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, February 09, 2017

Reston Town Center parking issue as a "planning failure" by the private sector

Correction: Note that Reston Town Center's does not charge for parking on weekends. See "All Reston Town Center merchant leases raised spectre of paid parking, owner says," Washingtong Business Journal). The text below has been corrected. 2/9/2017

Reston Town Center is an "edge city" in the classic sense, and it has more than come into its own as a suburban business and residential district (ULI book, Transforming Suburban Business Districts and summary report, Ten Principles for Reinventing Suburban Business Districts) even before its integration into the Metrorail transit system.

It's an illustration that urbanization is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to traditional center cities and suburban towns.

-- "Silver line reshaping commercial office market in Fairfax County"
-- "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC"

From a planning sense, RTC is in the news because of the introduction of paid parking to the development, which is 100% privately owned.

Paid parking is not totally foreign to the suburbs, but it is still an exception. The challenge comes when privately owned "retail" centers become a mix of commercial and non-commercial functions, how does the public have input into the changes?

I wrote about it a couple times last year, because it is an illustration of the gap in having public planning processes in places where most or all of the property is privately owned.

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

But it's in the news again ("Send lawyers and money: Reston Town Center merchants organize for potential battle with Boston Properties," Washington Business Journal) because the change has been introduced, and restaurants are experiencing up to a 40% loss in business. From the article:
Here is what has the largely independent retailers so peeved: Boston Properties instituted a $2 an hour weekday parking fee in order, it said, to cut down on commuter parking. In the month since, businesses have reported a drop in business anywhere from 10 to 40 percent, as well as a marked decrease in retail employment applications. Parking is mostly paid through an app, which many users say they have found confusing. Other patrons are just staying away on principle. ... 
Meanwhile, a group of patrons is organizing a protest march at Reston Town Center for March 4.
-- Reston Town Center Parking FAQ
-- petition
-- Park Free RTC Protest Facebook Page


1.  The property owner said they needed to introduce paid parking to reduce "free parking" by commuters, seeking no cost parking to support their use of Metrorail.  What that means is the problem they've identified is during commuting hours--the daytime--Monday through Friday,

2.  But they've introduced paid parking on a 24/5 basis, including evenings, but not on weekends. Note that evenings and weekends are when retailers and restaurants conduct the bulk of their business.

3.  Retailers can validate parking, but the company has introduced a program that limits validation by retailers to particular parking structures, making it impossible to "trip chain" or "park once" and conduct multiple activities seamlessly in one trip, for example, having a meal and seeing a movie.

4.  This illustrates they've introduced a transaction focused, not service focused process.  Which structure is used shouldn't matter.

5.  Boston Properties shouldn't be so concerned about revenue, if they are merely focused on managing the parking inventory in terms of commuting.


1.  Reston Town Center should be focused on managing the resource/charging for parking when it matters, which now is during the week during the "daytime."  Like in Montgomery and Arlington Counties, where county parking structures usually have free or reduced parking at nights and on weekends, they should do the same.

2.  If not, RTC should cover the cost of validation for the retail and entertainment establishments, at least for a long period of time.

3.  They need to integrate all the resources (each individual parking structure) into one seamless system, and provide multiple options for paying, and even include people as the new system is introduced--it's a fully automated system now.

Public Participation Recommendations.  Irrespective of the general issue of paying for parking to manage the resource being an issue in suburbs too, as I wrote almost a year ago, even though the development is privately owned, it's considered by the users to be a "public space," the community's Downtown.

4.  In recognition that the space is "owned" in part by its users, the property owner needed to create a very public planning process for the consideration and implementation of paid parking at the Reston Town Center.

While Boston Properties had some meetings and did studies behind the scenes, their efforts didn't extend to the lengths that a traditional public process would go, and they are paying for it now (See the letter to the editor, "Reston Town Center parking poorly designed, poorly implemented says transportation consultant" and "Reston Town Center paid parking discourages my family from visiting," Fairfax County Times).

Just the cost of counsel for one lawsuit is greater than it would have cost to run a public planning process.  And who wants to go through the hassle of dealing with your customers as demonstrators?

Going forward, such developments should take steps to provide for public engagement and involvement, even though it wouldn't go to the extent of "oversight."

5.  Create an advisory council.  Reston is an unincorporated area of Fairfax County and has separately, a very powerful citizens organization, the Reston Association, which is very involved in area planning.  Interestingly, the Association doesn't appear to have weighed in much on the RTC parking issue.

I would recommend the creation of an Advisory Council for the Reston Town Center, not unlike the WMATA "Riders Advisory Council" or how universities may have neighborhood-town engagement committees, to provide a regular channel for back and forth communications and consultation (George Washington University Community Advisory Committee).

Arguably, the organization could step in and broker the creation of this kind of committee, which should have membership based on relationship to the RTC (patrons, business owners, residents, commercial tenants, etc.), which therefore would preclude residentially-based membership restrictions, which is atypical for the organization's other committees.

