Saturday, February 17, 2007

Smart growth

I spent this week in Reston, Virginia, attending an American Press Institute seminar called "Leading the 24/7 Newsroom." The hotel where the 50 or so seminar attendees stayed was located in Reston Town Center. While we didn't have a lot of free time to explore (API seminars are pretty intense) I was struck by how Reston Town Center was laid out. It seemed to me to be a very well planned, modern, suburban "downtown." There is a central plaza, with an ice skating rink and fountains, surrounded by a rich mix of residential and commercial uses — the Hyatt Regency (where we stayed), street level retail shops and restaurants, a 13-screen multiplex movie theater, with offices, apartments and condominiums rising above these ground level uses. There's also a multi-level parking garage (but no huge paved parking lot to serve the stores and hotel).

It occurred to me that I was staying in a built-out planned development district that exemplifies what we talk about here on the East End — a very walkable, pedestrian-friendly, well-planned mixed-use suburban "downtown." We talk about this sort of thing an awful lot around here lately. But nobody's even come close to attempting to build such a thing. And whether anyone will ever succeed in doing so (on a smaller scale, with multi-level buildings that are not so tall, of course) remainst to be seen.

Curious about where I'd just spent the past week, I did a little searching on the Web this morning and found some interesting stuff about Reston.

Turns out, Reston was the first post-war planned community in the U.S. It was founded by Robert E. Simon, who bought some 7,000 acres of land outside of Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, between the capital district and a planned airport (now Dulles International). The town is named for Simon; its name is his initials (RES) plus -ton, the English suffix for "town." He was interested in planned communities and had "an aversion to the automobile," so he wanted to establish a community that would be very walkable. Interesting note: He'd lived on Long Island, in a house on a five-acre lot, and felt that the sprawling suburban landscape was isolating for his family.
The Reston Association has a history of the community on its Web site. And I also came across a podcast of an interview with Bob Simon, at age 92, in which he speaks about what motivated him to establish the community and what his goals were. (The podcast interview was done by Planetizen, a planning and development network whose Web site looks pretty interesting, too.)

One key quote from the Simon interview: "Zoning ordinances all over the country made mixed use virtually impossible." Why? Zoning codes establish separate districts for residential, shopping, office and other commercial uses. How true. And the familiar sprawling suburban landscape we live in is the result.

The notion of "mixed use" is relatively new, Simon being a pioneer in the field and Reston being the result. Simon also employed lots of other principles that other communities, like ours, are just starting to implement in pursuit of open space and energy conservation, such as clustered development and zero lot line homes. In addition to housing, retail, commercial and high-tech industrial uses (businesses that employ more than 30,000 people), Reston has 1,300 acres of open space forever preserved, plus miles of walking, jogging and bike trails, parks, 14 community pools, tennis courts, golf courses, and, as mentioned, an ice rink. The residential uses are mixed as well, from typical suburban single-family homes on substantial lots, to high rise and garden apartments, townhouses and condos, with the denser development concentrated around the downtown, much like the "halo" zones currently under consideration for hamlet areas in Southold Town.

I'd be interested to know how these concepts work with re-development plans such as what Riverhead is aiming for with its downtown "master developer" idea, and whether other communities have successfully used them to do what Riverhead is hoping to accomplish downtown. Anybody out there know of such a place or places? Maybe the Planetizen site has more info.

1 comment:

Ceil said...

Hi Denise - I assume that those involved in the Master Developer idea for Riverhead have had some of these plans in mind - or others equally workable.
We need to attract business; make downtown Rivehead safe. Now, if
developer folk are reading the NR the last two weeks, they are seeing front page stories about gangs in the area - and from what I've read the gang problem is the gospel truth.
We need to clean up Riverhead, then
go full speed ahead with making it a safe and beautiful place. We have the perfect location along the river, we can do so much. Something similar was done in Redbank, New Jersey, or North port and from the local history, Greenport was similar to Riverhead and has been upgraded and
attracts many visitors.
You know ideas on paper is just an idea; it's the moving of the feet that make ideas a reality.