St. Johns Wood is a sprawling campus of nine three-story buildings that house 250 apartments on about 14 acres of land nestled in the woods off Center Harbor Rd. in Reston - and that is exactly how some residents of the complex, and many of their neighbors in surrounding clusters of apartments, townhomes and single family dwellings would like to see it stay. A group about 35-strong made their opinions known at the Reston Association (RA) Governance Committee meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 9, at the RA offices. “We don’t usually get such a crowd at our meetings,” acknowledged RA Vice President and committee member Michael Sanio. That’s probably because this committee is not the arm of the association that generally deals with those sometimes “hot potato” topics and blood-pressure raising issues that are heard by the Covenants Committee and the Design Review Board (DRB). It was, in fact, the Reston DRB that approved the latest St. Johns Wood redevelopment plans offered by owner Bozzuto Development Group at their meeting on July 19.
RA CEO Cate Fulkerson, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting and serves as a non-voting member of the committee, did explain the role of the Governance Committee and its lack of direct influence over the topic to the citizens awaiting the start of the meeting. The Governance Committee’s mission is about monitoring the association’s strategic plans, designing and implementing leadership and orientation programs for new and existing boards members, and addressing the conduct of the board and its members.
SO WHY did so many of the objectors to the redevelopment plans descend on this particular meeting? “Because we need to be heard at every meeting,” said Susanne Andersson-Tosado, who lives nearby and actually lived briefly at the apartments when relocating to Reston in 2007. Andersson-Tosado attended the July DRB meeting and says she was dismayed – and roused to action – when the plans were approved despite what she called “a room full of upset and angry citizens whose voices were ignored. Our comments were not even added into the minutes. I was told that my requests for an appeal before the DRB would not be considered until the final approval hearing because I was not at that time a registered Affected Party.”
Andersson-Tosado has since registered herself as just such an Affected Party, and came to the Governance Committee meeting with her notes, copies of a letter she had sent to several members of the Reston Association and the DRB, to the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning and to Catherine Hudgins, the Hunter Mill District representative on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She also brought along a petition with 180 names and comments from other citizens who oppose the project in its current version. “And those were just the people who signed on from July 21 – Aug. 9. We will have our say and our opinions will be added to the official records,” said Andersson-Tosado. Committee members Sanio, Fulkerson, Secretary Eve Thompson, Directors Sherri Hebert and Ray Wedell accepted Andersson-Tosado’s paperwork and listened to comments and questions from the dozen other attendees who had registered to utilize the allotted 3 minutes per individual speaker, or 5 minutes for a speaker representing a cluster or an HOA.
Just what is it about the redevelopment plans that has sparked the ire of so many?
The initial proposal submitted by Bozzuto asked for a High Density land use with 625 apartments and 34 townhomes. After meetings with County and RA personnel, a revised proposal was submitted, requesting 562 apartments. The concept plan as approved by the RA Design Review Board last month was further scaled down to propose 511 apartments in two (rather than the originally proposed three) midsized buildings and 51 townhomes. More than doubling the current occupancy rate on the site, the addition of hundreds more vehicles on streets that already see overflow parking from Bozzuto’s other apartment complex on Center Harbor, and the actual design of the proposed new buildings are what have so many people willing to add their names and comments at meetings and to an online petition set up by Andersson-Tosado.
Nicola Pace is one of those people. She lives directly across from St.Johns Wood and she doesn’t think the plan is in keeping with the spirit of her hometown. She believes that the project “belongs next to the Metro or Reston Town Center – not in North Point.” A Reston resident for 45 years, Pace said she was saddened to see “developers taking over and changing the …environment Reston was built on.” Becoming visibly emotional during her turn before the committee, she begged “we need your help. Please listen to us and help us solve this problem.”
Speaker Jean Johnson agreed that the proposed design “looks nothing like what is around this area. I don’t like it looking like Reston Town Center. I don’t live in Town Center, and I don’t want to,” she declared to approving applause. Vladi Ivanov added his comments via the petition, writing that “such a massive increase in density simply should not be allowed in a quiet suburban neighborhood…it sets a dangerous precedent that will turn Reston into Arlington, something that the Reston residents have rejected by living in Reston and not Arlington.”
