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Livable “Town Center” Communities – The Washington Post Got It Wrong

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The Washington Post recently ran an article on the future of “town centers.” The piece contained some serious errors and omissions that led to inaccurate assumptions and conclusions. I sent a letter to the editor of the Post, pointing out the misstatements, which, of course, the Post declined to publish.
The Post article questioned whether town centers or lifestyle centers will replace traditional shopping malls and strip centers. It explored whether big box retailers could succeed in these new designs of development, and cited Reston Town Center as a rare example of success.

The first inaccurate assumption is that “lifestyle centers” and “town centers” are one in the same. They are not. A lifestyle center is a shopping center or commercial development that combines the traditional retail functions of a shopping mall with leisure amenities oriented towards upscale consumers. A town center, however, is the commercial geographical center or core area of a town or community, characterized by a large neighborhood with medium-to-high density mixed use – retail, commercial and residential property.

What makes Reston Town Center successful, and distinguishes it from other developments, mislabeled as town centers, and very different from lifestyle centers, is the fact that it is truly a mixed-use development, not another suburban retail strip mall with a checkerboard streetscape pattern with space for concerts or an ice skating rink.

The focus of a true, successful town center is not the shopping, but rather the mix of uses that creates a desirable lifestyle. The Reston Town Center (RTC) District, an approximately 500-acre development, succeeds where other town-centers-in-name-only fail thanks to its mix of uses. These include hotel, office, a variety of retailers (even big boxes such as Best Buy and Target) and most importantly: residential.

What the Washington Post article fails to mention is the fact that the Reston Town Center District is home to more than 4,000 residents. This was made possible by the planning and zoning implemented by Fairfax County. Rather than capping what the developer could build, the county plan established a minimum, or floor, of 1,400 residential units. By insisting on a strong residential component, Fairfax County assured 24/7 vitality. RTC includes high rise apartments, garden style condominiums, townhouses, offices, hospital, hotel, retail (large and small), government center and cultural amenities, including a movie theater, art gallery, and a pavilion that features concerts and other special events in the summer and an ice rink in the winter. It is also a transportation hub for bus service throughout Reston and connecting to the Metro station in West Falls Church.

There are numerous developments marketed as town centers (e.g. Dulles,VA and Bowie, MD) that are nothing but old fashioned enclosed or open air shopping centers. The success or failure of a town center or lifestyle center is not whether or not a Target or Best Buy can be a successful tenant, but what is built around it. The key is a strong and vibrant residential component.

Calling a retail hub a town center will not assure it’s financial and land use success. Creating a livable place, not just to shop, but to live, work and play as well, is what makes a town center, and a successful one. The ability to do all these things – live, work, shop and play – without repeatedly getting in a car, is the foundation for what is now called livable, green, sustainable or high performing communities. The critical residential component of a true mixed-use town center development was completely absent from the analysis in the Washington Post.

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