Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What to do about public input when seemingly public facilities are privately owned?: Parking at Reston Town Center, Fairfax County, Virginia

Note that the typical answer to the question is "There isn't any.  This is private property."  It becomes an issue when the private property is decidedly "public" in terms of how it's used, especially for retail.   From a customer relationship standpoint, shopping district managers need to start thinking more broadly about soliciting customer input through public planning processes.

Fairfax County Times photo.

Reston Town Center is a suburban retail and business district in Fairfax County.  It is a thriving eater-tainment district featuring popular restaurants complemented by retail and movie theaters, office buildings, and an increasing amount of multiunit residential development.

Opened in 1990, it is a one of a set of seminal examples of mixed use development ("Reston Town Center turns 25," Fairfax County Times; "Reston Town Center: 45 Years in the Making," Urban Land Magazine).  It is heavily programmed with special events and other activities, from ice skating in winter to yoga in the summer, wine festivals, etc.

-- Ten Principles for Developing Successful Town Centers, Urban Land Institute

Parking at Reston Town CenterReston Town Center to charge for parking. To make more money ("Reston Town Center Paid Parking Has Been Discussed For Years," Reston Now) and to better manage parking resources and limit the use of the Town Center's parking assets by transit users, attracted to free parking somewhat proximate to the "new" Wiehle Avenue Metrorail Station on the Silver Line, as reported by Reston Now (Parking at Reston Town Center Will Soon Cost Money--Sometimes"") the Center has announced that effective in August, they will be instituting a paid parking system.

They'll be charging $2/hour for itinerant users, with a $12 maximum, and $70/month for office workers and $50/month for retail workers.  No charges will be assessed on weekends, holidays and for special events.

The commenters on the RN articles ("Reston Town Center Store Owners, Employees Say Pay Parking Will Hurt Business," and "Reston Town Center's Pay Parking System Will Also Charge Employees") offer a range of opinion--many against of course, statements that they will patronize other shopping alternatives offering free parking, while others made some very very good suggestions, including (1) providing free parking of short duration, say up to 3 hours; (2) parking validation systems to provide some free parking in return for purchasing; and/(3) free parking at night, to support frequent retail and restaurant trips.

One person embedded a video of the practice at a Westfield shopping center in Australia, where all vehicles are logged, but charges are assessed only after three hours.

These are interesting suggestions, and ought to be considered by the property's management, but because the facility is privately owned, there is no good way to provide input--although people have started a number of Internet petitions.

As a planner, I have no problem with RTC charging for parking, while pointing out that they need to balance revenue generation, resource allocation, and customer relations factors while transitioning to the new system.

But as a planner, I think this matter is more interesting in how it brings to the fore issues concerning public input into practices that impact them, in this case actions by private property owners rather than local government.

It's all the more poignant because Boston Properties has been considering charging for parking for many years.  The Washington Business Journal reported on this in 2012, "Paid parking in Reston Town Center's future."  There have been plenty of opportunities to institute a public process.

Traditional commercial districts have a mix of private property and public facilities.  Reston Town Center is on fully private land, even the streets, which makes sense because before the site was developed it was likely farmland and the site was completely controlled by one land owner.

That's different from traditional suburban business districts like Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville, Wheaton, Ballston, and Alexandria, which are marked by a wide variety of property owners and buildings developed over decades and centuries.  In these business districts, parking is offered by a mix of public and private sources, which may or may not be free.

For example, parking authorities in Montgomery and Arlington Counties have parking structures which support multiple properties in commercial districts such as Bethesda or Clarendon.

Usually there is a mix of free or paid parking, which varies with the time of day and the desire of the county and businesses to promote patronage.  Another way to think of this is they are providing "shared parking," and business and economic development goals support public involvement in providing and managing parking.

By contrast, the parking structures at Reston Town Center have the same private ownership as the development, Boston Properties, a major real estate firm active on the East Coast.

