Reston Town Center, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., celebrated its 20th anniversary on October 18, commemorating the unveiling and dedication of the St. Claire Cemin Mercury Fountain, located at the heart of the development. While this was the “bricks and mortar” anniversary, the foundation for the project was laid over 45 years ago when Robert E. Simon assembled the 7,400 acres (3,000 ha) for the development he named Reston in 1961. The original master plan called for his new town to consist of seven villages and a town center.

Recognizing that the existing zoning ordinances were not conducive to and did not provide the desired flexibility for the development of his vision for Reston, Simon convinced Fairfax County to create a new zoning category, planned residential community (PRC). The ordinance amendment creating the PRC zoning and the accompanying master plan for Reston was approved by Fairfax County in July 1962. Early attempts by Simon Enterprises and Gulf Reston, Inc., to move forward with the development of the town center proved premature and unachievable because the Reston location had not yet grown from its original exurban state to become suburban, much less urban in its population and development characteristics.

A major turning point came in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Fairfax County overtook Montgomery County, Maryland, as the most competitive and attractive location for the high-tech industry in the region. With the Dulles Toll Road, which opened in 1984, providing direct access to the Capital Beltway and to Washington, D.C., Reston became an active participant in attracting the high-tech business community. These changing market dynamics led Reston Land Corporation (RLC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Mobil Oil Corporation’s Mobil Land Development Corporation (MLDC) and the successor developer to Gulf Reston, Inc., to form its Town Center Task Force to commence the planning of Reston Town Center in 1982. By the time RLC started this process, the town center was an infill site as Reston had grown up around the site.

During the 1980s, RLC master planned Reston Town Center, selected Himmel/Miller Klutznick Davis Gray as the development partner for Phase I, rezoned the town center area to PRC town center, and began codevelopment of Phase I with Himmel. Since the grand opening in October 1990, Reston Town Center has grown and matured into a preeminent greenfield town center. In the process, it has weathered multiple ownership changes, economic downturns, and collapses in the capital markets.

With the history of the creation of Reston Town Center yet to be fully researched or its participants’ recollections documented, community leaders and key participants in the development process recently organized and explored capturing this history of the past three decades. Engaging diverse multidisciplinary participants—the developers, the design team members, county officials, community group representatives, and individuals involved with bringing Metrorail to Reston—the group used a series of moderated panel discussions to identify a number of lessons learned from the planning and development of Reston Town Center as it evolved in response to changing market conditions and key participant contributions.

The most critical source of the Reston Town Center development’s success was the intangible but all-important commitment to stewardship. Throughout the planning, development, and operating history of Reston Town Center, all the participants aspired to fulfill the original vision, which was dynamic rather than static. Stewardship was fostered among the participants, with each individual given the opportunity to put an imprint on the definition of what Reston Town Center should and would become. This stewardship resulted repeatedly in decisions being made and executed for the long-term greater good, rather than in acceptance of safe, short-term decisions. All the other contributing factors that made the town center a success have been enriched by this commitment to stewardship.

Other elements that played a role in the project’s success were the following:

  • Control of the environment. Conceived as one of the “new towns” of the 1960s, Reston was to incorporate all the benefits of city life and advanced planning techniques on greenfield suburban land. As the master developer of Reston, RLC controlled 3,500 acres (1,400 ha) of undeveloped land, including 460 contiguous acres (185 ha) identified as the town center. By embarking on a strategy of managing growth and harvesting incremental increases in land values rather than bulk selling land bays, RLC was able to drive the market toward the kind of diversification and mix of uses required to make Reston Town Center a cutting edge project.
  • Planning and zoning flexibility. The PRC zoning that Simon persuaded Fairfax County to approve offered unprecedented planning and zoning flexibility and identified the area now known as Reston Town Center as the future “urban” center of Reston. Following the master plan, RLC rezoned Reston Town Center to PRC town center, negotiating the flexibility to change uses and adapt the phased development to changing market conditions within set parameters. This enabled expansion over time of the minimum zoning requirements for retail space from 315,000 square feet (29,300 sq m) to over 800,000 square feet (74,300 sq m) and for residential space from 1,400 dwelling units to over 3,000 units without further rezoning.
  • Long-term view. In developing the master plan, RLC established a long-term vision for Reston Town Center. With early planning concentrating on 85 acres (34 ha) as the “urban core” of the town center, RLC elected to test its nontraditional concepts at a plan analysis session at the 1983 ULI Fall Meeting in Miami. ULI encouraged RLC to be bolder and pursue an even more urbanized plan to fulfill Simon’s original vision. This was an aggressive move given the suburban character of Reston in the early 1980s. RLC then took a year to identify and engage the most experienced mixed-use development partner it could find. Himmel was selected from among 35 local, regional, and national developers for its grasp of the town center concept and extensive experience in urban retail and hotel development. A design competition and selection process brought in RTKL and Sasaki as the designers of Phase I. The concept of creating an open-air urban retail street in a greenfields location was unheard of at the time. The best analogs for this type of development then were successful retail streets in urban settings that had developed organically over many decades. The give-and-take planning process required patience, as did following the market to mature to the point where Phase I had a chance for success. With the initial ground breaking occurring six and a half years after planning began and Reston adding over 8 million square feet (744,000 sq m) of office space in the 1980s, the developers continued to intensify and urbanize the project plans. Mixed-use projects require both careful planning and synchronization with ever-changing market dynamics.
  • Critical mass. The team determined that for Phase I to be successful, it needed a critical mass capable of standing alone for ten years with no additional development. Pushing the market, the team set massing at 240,000 square feet (22,300 sq m) of retail space, 550,000 square feet (51,100 sq m) of office space, and a 514-room Hyatt Regency Hotel. The scale of the overall project was required to justify the expense of the public spaces, and the retail scale was critical to attracting the right mix of specialty retailers and entertainment users. Previous efforts to market the retail space at 130,000 square feet (12,100 sq m) were unsuccessful because this scale proved insufficient to satisfy cotenancy requirements. Phase I stood alone for nine years before another building opened on Market Street.
  • Branding. “Build it and they will come” was not the mantra. The developers understood that one of the keys to success was creating a new brand for Reston Town Center. An extensive events program was established to build and sustain the town center as a “downtown” destination. Public activities in the central pavilion plaza ranged from ice skating in the winter to concerts in the summer, with numerous events in between. Over time, the community took responsibility for sponsoring most of the events. These festivals, performances, and functions now generate year-round activity, which is typical of attractive urban environments. Building this brand identity was essential to creating and sustaining the daytime and nighttime liveliness of Reston Town Center.
  • Deep pockets/patient equity. Phase I was delivered to the market at a time when the commercial real estate market was in turmoil. The office market was overbuilt, the hotel market was struggling, and retail tenants were apprehensive about locating on open-air streets in the suburbs. Under building economic pressures, RLC bought out Himmel/ MKDG and shouldered the ongoing leasing and capital market risks. With the balance of Reston Town Center and 2,000 acres (800 ha) in north Reston still to be developed, RLC elected to ensure that Phase I survived. This capital-intensive commitment was essential to the long-term viability of the project and its ability to adapt to changing market conditions. Ultimately, this huge investment was the springboard for further phased development that reinforced and expanded the market appeal of Reston Town Center.

These and other lessons learned were all contributing factors in enabling Reston Town Center to be developed; to adapt to various market, developmental, and operational challenges; and, in the process, to succeed in its transition from an owner’s project into Reston’s authentic downtown.

Typically, the recording of lessons learned from real estate development has been driven by either the developer or a consultant. In this case, it was community leaders, with an eye on recording history, driving the process. With the approach of the 20th anniversary of Reston Town Center, Joseph Ritchey, of town center office leasing representative Prospective, Inc., started advocating the writing of a book to document the untold history of the development. At his urging, Leila Gordon, executive director of the Reston Community Center, formed an ad hoc committee in fall 2009 to explore what it would take to write this history in time for the commemoration of the grand opening. Her committee included Ritchey; Jim Cleveland, former president of RLC and chairman of RLC’s 1982 Town Center Task Force; Hunter Richardson, former vice president of commercial marketing for RLC and co-chair of the task force; Linda Miller, former RLC marketing director; Lynn Lilienthal, Vicky Wingert, Suzi Jones, and Marion Myers of the Reston Historic Trust; and Margarita Foster of Fulton Research.

