Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Office Space and Reston's Planning

This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published in Reston Patch.

At last night’s Reston Master Plan Task Force meeting, we learned about the latest iteration of the Comprehensive Plan revisions proposed by County staff.  Among the items discussed was an issue that RCA’s Terry Maynard has been discussing for some time: the plan’s assumptions about the number of gross square feet per office worker.

Wait a minute.  I can already see your eyes glazing over.  Colin’s not going to subject us to a whole post about office square footage numbers, is he?  I’d rather read about Reston getting yet another frozen yogurt shop.  I understand that the debate may seem academic, but it isn’t.  In this post, I’ll explain what the difference in square footage assumptions means, and why it matters as we plan for the future development of Reston.

In order to figure out how much office and residential development should be planned, the Master Plan Task Force looked at forecasts of the expected number of new residents and workers in Reston over the next 20 years, and then planned to allow enough office and housing development to accommodate that growth.  (Actually, the plan allows for more residential growth than the forecasts suggest, in an effort to encourage construction of housing in the station areas, since there’s very little of it now.) 

The Task Force is using 300 gross square feet (GSF) per worker as a baseline for the amount of office development allowed under the new Comprehensive Plan.  So if the forecast calls for 30,000 jobs added over the next 20 years, the plan will allow approximately 9,000,000 GSF of new office space (30,000 x 300 GSF per worker).

What Terry has argued, in letters to Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors and the Department of Planning and Zoning, is that 300 GSF per worker is a serious overestimate given the trends in office planning.  As you’ve probably noticed if you’re an office worker or a regular reader of Dilbert, companies are allowing less and less space for workers these days.  Private offices have given way to cubicles for a lot of employees; in some cases, cubicles are giving way to open-plan offices, working from home, and “office hoteling” (where workers don’t have assigned workstations, instead reserving office space as needed on the days they come in). 

Terry’s sources indicate that the current space-per-worker allotment is around 200 GSF, and that figure is trending downward, possibly as low as 100 GSF per worker in the coming decades.  This trend isn’t limited to private employers, either; the GSA has reduced office space requirements for government workers below 200 GSF.

Okay, you might be thinking, so 300 GSF sounds high.  But what difference does it make?  It makes a big difference, actually.  Throughout the planning process, RCA has fought for a balance between commercial and residential development.  If jobs and housing are in balance, it’s easier for people to live, work, and play in the same place (sounds familiar!), which means they’ll spend less time in their cars.  Overestimating the space per worker means that we’ll actually be allowing more jobs than we’re planning for, which would disrupt that balance we’re working to achieve.

To give you an idea of how this works, imagine that your child is coming home from college for the summer.  You’ve put sheets on the bed, stocked up the fridge… everything’s ready.  But then your kid shows up with three friends, who are also going to stay at your place.  Hey, the bedroom’s big enough; they can just crash on the floor! 

But bedroom space isn’t the only issue.  You’ll need to buy more food and do more laundry, the kids are going to monopolize the TV and the hot water, and on and on.  It’s no surprise that you’re gritting your teeth and counting the days until September.

The same thing applies in this planning scenario… only the extra workers aren’t going away come fall.  Let’s use the numbers from earlier as an example: If we’re planning for 30,000 new jobs at 300 GSF per worker, that’s 9 million square feet of office space.  But if companies are only using 200 GSF per worker, that means we’d actually see 45,000 jobs in the office space we planned. 

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the additional traffic those extra jobs would generate.  And that’s going to mean longer backups, harm to the environment, and more taxes to pay for more transportation infrastructure.

Given all that, why is the County sticking to its guns on the 300 GSF assumption?  Responding to Terry’s letters, Planning Chief Fred Selden cited historical data supporting that number, and said that “it is best to base our assumptions on present conditions and past experience rather than predictions of future changes in the office market.”  And in fairness, future predictions can be wrong.  But the trend toward less office space is already happening!  It’s been underway for at least a decade.  And if we’re planning for Reston’s future, shouldn’t we look forward rather than backward?

At last night’s meeting, County planner Heidi Merkel noted that the market will build to meet demand; if there’s less demand for office space per worker, then we’ll simply have less office construction.  Hopefully that’s the case.  But there’s nothing in the plan to limit the number of workers we can add around the stations, just the amount of office space.  Setting reasonable limits on the amount of office construction is the only way to prevent the excessive traffic that a jobs-to-housing imbalance would create.  If we’re not using the right numbers, we won’t be able to strike the right balance.

I hope this primer has demystified the issue a bit, and helped explain why Terry and RCA are so concerned about this issue.  When it comes to planning for Reston’s future, we’ve got one chance to get it right.  And RCA is crunching the numbers to make sure that the new development rules won’t keep Reston from being a great place to live, work, and play. 

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