Montgomery County Urban District Advisory Committees.  Another model, although it is County-created, is how Silver Spring, and Wheaton have "Urban District Community Advisory Committees," when each of those areas is unincorporated.

More recently a similar committee has been created to advise on issues related to the redevelopment of the White Flint area, which has land use conditions similar to that of Reston, but a much wider array of "property relations."

From Ten Principles for Reinventing Suburban Business Districts:
Community building involves the mobilization of public and private capital to create assets that engender pride and value in a community. It involves the activation and growth of community support through stakeholder consensus. The transformation of suburban business districts relies on a three-way partnership of the private sector, government, and the broader community. Community outreach must be ingrained in the process from the outset.

Many community-building projects have failed or wasted precious time and financial resources either in litigation or in gaining community support because essential communication channels were not established at the beginning. In essence, such communication builds understanding and trust. The three-way partnership should be built on a firm foundation of shared goals and, at the very least, should include a fair and open process that allows all interested parties to be heard before decisions are made and implemented. (p. 11)

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At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RTC and that whole area is incredibly depressing- its all about cars and a fake Hollywood concept of " Washington DC" without the flavor, aesthetic vision and historic authenticity of the real DC. The large modernist buildings purporting to be "DC" are soulless colorless and antiseptic- without good public sculpture and w/o the organic feel of a place that has grown up over a long period of time. Developers seeking to replicate a city cannot do it by plopping down buildings in a complex and expect it to look like it is accreted with many varieties of building stock.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't agree, what matters is if it works for its land context. Yes, it's not DC. It was never intended to be.

Compare it more to Bethesda Row for an analogous situation.

For what it intends to do, what I think of as "urbanism lite" (which I've written about a lot) it works just fine.

There is a reason we don't live in Bethesda. On the other hand, not everybody wants to live in DC either.

What we do need to know is why it succeeds or fails and learn from it and apply the learning, in appropriate ways, to our city matters.

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well,RTC is better than what they made in the 60's for sure-with all of those silly townhomes by the lake, etc. but it fails in the authenticity department- badly. Actually Bethesda has real authenticity as it once had a working industrial area with interesting streets that were readapted . At one time Bethesda had a working rail yard with at least a few factories that fed off of the rail hub- and these things were brought together in a significant way to make a real place with its own sort of unique architecture that is not by any means copying or parroting DC's " official" building style[ whatever they think that may be]. Bethesda also stands to make out with the new Purple Line in addition to metro. Bethesda was a hub going back over 100 years whereas RTC is a fabrication by Rouse and company from a 1960's anti- city movement/delirium .

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think you're making my point. Don't disagree at all with what you're saying. But RTC is a post-1960, actually a post-1990 creation.

It has to be judged on that basis, as an "edge city," not as not being "Washington, Alexandria, Bethesda, Leesburg, etc."

On that basis, it has superblocks sure, but organized in a city urban design pattern, with active ground floors, programming and a wide range of activities, etc.

That doesn't mean I want to live or work there, but I can appreciate its offerings.

At 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes it is a far more sound approach than Tyson Corners or any other sort of car oriented edge city. It actually exhibits a certain desire to recreate the traditional city center- and to create functional places for festivals and celebrations- which many real American cities have abandoned for the automobile and its dominance over all. Yes- it is planned- I personally see it as "over-planned" to the point of being absurd- it allows for little in-fill or alteration- almost like the Federal Triangle- but w/o the high class sculpture and fine arts components and real city streets. I do approve of the pedestrian prioritization of the central area of RTC. My beef is the cold looking knock off " federal" office building look that is totally a Hollywood fabrication of what central DC is like. There is no color or character to the buildings. Even large federal buildings in the 50's made an attempt at placing allegorical sculptures integral with the structure into their compositions- this is lost on modernist " architects" [ more like developers since these" architects" are no longer a part of the traditional art world].Yes- planning wise it is a better approach than the 60's Reston was- and is far better designed and made. I had to attend conferences in RTC 3 times in a row and was appalled by them using "Washington DC" in their advertising when it is clearly NOT DC. In fact- some of the conferees also complained about this- bickering that it took two hours on a bus [ the metro had not yet been finished] to get into the REAL Washington DC and yet it is advertised as being in " Washington DC".

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Good points. I sent this link to a contact I have at ULI, and said this topic ought to be a story in the Urban Land Magazine. Your points extend the arguments I was making about the need for public planning processes even for decidedly privately owned spaces in interesting ways.


At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

despite my reluctance to accept RTC- you are correct in saying it is a step forward. Actually - if all suburban development could be like this things would work far better- it is basically extending the city outward on a rail segment.

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Dan Malouff said...

I tweeted this but wanted a graphic to illustrate. If you write again about this and want to use the graphic, go ahead:

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Awesome graphic. Thank you. I will have to write again on this topic, just to use your graphic!

At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parking on the streets at RTC costs on Saturdays! It's not free everywhere on the weekends!


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