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Threats to Fairfax County's Planning Heritage

February 26, 2018

 

The history of Fairfax County, Va., is traditionally centered on the Colonial and Early Republic architecture at its southern end: Mount Vernon, Woodlawn Plantation, Pohick Church, and Gunston Hall. By contrast, no one thinks about that period of history in the northern end of the county (with apologies to Sully Plantation). The history of northern Fairfax County is embodied in its post-WWII architecture, nowhere better exemplified than in the world-renowned planning and architecture of Reston. Although recent, that history is significant: The County Board of Supervisors designated the residential and retail core of Reston, Lake Anne Center, a Historic Overlay District in 1984, when it was just 20 years old, and it was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places. However, the opening of the new Metro Silver Line stations has created redevelopment pressures in the vicinity of each stop, particularly the Wiehle-Reston East station at Wiehle Avenue. Fairfax County revised its Comprehensive Plan to create Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) districts within a half-mile radius of each stop. However, the county ignored its own objective to, “Identify heritage resources representing all time periods and in all areas of the county,” and policy to “Identify heritage resources well in advance of potential damage or destruction,” by failing to consider the potential of heritage resources within each TOD. Instead, the planning ideals and modernist architecture within the Wiehle Avenue TOD were dismissed in the revised Comprehensive Plan as “low-density office buildings built in the 1970s and early 1980s that are owned by various professional associations and represent a prime redevelopment opportunity.”

 

 

The first casualty of ignoring heritage resources was the American Press Institute (API) Conference Center, which was the only Marcel Breuer-designed building in Virginia. Despite negative recommendations from the county Architectural Review Board, History Commission, and Planning Commission, the county Board of Supervisors upheld the flawed revised Comprehensive Plan by approving the demolition of the API building in favor of high-end townhouses and a handful of affordable housing units.

 

The second potential casualty in the Wiehle TOD is the Center for Educational Associations, a collection of 10 buildings in a circular campus arrangement along Association Drive, now threatened by the proposed alignment of the Soapstone Connector, a vehicular bridge over the Dulles Toll Road. The Association Drive campus could be potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as an intact example of mid-20th century planning, executed within the context of rational town planning exemplified by Reston. Lake Anne Center represents residential and commercial planning while Association Drive represents corporate campus planning of the same era. And, the individually-designed buildings represent a variety of architectural styles ranging from glass-walled Miesian, to Brutalist, to earth-bermed, that contribute to the overall significance of the district.

 

These threats to the architectural and planning heritage of Reston represent the larger issue of protecting 20th century history, and not just in Fairfax County. Partially in response to the loss of the API building, AIA Virginia is beginning an initiative with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to identify significant 20th century buildings throughout the Commonwealth. Once completed, the survey will be an essential planning resource for jurisdictions throughout the state to help them identify, preserve, and protect the buildings that best represent 20th century architecture and history.

 

 

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