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The Silver Line could mean a big expansion for Reston Town Center

As the Silver Line arrives in Reston, Fairfax County is working on an update to the area's master plan, looking at ways to accommodate new growth while encouraging transit use.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

A planned community that began construction in the 1960's, Reston's urban vision has evolved over each successive phase. The original concept was for a suburban community that retained some walkability and had a mix of housing types. Starting in the 1990's, Reston Town Center sought to give the area a more urban character, if one with lots of parking, and became a de facto downtown for the area.

Fairfax County began working on a new master plan in 2009 as a way to plan for expected growth from the Silver Line, which will have two stops in Reston, at Wiehle Avenue and Reston Parkway. The plan represents a new phase for Reston that doesn't assume that everyone will want to get around by car.

The plan would address Reston's transportation challenges by making it easier to walk, bike, and use transit around the area's two future Metro stations, while minimizing the need to drive. It also calls for "aggressive transportation demand management programs to reduce vehicle trips."

Notably, the plan doesn't call for more and bigger roads to accommodate this growth, though it does recommend widening a short section of Reston Parkway to 6 lanes. Instead, county planners want to connect streets with a grid to disperse traffic, reducing the need for big, wide roads and providing an opportunity to build complete streets from the ground up.

Extending Reston Town Center to the north and south

Part of Reston's popularity is the easy access to the Dulles Toll Road, but the road also bisects the community. There are only a few crossings, and all of them are designed primarily for cars. The plan calls for 5 more crossings for all transportation modes, which could facilitate better movement between Reston's two halves.

It could also let the urban fabric of Reston Town Center continue further south towards the Metro stations, which will sit in the median of the Dulles Toll Road, and across the highway to the other side. Today, the areas next to the Toll Road consist of a strip of spread-out office parks about a 1/2-mile wide, which serve as a buffer to the residential neighborhoods beyond.


How Reston Town Center could grow to the north and south. (The image is rotated; north is to the right.) Image from Fairfax County.

The plan proposes redeveloping these office parks into urban neighborhoods similar to Reston Town Center. But there isn't a lot of room to build around the future Metro stations. In order for this to be successful, the county needs to zone for enough density and commit to good urban design so there are enough people and activity to encourage the use of alternatives to driving.

It may also be a challenge to convince multiple landowners and commercial tenants of office space to change their property to fit into this vision or give some up land for a new street. The CIA's Open Source Center sits directly between Reston Town Center and the future Reston Parkway Metro station, and the agency may resist changes that would make that campus more open and closer to development.


INOVA's proposal for redeveloping land north of Reston Town Center.

But while there is a space crunch between Reston Town Center and the Dulles Toll Road, there is a lot more room to grow to the north, as well as more committed landowners. This area consists of strip malls and a large, suburban-style medical center, which are ripe for redevelopment and sprawl repair. INOVA Hospital has expressed interest in redeveloping the medical facility as an extension of Reston Town Center and submitted this plan to Fairfax County.

This area is at least 3/4-mile from the nearest Metro station, but good development with a commitment to a complete streets policy could greatly extend the walkable range of the Metro station. There is also a call for a new urban park, community center, and library to help anchor this area and provide new open space for residents.

Parking maximums and the end of free parking

The report is pretty adamant that parking will be treated differently than it has before. There will be fewer subsidies that artificially lower the cost of parking, and the expectation is that most parking will be paid for by the users themselves. The plan also calls for the implementation of parking maximums in areas and a reduction or elimination of surface lots.

When it opens later this year, Wiehle Avenue will be the terminus of the Silver Line until Phase 2 is up and running. At that time, some of the parking being built now for transit riders could eventually be turned over to nearby developments, reducing the need to build new parking.

This plan is just the beginning

This is an ambitious plan, especially when you consider that the county is trying to do many of the same things in Tysons Corner as well. But Reston has the advantage of an existing, well-defined urban center and it has fewer traffic problems than in Tysons. This may make stakeholders more willing to devote resources to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit.

