Reston Town Center, filling up, will soon face redevelopment

When the Reston Town Center opened in 1990, not only did it strikingly depart from the sprawl spreading across northern Virginia, it also contrasted sharply against what might be called the “Hometown USA” style of other new urban centers. Whereas Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts worked at recreating the traits of main street shopping districts that had thrived in small towns until after the Second World War, Reston Town Center aimed for a very different character. It strove to be suave — to look like a bit of the big city transplanted to suburban Fairfax County.

An initial pair of elaborately detailed, 11-story office buildings that wrapped around Fountain Square, and an urbane Hyatt Regency Hotel on the opposite side of Market Street, gave Reston Town Center the dignified air of an upscale business district. After a sluggish start in retailing, which put some of the original independent merchants out of business, the Town Center established a reputation as a desirable place, especially for corporate offices and restaurants.

Now Reston Town Center is experiencing another major spurt of development. The new construction is intensifying the center’s urban qualities. KSI Inc., a major developer in the Washington region, is erecting two 21-story condominium towers, a 288-unit apartment tower, and 78 loft condos — all on what had been a parking lot near the western end of Market Street. On the other side of Market, another parking lot will soon become a small park and high-rise luxury housing. And a block farther on, Trammell Crow Residential recently built 698 apartments and condominium units in two large four-story buildings, known as Alexan Reston Town Center.

“There will be about 3,000 people living right here [in the core of the Town Center and nearby],” says Laura London, director of sales and merchandising for KSI. Recently, she says, “there has been a big price escalation.” The KSI condo towers, called Midtown Reston Town Center, are selling from about $490,000 for one-bedroom units, to $800,000 to $900,000-plus for three-bedroom units, to $1.3 million or more for penthouses, according to sales agent Judy Buckley. Together, the two KSI condo towers will bring 293 high-rise households into the Town Center.

magnet for tech firms

Businesses, especially those involved in technology, are gravitating to the Town Center. “Companies are leaving Tysons Corner [several miles east] for Reston Town Center,” says Robert Kettler, chairman of KSI, earlier known as Kettler & Scott. People are “coming for quality of life,” he says. Traffic congestion is much less severe than at Tysons Corner, and employees can walk to restaurants and shops (most of which are regional or national chains).

“The project was probably a little ‘overbuilt’ relative to where the market was at the time of completion, in terms of costs and finishes,” says Maryland-based real estate consultant Seth Harry, “but the market quickly caught up, allowing RTC to set the standard for the Dulles market [the substantially high-tech corridor near Dulles International Airport]. Its rents now enjoy a premium over Tysons Corner, the previous office rent king in northern Virginia.”

Observers have often pointed out that Reston’s urban character extends for only a few blocks before abruptly giving way to surface parking. However, the assumption all along was that buildings would eventually replace parking lots. Allowing the surface parking to remain for more than a decade has proven to be a wise decision, says Alan Ward, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates, which was involved in planning the center. Now that areas on the periphery have been developed, the central parking lots can make way for truly high-density development, he says.

“Prices here are higher than in downtown DC,” Kettler says. Because economic demand is so strong, KSI has been able to afford to construct four levels of underground parking beneath the condo towers. Where Boston Properties is building an above-ground garage, it will wrap much of its exterior will be wrapped by loft apartments.

Some of the buildings constructed in the Town Center 15 years ago will soon begin to be razed and replaced by taller, denser development, Kettler says. A two-story block of retail and offices just west of the Hyatt no longer uses the land efficiently, he notes. A movie complex on Market Street will probably be rebuilt about a block away to make way for another office tower. “This is going to happen very quickly,” he says. “We will double the street retail opportunities. We can upgrade to Tiffany, Chanel, Jimmy Choo.”

One of the weakest aspects of the Town Center is the wide roads that surround it. Planners placed apartment towers where they would terminate the vista eastward from Market Street, but the six-lane Reston Parkway makes it difficult for residents of those apartments to walk to and from the center. Similarly, New Dominion Parkway is a barrier to anyone wanting to walk from the town center to the nearby public library. The road standards of the Virginia Department of Transportation paid more attention to motorists than to pedestrians.

Long-range plans call for the Metro commuter rail system to pass within about a half-mile of the Town Center on its route to the airport. Metro may be installed in the median of the Dulles Toll Road. Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech in Alexandria, says the region would be better off moving the Metro line so that it goes through places like the Town Center and through “areas that would be transformed by its presence.” Doing so would make Reston Town Center even stronger, and, Lang says, it would save the Dulles Toll Road landscape, which was designed by Dan Kiley, one of the leading landscape architects of the past half-century. u