland growth.

The Silver Line brought growth to Reston, and not everyone is happy

Reston was founded as a planned community in the 1960s. When it became clear that Metro's Silver Line would be built through the area, Fairfax County updated Reston's Master Plan in anticipation of the changes the new transit line would bring.

The Master Plan was finalized in 2015 after about six years of deliberation between the county, the Reston Association, and other stakeholders. The master plan reaffirmed Reston's identity as a unique place, but also made provisions to help accomodate a growing population.

One of the tools to do that is a guide called Planned Residential Community (PRC), which determines how dense a given area can be. In order for Reston's zoning to fit with the new master plan, the overall PRC number had to change from 13 people per acre to 16 people per acre. Most of the areas affected would be close to the Metro, around the Reston Town Center, or in its shopping plazas called Village Centers.

Lake Anne Village Center, a nice example of Modernist Mixed-Use style. Would it be so bad if something like this happened in other parts of Reston?  Image by Payton Chung.

But then some residents got mad about the prospect of more neighbors. Several groups mobilized against some of these recently-passed changes in the Reston Master Plan, and also brought up concerns about school capacity and transportation plans. This prompted the Reston Association to set up a series of meetings to go back through some of these issues on a case-by-case basis.

On August 20, the Reston Association took what they learned from the working group meetings and put it in a letter to Fairfax County, which ultimately has the authority in making zoning decisions for Reston. Much of the letter asks the county to follow up with projects to ensure that the Master Plan is being followed, and requests that promised infrastructure improvements do not lag far behind the area's surge in new homes and offices.

Unfortunately, some of the letter still proposes measures that could continue to disrupt the process going forward.

Caps are back! (Not the fun kind.)

No, not the Capitals — population caps. One of the big asks outlined in the letter is that Reston have a population cap. That's a problem for two reasons.

The first reason is practical. Population caps are hard to enforce, and are ineffective at preventing future growth. We can't prevent people from having children, which could naturally grow a population past the limit. Caps could discourage Restonians from seeking jobs or moving elsewhere out of fear that they won't be allowed to move back. Some who don't actually live and work there might claim they do so they don’t 'lose their spot.'

Reston is just one part of a large metropolitan area, and limiting newcomers won't address population growth issues elsewhere nearby. Someone who wants to move to Fairfax to start a new job in Reston would likely accept the job and simply live somewhere else in the area if they couldn't find housing in Reston. PRC limits aren't used across the whole of Fairfax County, so they would likely just push people to nearby towns and jurisdictions. They're a very blunt tool.

The second reason is more philosophical. The idea of a population cap comes with the assumption that one day Reston might be full and cannot accomodate anyone else. That's a problem that goes beyond infrastructure and into what residents' idea of a welcoming neighborhood, town, or city should look like. For a place where literally living and working in the same community is a founding principle, a population cap represents a divergence from those values.

Some don't want to add homes to Reston's Village Centers

Another disputed area is Reston's Village Centers. While there's broad agreement that it's okay to build densely close to Metro stations, there's no consensus about doing something similar with the Village Centers. Most of them are typical suburban shopping centers with a grocery store and restaurants, shops, and a large parking lot.

That format could change slightly in the future to allow for more mixed use buildings, such as grocery stores with apartments on top. Unfortunately, in its letter the Reston Association seeks to affirm that this won't happen, except at Lake Anne (which already has commercial and residential uses mixed together) and at the Tall Oaks Village Center (which is in the middle of its redevelopment process).

Tall Oaks Village Center. Image created with Google Maps.

That's troubling. There's nothing to fear about apartments on top of stores, and this opposition flies directly in the face of the inclusivity founder Bob Simon wanted to help distinguish Reston from surrounding communities. There's no reason the Village Centers can't see the benefits of smaller-scale development, and they're already connected by bus service.

Debates over better roads vs. golf courses

Reston has a lot of open space, and one of the Reston Association's meetings focused on how to preserve that.

The Master Plan shows that one day, redevelopment of the Hidden Creek Golf Course and nearby offices could include extending American Dream Way to connect directly to Wiehle Avenue. This could help people who deal with congestion on Sunset Hills Road. Congestion on Reston's roads is a big concern, so one would think the community would support plans to extend Soapstone Drive across the Dulles Toll Road. Instead, many want to prevent any redevelopment of the golf course and keep the space open.

Possible future road to help create a grid in Reston. That could help with some of the traffic but remove some of the open space as well. What's more important? Image by the author.

There are good arguments for and against this particular connection, and right now there are no firm plans to build it. However, the case highlights the inherent contradiction in trying to ensure that Reston doesn't develop too much and too fast, but also keep up the pace with infrastructure improvements. This probably won't be the last time a hard choice like this has to be made.

While the overall process for approving the increased PRC population guidelines has been delayed, it has led to some productive conversation as well as clarification from Fairfax County officials which has helped smooth out the process. Thankfully, now the debate is more focused on how the changes envisioned in the Master Plan can be improved, rather than reversed entirely.

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.