However, this plan is still a draft and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors needs to approve it. Once that happens, the real work of actually implementing the plan begins.

Funding concerns are always an issue, and there will be lots of discussion on what strategies are best. Another concern is about being able to coordinate with a wide variety of landowners; the report mentions this problem, but doesn't offer potential solutions. But Reston already has a long history of working within established plans over the past 50 years, suggesting it will pull through.

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 Falls Church.  

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It would have been astronomically expensive to detour the silver line underground from Wiehle Ave to RTC proper, but man, that would have been so much better than having the reston parkway station be a Vienna/Dunn Loring/West Falls style highway median stop. As it stands, its a lovely nearly half mile walk along 6 lane arterials and parking lots to get to RTC.

by Nick on Feb 4, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

I'm scratching my head trying to figure out what it means that the filename of the Reston Town Center expansion map is "revised_tc_straw_man.pdf". Whose straw man argument is it?

by Peter K on Feb 4, 2014 3:08 pm • linkreport

Good piece. I've lived in Reston for 15 years and it amazes me how quickly it has changed.

One correction. The W&OD crosses the toll road (via underpass) to the east of Wiehle, so it isn't true that all of the crossing were designed for cars. It could be said that one was designed for trains, but is now used for bikes and pedestrians. I use it frequently to get to my gym on the north side of the toll road.

by Greg on Feb 4, 2014 3:14 pm • linkreport

It would have been astronomically expensive to detour the silver line underground from Wiehle Ave to RTC proper, but man, that would have been so much better than having the reston parkway station be a Vienna/Dunn Loring/West Falls style highway median stop. As it stands, its a lovely nearly half mile walk along 6 lane arterials and parking lots to get to RTC.

Underground yes, but an elevated section that left the toll road and hit RTC directly wouldnt have been that expensive and would have provided so much more development potential. NIMBY prevented that, which is sometimes an even greater issue than funding.

by Richard on Feb 4, 2014 3:28 pm • linkreport

Peter,

I don't know why either. I got the maps from the county's maps/images section of their website on the update but it didn't really provide anymore context than that.

Greg,

You're right and I've actually used the trail before in that section. But it is at the extreme edge of the study area so it'll be good to see more pedestrian friendly crossings come up.

by Canaan on Feb 4, 2014 3:44 pm • linkreport

In the long term, I don't think we'll view the location as having "missed" urban Reston. What you're calling RTC proper is the Boston Properties part of Reston. Reston Heights (the SE corner of Reston Parkway and the Toll Road) has approval for a large residential/retail/office complex. The area to the south of the station is sparsely populated with office buildings and I expect will eventually be filled in with development. So, in 15 or 20 years you may not consider the station outside of urban Reston. A raised track into RTC would ultimately be a shortsighted option. And if they had done that it probably would have gone up the W&OD and ruined it.

by Greg on Feb 4, 2014 3:50 pm • linkreport

Looks great, except where does Fairfax County expect to get such a high demand out of all the planned office space? You can't develop Tysons into a city at the proposed densities AND redevelop Springfield, Merrifield, Centreville, Chantilly, Bailey's X-Roads, Herndon, Fairfax, and Reston into huge mixed-use or commercial areas with so much office space. Not if you are also competing with Loudoun, Arlington, DC and Maryland.

I don't get it.

by xtr657 on Feb 4, 2014 4:22 pm • linkreport

Throw a streetcar down the median of Reston Parkway with a large commuter lot at Route 7 to prevent commuters clogging up Reston Town Center on their way to the Metro.

by MJB on Feb 4, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

I am not a fan of highway metro rail by any stretch but in this case frequent rail combined with comprehensive bus coverage may be the best case scenario. I agree though it sounds like they are talking about putting enough supply to meet a 20+ year demand horizon but that's what planning should be doing. It might also be that it's appealing to international visitors who are going to be based in Nova but want a more urban location to stay without going into Arlington or DC. I think the closest analogy I can think of that they are aiming at is maybe downtown Bethesda which is one or possibly two central metro stations with a somewhat traditional dense downtown and lots of SFH development around it.