Johnson and others also expressed concerns about the increase in traffic, especially on a street that includes Buzz Aldrin Elementary School. The plan calls for an additional entrance to be added on Center Harbor Rd. rather than onto Reston Parkway and the attendees and petition signers worry that the extra traffic cutting through their streets to Wiehle Avenue and Baron Cameron will cause traffic backups and noisy neighborhoods, as well as create additional hazards for walkers, bikers, runners and school kids. Other speakers asked how the added population would affect enrolment at the elementary school. “Have they thought about that?” asked one attendee. “No trailers at Aldrin, please,” she added.
The majority of the speakers chastised the RA in the course of their remarks, but a significant number of the comments introduced into the record specifically aimed anger at Hunter Mill District Supervisor Cathy Hudgins. “I hold Hudgins responsible for pushing this project through without really listening to our concerns,” said Arlene Krieger, who has added her support to organizing the protesting group. Andersson-Tosado said that the only response she received from Hudgins’ office was in regards to the discussion about egress from the property. In an email provided for this article, Supervisor Hudgins wrote that the “Reston Master plan…has always been about density levels. High density residential was established around the Village Centers to make them successful” and that “The original planning identified St. Johns Wood as high-density residential.” The residents in opposition to the redevelopment are not swayed by this reasoning. Several noted that North Point Village is already successful, with a near-full compliment of retail, service providers and restaurants.
Another reason that Andersson-Tosado says her group is up in arms is that “too many of us either didn’t know about the project at all, or certainly didn’t realize its scope and how much of an impact it would have on our neighborhoods, and indeed, all of Reston and what makes it a special place.” She says she only recently became aware of the full nature of the plan. “I only found about this last week and I only live a block away,” commented Arlene Shoenfield. “You have let us down as our association.”
RA REPRESENTATIVES Hebert and Fulkerson responded that the redevelopment planning has been in the works for some time and that updates are available on the RA website. They also said that Reston Association itself sometimes finds out about projects and meetings late or with little notice. “We actually share many of your frustrations,” stated Fulkerson, but she and the other committee members did agree, however, that communication with Reston residents could always be improved. Fulkerson promised that efforts to make contact with affected residents should be – and would be – an ongoing priority. She asked the attendees to contact her directly with their details in order to be added to an update database going forward.
In her statement, Supervisor Hudgins also acknowledged that there “clearly is not a comfort level with the Bozzuto Plan. Bozzuto has agreed to continue to try to respond to citizens concerns…and agreed to come back to the community. The best outcome for all is a final proposal that generates community consensus and creates a win/win solution for all.”
Although the Governance Committee is not the vehicle that can affect the changes being requested by the St. Johns Wood Plan protesters, the attendees took heart from remarks made by Director Ray Wedell after the commentary period concluded. To the obvious surprise of many of the attendees, Wedell offered support for their concerns, even going so far as to offer his opinion that the redevelopment is not a necessity and that the plan would not have been met with approval by Reston’s founder, the late Bob Simon. Wedell even offered advice on how to achieve their goals but added the warning “This will be a fight. You can’t rely on the other guy to get this done. You have to do it yourselves. Do you have the guts and gumption to see this through?”
Wedell proceeded to put forth a motion that was met with cheers and applause. “Move to side with the people and say that we do not want the project and put the issue in front of the Reston Association Board Operations Committee and the full Board of Directors in September.” Director Hebert seconded the motion and the motion was approved.
Andersson-Tosado and her partners Arlene Krieger, Aileen Reinhard and others are pleased that the Committee heard their voices and is willing to stand with them on this issue, but they know that Director Wedell is right. “There is still a challenge ahead of us. Now we must be heard by the County.”
Those seeking further information can find Andersson-Tosado’s letter and a more detailed discussion of the objections that she and others have to the St. Johns Wood redevelopment plan at www.ipetitions.com, referencing St. Johns Wood. The Reston Association website atwww.reston.org has renderings of the project and more details about the plan and the process to date. To be included regarding future updates and meetings, check the RA website or submit your contact details to CEO Fulkerson at email@example.com.