Segmenting a traditionally suburban county with more dense, "urbanized" districts and the impact on parking.  Part of the issue with charging for parking has to do with the county's segmentation into more urbanized districts as part of the traditional suburban, automobile-centric, land use paradigm.  In denser districts, parking resources tend to need more careful management, and the best way to do that is through pricing mechanisms, especially because parking tends to be provided within parking structures and parking within buildings, which is many times more expensive to produce compared to surface parking lots.

Most of Fairfax County's parking regulations and what planning on parking that exists has to do with parking in neighborhoods.  The county traditionally hasn't owned parking structures.  (Technically, cities like Fairfax or Vienna are independent of the county government.)

Although this is changing in association with the provision of parking at some of the new Silver Line Metrorail stations.

Business districts should consider instituting public planning processes.  Just as I argue that business improvement districts need to include resident and stakeholder representation because the districts are the practical managers of otherwise public places (see "Integrating citizen residents into "business" improvement districts: Capital Riverfront district as an opportunity and example of the need for change"), mixed use shopping districts that are privately controlled, like Reston Town Center, ought to consider creating a public process to deal with parking and other issues that impact its customer segments-office and retail tenants, workers, residents, and non-resident customers.

For example, the RTC's webpage on parking doesn't even mention the pending change.  And they don't have a section of their website for press releases and announcements of changes or projects about which the public is likely to have opinions, and how a "mutual exchange of views" can improve outcomes.

I can't say that I am familiar with "shopping centers" opening up their planning processes to public input.  It happens I am in the process of writing another blog entry on the state of the shopping mall business, and many centers are being made over into spaces that include "non-commodified space" -- spaces and places where people can sit or do things, such as play bocce or ping pong in seemingly "public spaces" -- without having to pay.

As privately owned retail centers become a mix of commercial and non-commercial functions, how does the public have input into the changes?

Image: Starwood Retail Partners.  The Stony Point Fashion Center lifestyle shopping center in Richmond is undergoing renovation to add more public space and entertainment elements.

The center’s western part, near Dillard’s, will be home to “The West End,” an eclectic, open-air space where guests can play a game of bocce ball after a movie or relax on modern rockers in a lively, inviting courtyard, interspersed with fire pits, fountains and tables. 

The center’s eastern side will feature a park, entertainment and shopping. “Triangle Park” will have fountains, experiential art, whimsical seating (including heated benches) and space designed for the seasons – a stage for summer events that will transform to a winter ice-skating rink in cooler months. Caption: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But I have been writing about this for many years.  In December 2006, I was interviewed for the Smart Growth America newsletter on the phenomenon of "Lifestyle Centers vs. Traditional Commercial Districts."

From the article:
Speak a little bit about the authenticity that an old-fashioned main street or center city commercial district can possess that is a difficult for any type of mall to achieve?

The difference between a mall, a lifestyle center, and a traditional commercial district is in part between chains and independents, standardization versus quirky. More important is the difference in the built environment and the mix of uses beyond selling only retail goods. The TCD (traditional commercial district—downtowns as well as neighborhood commercial districts) was constructed over time, by many different builders and architects, reflecting a wider variety and more authentic architecture. Plus, TCDs were never solely about commerce, and incorporated civic functions, ranging from uses like the post office, courts, libraries, and even schools, including institutions of higher learning, a greater variety of cultural venues (other than cinemas)

...TCDs are much more likely to be places for services catering to both consumers and businesses—from shoe repair to lawyers—as well as accommodating larger scale office buildings. Plus, the urban location allows for the sale of groceries, which are difficult to sell in mall/lifestyle center locations.

A commercial shopping center is built at once, designed by one architect, and built by one developer, and can never achieve organically the authentic feel of a place constructed over decades. Shopping centers, no matter the type, are all about the sale of goods and only the sale of goods. There is little room for civic and social functions or cultural venues.
But what I missed then is that because of competition, over time these "privately owned public places" would be spurred to add public functions and (2) there is a need to provide a method for public input into the development, management, and programming processes of these private spaces, not just when they are approved as part of zoning and building regulation processes, but in an ongoing fashion.

