Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Turning Reston's Plan Into Reality

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

The Reston Master Plan Task Force met again last night to discuss the the Comprehensive plan prepared by County staff.  As you know, RCA had many serious concerns about the last draft, and we’re still working with the staff and the Task Force to address the issues we raised. 

We still have a ways to go on that, but within the next couple of months, we will finalize the Comp Plan language, and it will go to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors for approval.  It’s been a long time (a really long time) coming, but it will be done sooner rather than later.  And once the Comp Plan is approved, we can all relax, or at least move on to something else, right?

Wrong.  Believe it or not, what we do after the plan is approved matters at least as much as what we put in the plan.  Even if we produce the very best possible Comprehensive Plan, it will be meaningless unless we have a way to implement it.  We need an entity that’s responsible for turning our visions into reality.

What do I mean by implementation?  For one thing, the “place-making” around the stations that everyone on the Task Force wants requires a comprehensive and coordinated effort with a common set of standards.  It would require cooperation between different landowners across parcels, and someone will need to make that happen.

Perhaps more important, though, is the question of financing.  The Task Force has generated a pretty long list of amenities and infrastructure that we want and need n the station areas.  That includes things like transportation (Toll Road crossings, the grid of streets, sidewalks and bike paths), recreation (parks, fields, possibly a rec center and a performing arts center), schools, and more.  If we wait for the County to build all those things, we’ll be waiting a long time.  It’s likely that some combination of developer proffers and other funding sources will be needed to build our infrastructure.

But a lot of these big-ticket items are too big to put on the shoulders of a single entity.  The Soapstone crossing, for instance, probably couldn’t be paid for by one developer’s proffer.  We’ll need to join forces.  But we need someone to coordinate that; piecemeal infrastructure can cause serious problems.  (For an example, look at the missing links in Loudoun County’s roads, thanks to development drying up during the recession.)  We need someone to prioritize our wish list, so that when money does come in, it’s spent properly.  We need someone to ensure that infrastructure keeps pace with development, so we don’t end up with more growth than we can support.  If new taxes or revenue sources are on the table, we need someone to figure out the appropriate rates and determine who will pay.

Fortunately, we have an example we can follow.  The Tysons Task Force’s implementation plan called for a separate authority to serve as “Keeper of the Vision.”  They proposed tasking that authority with exactly the sorts of issues I’ve described: managing cooperation between landowners and parcels, setting common standards and design objectives to help with “place-making,” and figuring out how to fund the collective needs that arise from development.  We could do a lot worse than to follow in Tysons’ footsteps on this one.

Unfortunately, we already know what happens when no one is responsible for implementing a plan, thanks to the Reston Metrorail Access Group.  RMAG met for two years and developed a series of transportation priorities to ensure that people were able to get to, from, and around the Wiehle Metro station.  Their report was issued in 2008; unfortunately, there was no group created to ensure that the recommendations were implemented.  The result?  The Wiehle station is set to open in a few short months, and as RCA has documented, almost none of the work RMAG called for has been done.  And Reston is going to pay for it in bigger traffic jams and difficult access to the station.

We have a chance to get it right this time.  Unlike the period following the RMAG study, the state is actually providing transportation funds (as demonstrated by all the repaving going on in and around Reston these days).  And development is going to pick up again, which means proffer money will be available.  That makes it all the more important to ensure that we’re spending our money wisely and well, so that the station areas wind up being an asset to our community, rather than a hindrance that clogs our roads and strains our infrastructure.

Who serves on this implementation authority is just as important as what the group’s charge is.  It’s important that the authority have a strong citizen presence.  We will be living the reality of the development along the corridor, and we have a crucial stake in the success of the station areas, just as much as any developer.  The citizen representatives will help the authority stay close to the ground, to make sure that the group’s work benefits the average Restonian.  They will also ensure that the authority maintains credibility and confidence with the public; we want to know that someone’s looking out for our interests as Reston grows and changes.

The new Comprehensive Plan, once it’s finalized, will be a major achievement for the County and for Reston.  But it’s vital that we don’t leave the job half-finished; along with the Plan language, we need a concrete plan for implementing our vision.  An authority along the lines of the one proposed in Tysons will help guide us as we work to make our vision a reality.  When Reston was founded, Bob Simon made sure his vision was carried out (with the help of the committed citizens of the pioneer generation).  While no one can truly replace Bob, this implementation group can follow in his footsteps and keep the vision of Reston moving forward into the 21st century.

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