If “soft programming” is made a part of the “design” of public and private spaces, spaces that “look good” in plans will become great people places.
Historically, I would offer two examples of this thought: Place des Voges and Plaza San Marcos. If one looked at the original plans of Place des Voges or Plaza San Marcos, we would fine very classic designs. In each case, there was the provision for a colonnade pedestrian connection; a mixture of uses, different forms of public uses, different surfaces, and ability to “program” various activities (relaxing, people watching, food offerings, music, culture). Both spaces allow for the ebb and flow of the seasons, time of day, weather, water, and in the case of Plaza San Marcos, the desires of the people (and pigeons), both residents and visitors. We need to provide for this programming in our private and public spaces.
In America, for a variety of reasons, we have focused primarily on the physical design of public and private spaces, rather than the combination of physical design and “soft programming.”
There are many good examples that have succeeded in this objective. I would like to share with you how “soft programming” and great physical design transformed Reston from a series of neighborhoods and commercial centers in a master planned community to a real place that contributed to property values.
They say success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. While Bob Lesser, my partner, and I were fortunate to consult on Reston Town Center, the accolades for Reston Town Center belong to Jim Todd, Jim Cleveland, Hunter Richardson and Thomas D’Alesandro (Mobil Land Development), George Pillorgé and Chuck Kubat (RTKL), Alan Ward (Saski) and Ken Himmel and Ken Wong (MKDG/Himmel) who developed the first phase of Reston Town Center and Boston Properties for the second phase.
Reston is a master planned community that was planned and initially developed by Robert Simon. In 1978, Mobil Land Development Company purchased Reston. Reston Town Center represented Mobil Land Development’s strong desire and great need to provide a “heart” for a master planned community that was struggling to find “its soul.”
A little backdrop is necessary to understand what and why it took place at Reston Town Center.
In 1978, when the Robert Simon/Mobil Land Development team retained Bob Lesser and me to consult on Reston and Reston Town Center, you could hunt on the site of Reston Town Center. Traveling westbound from Washington D. C., there was no exit from the Dulles Toll Road for Reston, so you had to drive to Dulles Airport and then return on the Toll Road, going eastbound in order to get to Reston.
When Bob and I started, we discovered that there were three things that were going to change about Fairfax County that created a market, which would provide a backdrop for Reston Town Center to potentially be successful.
Thanks to the excellent and persistent marketing program of the Economic Development Authority of Fairfax County, Fairfax County became the Silicon Valley of the Mid-Atlantic States. When Mike Morgan, from Richmond, created the campaign, there were 11 “hi-tech” firms in Fairfax County. Today, there are over 2,000 technology firms in Fairfax County and Reston directly benefited from this surge.
In the late 1970’s most associations were located where their constituents were located. (The Cattleman’s Association was out with cattle.) This has all changed and now all associations are located in the Washington D. C. area. Seventy-five of these associations are located in Fairfax County and many in and around Reston.
Finally, due to the leadership of Fairfax County, the Department of Defense released their grip on the Dulles Toll Road and allowed for normal freeway on and off-ramps to be installed.
All three of these factors were good for Reston. More people and more sophisticated people were going to be moving to Reston. Because of these changes, businesses and business travelers were going to be attracted to Reston and now they were going to have free mobility. So the question became: “How does Reston position itself to capture more than its ‘fair share?’”
Because of the vision and leadership of Jim Todd, CEO of Mobil land, Reston Town Center is what it is today. He implored the entire team to be ambitious in our thinking. Bob Lesser and I believed there was market support and financial viability for a much more dense, urban environment, with a mixed-use character for the entire 460-acres of Reston Town Center
There were three things that made Reston Town Center possible and successful. There was good stewardship in Mobil Land Development. They wanted to do the right thing and they possessed the patience and resources to make it happen.
The Fairfax County planners were supportive and not dictatorial. In the Planned Residential Community zoning, the entire 460-acres was zoned “Town Square.” (I came from Los Angeles, I was looking for something much more detailed and regulatory.)
Throughout its planning, development, and operating history, Reston Town Center consistently benefitted by having the right team for the project at the right time. Mobil Land Development and the developers struck the right balance. RTC was well done, but not over the top.
We were smart enough to know
to a good degree what we didn’t
know and hired really great
consultants all down the line.
Mobil Land Development’s guiding principles for Reston Town Center was:
- They wanted it be a “downtown,” with a “main street” and urbanity.
- MLD was realistic. They wanted a development that reflected the current market, but flexible enough to meet future market conditions.
- They were willing to develop less and hold off with certain uses (e.g. hotel) until they could achieve the highest quality and have every phase be positive.
- They wanted a pedestrian friendly and connected place.
- They wanted the entire 460 acres to be responsive to the land form and environment.
- The street system is a grid system that takes advantage of the movement of the sun.
With these principles in mind, Reston Town Center was designed for a full calendar of parades, summer concerts, ice-skating, live musicals and theater, including the launch of Mobil Corporation’s summer concert series. RTC gained a reputation of being a place where there was always something happening.
The Reston Town Center was designed with open avenues and with wide sidewalks. It is built around Fountain Square, a medium-sized open area between the surrounding shops. The main landmark in Fountain Square is Mercury Fountain, designed by Saint Clair Cemin. Directly in front of Mercury Fountain is Market Street, and across the street is the Pavilion. The Pavilion doubles as a covered open-air ice rink during the winter and as a concert and event venue throughout the rest of the year. To the left and right of the Fountain along Market Street are the One Fountain Square and Two Fountain Square buildings, respectively, with the One & Two Freedom Square buildings a little further down past One Fountain Square. Free parking that includes one-hour street parking and garage parking surrounds the center.
Reston Town Center now bustles with community-generated activity nearly every weekend of the year. Various arts and civic organizations sponsor entertainment and festivals that require the closing of streets to accommodate tents and booths. The foresight of keeping the street private, while facilitating the urban design, also enabled the flexibility to manage the times the streets are open versus closed. This was a critical factor in ramping up the level of community-generated activities. The ability to periodically make the streets part of the public domain broadened the spectrum of events that could be attracted to RTC.
In addition to the prestigious American Institute of Architects Award for Excellence in Urban Design and the Urban Land Institute’s Award of Excellence, as well as 23 other design awards, a 2006 study by the Brookings Institution showed that Reston’s apartments, condominiums, and office and retail space were all commanding about a 50 percent rent or price premium over the typical suburban houses, office parks, and strip malls nearby.