Creating New Downtowns

Creating New Downtowns

Making high density look good, town centers are being proposed throughout Northern Virginia.

A year ago, Katie Eldridge moved downtown. She loves it.

Her two-bedroom condo is right above an art gallery. She’s close to some of her favorite restaurants. Every now and then she goes down the street to stop into Banana Republic or Ann Taylor to browse the new fashions. Her neighborhood is always busy. She’s a short walk away from happy hours with friends, a movie, or a late night urge for a scoop of ice cream. And her commute is a cinch.

Eldridge lives at the Reston Town Center.

“It’s so nice to walk to everything and I don’t have to worry about parking,” said Eldridge. “I feel like it’s my own little community.”

The motto for Reston Town Center, “What a downtown was meant to be,” is something its residents seem to endorse.

WHEN DEVELOPERS broke ground for the Reston Town Center more than 15 years ago, town centers were a new idea. In the 1970s mixed-use development focused around malls. In the 1980s, when town centers started to emerge, development shifted focus to a traditional main street.

“The idea was fundamentally different than how mixed-use was done in the past,” said Dean Schwanke, vice president of development trends and analysis at the Urban Land Institute.

Reston Town Center, according to Schwanke, was one of five pioneering projects in the nation. “Developers realized they could actually build a downtown,” said Schwanke.

When Reston Town Center was first planned, it contained two office towers, a hotel, a movie theater and many retail stores and restaurants. Today, residential and commercial development projects continue to go up on the 343-acre parcel.

At “Selling the New Downtowns; the Urbanization of Northern Virginia,” a program held by the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors last week, a panel of experts discussed the role town centers may have on future housing growth in the area. “Is suburbia dead,” said Tracy Pless, NVAR’s board chairman, one of a series of teaser questions for the program.

TOWN CENTERS, as appealing pockets of increased density, are popping up all over Northern Virginia according to Gary Fuller, principal planner with the City of Falls Church, where a town center is being proposed.

Five town centers in Northern Virginia already exist: the aforementioned Reston Town Center, Alexandria Market Square, the Villages at Shirlington, Clarendon Market Commons and Fairfax Corner. Fuller, one of last week’s panelists, said four more are in the planning or emerging stage and five more are being proposed for the near future.

With Reston’s motto of “Live, Work, Play,” it is understandable that Reston Town Center was one of the first communities to develop a town center, which has since been a model.

With the small town feel combined with the convenience — living, shopping, working and eating all in the same place — town centers should be here to stay.

“Is it a fad? No I don’t think so,” said Dean Schwanke. “They aren’t going to happen everywhere, but I think it’s a movement that’s got legs.”

The push for town centers is coming from master plan developers, redevelopment officials, retailers, restaurateurs and developers, said Schwanke.

BUT THE IDEA is not being pushed blindly. Thousands of people, like Eldridge, enjoy town center living. According to Schwanke, town centers have thrown the negative stigma of suburban density on it’s head.

When people think of town centers they don’t think high density, they think of a “cool” place to go and live, said Schwanke.

“Walkability is essential. It can’t be a town center if there isn’t walkability,” he said. “You don’t have to be able to walk to it, but it has to have walkability.” Civic and cultural purposes, Schwanke said, can also be important for a town center’s success. “That helps people think it’s much more than just retail.”

The type of living arrangements featured at town centers are exactly what Generation X buyers are looking for, according to panelist Deborah L. Rosenstein, who owns her own real estate market research firm.

“They don’t want to feel like they are stuck way out in the burbs,” said Rosenstein. “The group is social and health conscious.” Town centers meet those needs, she said.

Rosenstein added that “the young, rich and the childless” are the principal buyers of town center housing. Baby boomers and empty nesters, she said, like these properties because they offer luxury amenities in less space.

For Fairfax County, where many communities have been built out, a town center project may not only be attractive but logical.

“We don’t have a lot of space for single family homes anymore. They are a minority of new built homes entering the market,” said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the center for regional analysis with the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.

While town centers increase density, they are not always associated with the congestion of high-density areas.

“They do generate more traffic,” said Schwanke. “But they are better models for managing traffic.” He noted that traffic peak times at town centers are more spread out throughout the day.