After residents revolted against Boston Properties plan to shift away from free parking at Reston Town Center (RTC), area residents have become even more wary of big developers —and rightly so. Boston Properties has contributed to lawsuits, retail closures, job losses, and reduced income for small businesses in Reston Town Center.
How did this happen?
Lack of competition in the Reston Town Center (RTC) is at the root of the problem. Boston Properties owns all of the urban core of RTC — the offices, the storefronts, the sidewalks, the parking spaces and garages, and the streets literally. They are a defacto monopoly that used their market dominance to raise prices on customers and small businesses.
Boston Properties created a parking fee system because they could when no one else owned accessible parking spaces in the RTC urban core. Once parking fees were in place merchants bailed out because their customers disappeared and there is only one landlord in the urban core: Boston Properties.
This type of corporate behavior has contributed to today’s local trust problem between people and big companies.
This monopolistic behavior was not the intended result when the Board of Supervisors approved the initial RTC development in 1986, but rather an unintended side effect. Consolidated development plans that lay out the street grid and create city blocks are a good thing, but over time we now know that single ownership impedes competition and vibrancy – and can result in price gouging. Fairfax County should modify the comprehensive plan for Reston to discourage monopolistic ownership of major commercial centers – there are no parking fees across multiple property owners at Tysons for example.
A pro-competition policy will help ensure the voices of citizens are heard and developers provide opportunities that incentivize business and community activity, not choke it. It’s time to get moving to facilitate the economic diversity and restore the vitality of this urbanization experiment as it moves into its fourth decade.
Boston Properties may yet see the light on parking fees and take care of their merchants. Yes, the market may again correct itself. However, let’s get the policy framework right so that future bad decisions by a single company don’t damage the broader community.