Public access issues in seemingly private spaces.  Another example of this being an issue, but it involved public space that is privately managed, is strictures against photography in the Downtown Silver Spring development managed by the Peterson Companies.  But because this is a publicly-owned space and because the County Executive had been a law professor focused on Constitutional Law, the County stepped in and made it clear that this was unacceptable ("Privatizing public places -- Free Speech on private streets," and "U.S. protests and public space: civic engagement access issues").

It's also been an issue at Union Station in DC, which is owned by the federal government, but managed by a nonprofit and a commercial lease holder ("Photographers Detail Difficulties Shooting Facility," Washington Post).

Another example that jurisdictional parking planning needs to provide recommendations for both public and private facilities.  A major gap in public planning processes is that typically the plans are most focused on resources controlled by the government entity doing the plan.

I have a bunch of entries on how this can be a problem in many areas of planning (culture, libraries, parks, parking, schools, health care, etc.) because the element is not addressed comprehensively and in an integrated fashion, so citizen interests are inadequately represented and suboptimal use of resources is the typical result.


-- "Parking districts vs. transportation/urban management districts: Part one, Bethesda"
-- "Parking districts vs. transportation/urban management districts: Part two, Takoma DC/Takoma Park Maryland"

It may be that Fairfax County ought to consider broadening its recommendations and coverage of parking planning matters as part of the County's transportation element of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan.  It's not that they don't address parking:
Objective 5: Promote Transportation Demand Management (TDM) to support efficient use of the county’s transportation system.
Policy a. Promote and market public transit, ridesharing, use of HOV lanes, bicycling and walking with all potential users.
Policy b. Promote TDM strategies including teleworking, teleconferencing, tele-education, alternative work schedules, flexible work hours and/or variable pricing.
Policy c. Implement parking management programs and parking controls in activity centers to encourage use of mass transit, HOV and non-motorized transportation.
Policy d. Encourage and support employers and landowners to establish transportation management associations (TMAs).
Policy h. Require that applicants for rezoning and special exceptions show evidence that they have analyzed and evaluated potential TDM strategies. Encourage proffers of TDMs and develop enforcement mechanisms and proffers in support of the county’s transit system.
Policy i. Develop TDM strategies and programs in cooperation with MWCOG and other local jurisdictions.
But they don't address it in a detailed fashion--the plan actually mentions bicycle parking more than regular parking--and there is limited substantive guidance in the plan, other than the list of objectives.

Even a recommendation of creating public processes for activity centers such as Reston would be a step forward from where the plan is now.  A sub-element of the plan on parking should discuss the value of shared parking in commercial districts, various methods for managing the resource, including charging systems, commuter parking, and practices of various property owners in the county.

Labels: , , , , ,


At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reston Towne Center is one word- CREEPY- it is an architectural attempt to copy the Hollywood stereotype of DC w/o the grittiness of a real city with real age, character and real ARCHITECTURAL SCULPTURE- yes- none of these fake "DC style" buildings have any sculptures that they REAL DC buildings mostly have because they were made and built by real architects and artists working in tandem .Reston Towne Center is a sanitized and minority free way to pretend you are in "Washington DC" without having to fear black people walking around. Its dishonest and it exploits proximity to the real place.

At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

regardless, as a space for people, RTC works and is improving as it becomes better managed.

Not every place has to be a center city or suburban town like Alexandria with historical roots.

At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

It's also very very important for "cities" to track developments in places like RTC, Bethesda Row, Rockville Town Center, the Mosaic District, etc., as reference group comparisons.

These places are managed. By contrast our neighborhood districts in DC, outside of areas covered by business improvement districts somewhat, are not managed in a comprehensive way.

E.g., see my 2005 post on "we are all destination managers now."

So our places will fall behind in terms of activation because of it.

That's not a good thing.

Also see my piece on Silver Spring and layering.

At 6:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks Reston is "minority-free" doesn't get out of the bubble much.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

a follow up on RTC's implementation of paid for parking in the WBJ.

I wonder how you do "enforcement" on private property. I guess, eventually, towing.

Some of the restaurants, cinema, and retailers are participating in a validation scheme.

At 5:30 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


Post a Comment

<< Home