by BTA on Feb 4, 2014 4:48 pm • linkreport

Where exactly are they thinking of widening Reston Parkway?? And when?

by Victoria Baker on Feb 4, 2014 8:11 pm • linkreport

@Victoria Baker: if I recall correctly (take this as a guess), the widening is to add one northbound lane from Sunrise Valley Drive to the eastbound Toll Road entrance ramp.

by Transport. on Feb 4, 2014 8:16 pm • linkreport

@xtrandsomenumbers: You can't develop Tysons into a city at the proposed densities AND redevelop Springfield, Merrifield, Centreville, Chantilly, Bailey's X-Roads, Herndon, Fairfax, and Reston into huge mixed-use or commercial areas with so much office space. Not if you are also competing with Loudoun, Arlington, DC and Maryland.

Why not? Prices are still ridiculously high. Increase supply and prices will come down, so that normal people can afford to live here. That's something Loudoun, Arlington, DC and MD are not working on. They're all busy servicing the high end of the spectrum.

Greater Washington is growing. Fast. All those people need to go somewhere. And while DC will get the national spotlight, a lot of those people will come and live in Fairfax - you know, the most populated county in the region, and home of Georges Washington and Mason.

by Jasper on Feb 4, 2014 8:34 pm • linkreport

@Jasper, I get you with the residential...I'm all for that, I'm just a little skeptical that the region can absorb so much office space. I do a lot of work with developers in Tysons, given that I work for a public utility company, and to see these dreams up on the walls just makes me wonder...how many companies and jobs are coming to this area to make these offices viable. Vacancy rates are high and meanwhile, companies are generally doing more with less space and allowing for telecommuting in greater numbers.

by xtr657 on Feb 4, 2014 11:16 pm • linkreport

It's pretty unlikely for residential and even more so for commercial---indeed, people talk about these simplistic market forces but fail to provide good examples. Counter examples, like skyrocketing rents in NYC come more easily. . Real estate markets aren't that simple and they're investments, so people invest to make money. Individual buildings may be neglected and grow cheaper, but it's unusual for whole areas to decline unless there is the kind of rapid demographic change that leads to breaking of long term leases, etc. that stabilize real estate. there are factors that encourage redevelopment in some places (Tysons has the Silver Line and it touches areas with "obsolete" structures and non-intensive land uses (e.g., dead malls, big parking lots) that can be redeveloped. A place with fewer fundamentals like Bailey's Crossroads will have trouble competing. The feds have downsized their typical office space per person and this, combined with teleworking may dampen demand for new space, overall. there's also consolidation in sectors that are locally important like law firms. And brick & mortar retail is getting squeezed by online retail. the DC area's growth is not infinite and the effects of sequester are starting to be felt and the effects of BRAC are winding down. DC has a big eduational sector, which is threatened by online education and the research side is dependent on the stagnant federal research sector and the long declining private contributions to R&D. If there comes to be an oversupply, it will be structural and it will hurt rather than help redevelopment.

by Rich on Feb 5, 2014 10:28 am • linkreport

how many companies and jobs are coming to this area to make these offices viable. Vacancy rates are high and meanwhile, companies are generally doing more with less space and allowing for telecommuting in greater numbers.

I guess it depends on why you're asking the question.

I don't see why we should be worried about building too much office space - the developers are the ones taking the risk, they're the ones with money to lose if their investment doesn't pan out.

If you're asking from a planning perspective (should we be allowing this much office?), I don't think that's the right question. We should work on focusing dense development in areas that are walkable and accessible by transit. This Reston location holds a lot of promise in that regard.