Recognizing that there was not sufficient time to research and document this history by fall 2010, the group elected to take a longer-term approach. Given that in 2014–2015, Reston will celebrate its 50th anniversary and Reston Town Center its 25th, the group set out to memorialize the history of Reston Town Center for incorporation into the history of Reston as a whole by 2014. In doing so, the ad hoc group became the 50/25 Committee.

The focus of the committee’s work was to obtain firsthand knowledge and recorded reflections of the key participants in the creation of Reston Town Center through a series of moderated conversations designed to cover the development process over the past 30-plus years. These sessions, held in late spring and early summer this year, were videotaped, recorded, and transcribed to produce an exhibit at the Reston Museum and to inform the writing of a lessons learned article that could be reproduced for distribution in concert with this year’s anniversary. These materials filled in many of the gaps in existing records regarding Reston Town Center’s development.

Drawing on Cleveland’s and Richardson’s extended history and involvement with Reston Town Center, the 50/25 Committee organized four overlapping sessions to explore the history and evolution of the project. The key participants for each session were identified and each was provided an advance outline of questions, topics, and issues designed to refresh memories and stimulate conversation. Each moderated session included from nine to 13 participants, with more than 35 individuals in all participating.

Session I, covering planning and design, focused on the early master planning and workings of the task force; the rationale for pursuing an open-air, urban street grid versus an enclosed mall concept; the decision by RLC to partner in the development of Phase I; the selection of Himmel as the development partner; and the decision to “go urban.” Key participants included former RLC Town Center Task Force members, and the urban design and master plan team members from RTKL Associates Inc. and Land Design Research Inc. The timeframe covered was pre-1980 through 1986.

Session II, covering design and zoning, focused on the selection of the design team through an architectural competition, the rezoning process, community interaction, project phasing, and place making, including the ice rink/pavilion design. Key participants included former RLC executives; Fairfax County representatives, including the former planning commissioner responsible for Reston, the planning director, and a former senior transportation planner; architectural design team members from RTKL; the zoning counsel from McGuire Woods LLP; and representatives from the community involved with the rezoning. The timeframe concentrated on 1983 to 1987, but spilled into the early 1990s.

Session III, covering finance, leasing, and sales, focused on the development of Phase I, the leasing challenges, the financing, the keys to establishing critical mass, the marketing efforts required to brand Reston Town Center, the financial commitment needed to survive the overbuilding of the late 1980s and the recession of the early 1990s, and the challenges of ownership changes. Key participants included former executives of RLC; representatives of development partner Himmel, landscape architect Sasaki Associates, retail leasing agent Metropolitan Realty Advisors, future phase developer Boston Properties, and residential developer KSI; the first Hyatt Regency Reston general manager; the executive director of the Reston Town Center Association; and a former ad agency account executive from Soghigian & Macuaga. The timeframe concentrated on 1987 to 2000, but also included residential development after Phase I.

Session IV, which concentrated on the future, was focused on development after Phase I, the planning of development to allow for future densification, and the impact of Metrorail coming to Reston in 2016. Key participants included former RLC executives, representatives of leasing agent Prospective, Inc., the executive director of the Dulles Rail Corridor Association, the Fairfax County planning director, future phase developers Boston Properties and Lerner Enterprises, zoning counsel for current developments Cooley Godward Kronish LLP, the manager of the Dulles Toll Road for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the executive director of the Reston Town Center Association, and the Reston Town Center resident head of the Working Alliance of Town Center Homeowners. The general timeframe for this session was from 2010 forward.

After session IV, the committee videotaped its conversation with Simon to gain his perspective on how Reston Town Center has developed and what the future holds. With the maturation of Reston and the continued commitment to stewardship, Reston Town Center is now poised for expansion through second-generation development in response to the coming of Metrorail.