Reston Town Center: Risky Plan 25 Years Ago

Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce

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Classic Reston is a biweekly feature sponsored by the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce that highlights businesses, places and people with deep roots in Reston.

For Reston’s first 25 years or so, the space now occupied by Reston Town Center was mostly woods and fields.

The location was always planned to be a downtown for Reston, but it took many years to figure out just what exactly that meant.

Reston was originally envisioned by founder Bob Simon as a series of villages with walkable amenities. But after Lake Anne and Hunters Woods were built in the 1960s, the project lost money. It was sold to Gulf Oil and Simon was fired. The vision was then amended, and the remaining “villages” took on a more typical suburban look.

Based on that history, if the planners of Reston Town Center wanted to be different they had better get it right.

By the late 1970s, Mobil Oil Corporation owned the remaining undeveloped land. It formed Reston Land Corporation to continue as the master developer of Reston.

Reston Land Corporation hired Himmel/Miller-Klutznick-Davis-Gray as its development partner for Phase I of Reston Town Center. The two groups then hired RTKL, a Baltimore-based architecture firm, and landscape architects Sasaki in 1984.

The first designs for town center looked more like a typical suburban mall. The mid-1980s, were, after all, still the golden age of malls.

By the later ’80s, Tysons Corner was adding an addition. Tysons Galleria was in the works and would open in 1988, around the same time town center construction got underway. Pentagon City Mall also opened around that time, offering new shopping options — in the same old indoor format — for Northern Virginia residents.

“Everybody was fixated on malls,” Jim Cleveland, the then-president Reston Land Corp., has said. “Nobody thought about doing open-air retailing. We were surrounded by malls. We knew we didn’t want to be that way.”

What the planners came up with was as revolutionary as Simon’s ideas for high-density, mixed-income housing in 1964: A downtown created out of a field, with a city-like street grid, stores lining the street and mixed-use buildings. In the center: a large fountain and a glass pavilion (which later was re-envisioned to be a glass-topped, open-sided skating rink and summer gathering place).

Plans for a performing arts center never happened, but are still discussed when talking about town center’s next expansion.

The first phase of Reston Town Center opened in October of 1990 — in a rainstorm that had some of the developers second-guessing whether open-air shopping really was a good idea.

It turns out, it eventually was. Several expansions later, Reston Town Center has the urban feel that fit the original vision. It also has a major hotel, thriving retail, relatively low office vacancy rates, and an assortment of high-end condos and apartments.

“Fountain Square is an ideal plaza. I think it is just about perfect,” Simon said in 2010 about the core of town center. “It is a gathering place, as a plaza is supposed to be. Mixed use, of course, [with] places to sit outside, places to go inside, a skating rink, a movie theatre.”

Reston Town Center also became the model for “lifestyle centers,” similar mixed-use developments that have become a trend nationwide in the last 15 years.

Big things will be happening for Reston Town Center in the future. Metro’s Silver Line is slated to reach Reston Parkway in 2018. While the station won’t be directly at Reston Town Center as we know it, there are plans to develop the land in between the station and where town center currently begins at Bluemont Way.

There are also redevelopment plans for the surface parking lot, the adjacent Spectrum shopping center, and the Town Center North area around the current Reston Regional Library.

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