There's a lot to be said for the plan to lay out the public realm, ensure connectivity among the streets, focus density around transit, but leave the specifics about the exact real estate product to the real estate market and the developers. Give them the flexibility to build any number of uses in a place like Reston, next to Metro - so long as they are in line with the broader planning principles for the area.

by Alex B. on Feb 5, 2014 10:38 am • linkreport

This is the path they should have taken: http://goo.gl/maps/7dM5i

One thing that is interesting is that there are some thoughts or plans to continue the Town Center Parkway under the highway down to Sunrise Valley Drive just to the west of the station which should really help with circulation to the south and potentially extend the town center that direction as well. All the buildings on that side are pretty ripe for redevelopment as well.

by NikolasM on Feb 5, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

I work out here in the area of Reston Pkwy and Sunrise Valley. A more recent map I dreamed up of what they should/could do in the area: http://goo.gl/maps/wVD7S

by NikolasM on Feb 5, 2014 11:42 am • linkreport

@xtr657

I agree. The region is still suffering from high vacancy rates as a result of the sequestration, recession, and even BRAC. In DC the sequestration and new GSA mandate to cut office space is hurting the market. Even the K Street law firms are shrinking office space.

In Montgomery County, there are a grand total of two large Class A office buildings under construction in the entire county (compared to about 30 high-density residential projects), and both are speculative, without tenants.

Northern Virginia isn't any better with a Q3 2013 Class A vacancy rate of 14.5%, with the Pentagon/Crystal City submarket at a whopping 21.5%. The brand-new 390-ft tower by Monday in Rosslyn still has no tenants and JBG just delayed plans to build an office tower next door and will be residential instead. Even Tysons Tower is only ~60% leased.

As for Reston TC, while it's nice that it'll (finally) have Metro access. It's hard to seriously consider it as a transit-oriented urban hub when the transit station is a mile away in the middle of a highway.

by King Terrapin on Feb 5, 2014 12:02 pm • linkreport

Is there any reason we don't plan the lines according to what is around them ? Its not like WMATA and Fairfax County don't have the data they operate buses around the county and that with traffic data could give planners a clue to the vicinity of where lines should be ?

For examples Reston Town Center almost all Fairfax Connector routes around that area go there so why not put the station near there, the same thing for hospitals, giant office parks, malls (fairoaks, formally springfield) etc.

by kk on Feb 5, 2014 5:07 pm • linkreport

There’s an interesting report in the GMU Archives from 1974 about Reston Town Center-

http://digilib.gmu.edu/dspace/handle/1920/2565

The map on page 27 (file b) shows a transportation center pretty much exactly where the RTC station is planned to go.

by Tom on Feb 5, 2014 5:58 pm • linkreport

A couple things to add to the discussion.

In terms of Tysons, office development is being proposed, but you are seeing more so a residential/retail/hotel push from the developers. Those markets remain insanely hot in this area, especially residential and street level retail. I'm not sure if Restons mix is higher on office or not, but other than Boston Properties I believe Reston is a much more residential mix of use.

I guess the idea here is, release the hounds. You are likely right that Route 1 corridor, 7Corners, Baileys, Springfield, Tysons and Reston can't all be commercial centers. Then again, these are not all on the same order of magnitude.

In the case of Route 1, its primarily residential combined with some infrastructure.
In Springfield, outside of the mall redevelopment (all own by one developer Vornado) there is nothing happening.
At Baileys they are talking streetcar and the possibility of some mixed use, but on the order of Mosaic, not Tysons (ie maybe a couple million square feet over the course of several decades).
At 7Corners, its mostly residential/retail and road realignment.

Then theres the two big ones, Reston and Tysons. In terms of the Reston expansion, its the same as 1 project in Tysons in total added. If Tysons Central was dropped in Reston, thats essentially what they are proposing.

Tysons remains the only area in Fairfax where the county is really envisioning a downtown of true scale (over 100 million square feet).

----

For the straw man question, they called the Tysons comp ideas the same thing, I never understood the reference.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 5, 2014 8:33 pm • linkreport

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