Cover story: Master-planned towns, age 50, innovative still

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The 1960s was a trendsetting decade that revolutionized the culture and society of the United States in a variety of ways.

In the D.C. area, the late 1960s and early 1970s brought to fruition three master-planned communities that introduced ideas about development that continue to influence planners: Columbia in Howard County, Reston in Fairfax County and St. Charles in Charles County.

“All three of these communities were designed around the same essential principle: that you could create a true community from scratch,” said Jay Parker, principal of Parker-Rodriguez in Alexandria and one of the original planners of St. Charles. “In each case, the idea was that all the major components of an attractive town would be present and planned so that they worked together in a coherent way. Planning the pace of growth meant that the negatives wouldn’t occur.”

Terms such as smart growth, mixed-use development and sustainability are commonplace today, but when these three communities were being planned, they were visionary ideas.

“You have to realize that when Robert Simon looked at the land where Reston is today, the entire area was filled with dairy farms,” said Joe Ritchey, principal of Prospective Inc. and a developer in Reston. “Dulles airport was under construction, and the land for the Dulles Toll Road wasn’t even cleared. He looked at this rural area and saw what the national capital region would look like one day and could see the need for a more urban area.”

Jody S. Kline, a zoning lawyer with Miller, Miller and Canby in Rockville, said master-planned communities like Reston, Columbia and St. Charles are not likely to be seen again in this area, mostly because of the lack of vast tracts of land.

“We’ll see smaller, jewel-box versions of these planned communities that are based on the same principles,” Mr. Kline said. “Places like Kentlands and Montgomery Village.”

One of the core principles shared by all three planned communities is the availability of housing to meet the needs of people at various income levels and at different stages of their lives. St. Charles, which turns 40 this month, has 40,000 residents in apartments, condominiums, town homes and single-family homes in varying sizes. Columbia has nearly 100,000 residents and will turn 50 in 2017, while Reston, with nearly 60,000 residents, will turn 50 in 2014.

Columbia was designed to have multigenerational appeal, and there’s no question that it has succeeded in that sense,” Mr. Kline said. “People can age in place in this community and find all the services they need nearby. A common feature in all of these planned communities is that they are appealing to people in all ranges of age and income levels.”

In St. Charles, said Craig J. Renner, vice president of public affairs and community relations at the St. Charles Cos., renters are offered an incentive program to help with the down payment if they choose to buy a home in St. Charles.

“The rental incentive program goes back to the sense of community that is a fundamental part of St. Charles,” Mr. Renner said.

Mr. Parker said that when St. Charles was planned, there was a commitment to build a balance of housing for all income levels, so the developers took advantage of all available federal, state and local programs to create a balance of rental and for-sale properties. A range of housing options is available in all three planned communities.

All three communities were designed with a village concept so residents could walk to retail centers and recreational amenities. Reston’s “Live, Work and Play” motto resonates in all three communities.

“The planning process in these communities involved not only road and transit planning, but also the idea that places to work, to shop, to educate your kids, to play in, like parks and recreation centers, should all be distributed throughout the community in places where people live,” Mr. Parker said.

All three communities have lakes and ponds in every village as well as amenities that bring residents together, such as Reston Town Center’s ice-skating rink, summer concert series and festivals. In St. Charles, in addition to enjoying neighborhood parks and playgrounds, residents can attend minor-league baseball games. Farmers markets and outdoor concerts are held in all three communities every summer.

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