Afternoon Discussion: Will New Development be Better — or Just New?

by Karen Goff July 28, 2016 at 4:30 pm 36 Comments

Empty Tall Oaks

It’s a crucial time for Reston. The “new town” is now more than 50 years old. And old, when it comes to structures built in the 1960s and ’70s, sometimes means obsolete — or at least out-of-date or inefficient.

Two great examples of this are Tall Oaks Village Center and the 45,000-square-foot former American Press Institute headquarters on Sunrise Valley Drive.

Both were built in the early 1970s. Both thrived for years, then met a sad decline. Finally, this week, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to owners to redevelop the industrial/commercial properties into low/medium density residential neighborhoods.

Front of API BuildingEven though Tall Oaks served as a neighborhood retail destination for decades, it never quite was the “village center” gathering place Bob Simon envisioned when he founded Reston.

In the last few years, mounting competition from nearby shopping, particularly grocery stores, led to increased vacancies at the plaza on North Shore Drive. Since Giant Foods left in 2007, many smaller retailers followed, and now Tall Oaks sits only 13 percent occupied.

API too was a vibrant place from 1974 to 2012. Not only was the building designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer, it was a space in which hundreds of well known journalists attended trainings and seminars.

But, perhaps emblematic of the changing news industry, API merged with the Newspaper Institute of America in 2012. The headquarters, a Brutalist building on a nice wooded lot at Sunrise Valley Drive and Roland Clarke Place, has been empty ever since.

Both redevelopment proposals received community backlash. Tall Oaks supporters insisted the center, even with 70s-style stucco and an anchor space much too small for a modern grocery store, could thrive again with proper management. At public meetings, they recalled the convenient, old days of walking to Giant for a loaf of bread — and reiterated that walking to retail was what Simon envisioned for Reston.

For API, the efforts for repurposing came late in the game. Led by a former staffer, the grassroots effort focused on the building’s place in history — it is the only Breuer-designed structure in Virginia — and looked at repurposing options such as a public library.

For both properties, leasing agents and owners said there was virtually no interest from new tenants.

In the end, progress ruled. According to Fairfax County’s Comprehensive Plan and Reston’s Master Plan, the county planning commission and the board of supervisors must rule on redevelopment on the merits of a project, not on its place in the past (unless it has historic designation, which neither Reston project did).

That brings up the question of which is better — to remain rooted in nostalgia and Reston history even if means a long-vacant property, or to demolish buildings that are past their usefulness and move forward into a new era in Reston?

Also, do you think this week’s rulings were an exception — or will they have a significant impact on future Reston projects? Stay tuned as several rather ordinary office parks are on the books with redevelopment proposals.

In other words, how much change do YOU want here?

Photos: Top, nearly empty Tall Oaks Village Center; Bottom, vacant API building.

  • Chuck Morningwood

    “…board of supervisors must rule on redevelopment on the merits of a project, not on its place in the past…”
    And what about the interests of Restonians? How does shoehorning hundreds of additional people into Reston serve the interests for Reston, except to make it more like Arlington?

    • Karen Goff

      That’s one of the points. Do empty buildings best serve the interests of Restonians?

      • Overrunhell

        It doesn’t need to remain empty. It requires people to think innovatively and collaboratively with a receptive BOS and Community. That’s the conversation. Notice everyone involved with the Reston Master Plan Task Force has been silent on this item. Reston’s interests were never truly taken seriously.

        • Greg

          Unincorporated Reston is not a town or city. It’s had chances to become one, but it’s not pushed hard enough to make it happen. As such, the place called Reston has to live within the county’s control. All that being so, I don’t think that either Vienna or Herndon look or live better than Reston, and property owners in those towns pay town taxes atop county taxes. Fairfax, being a city, has done a bit better, but it’s taken decades, and they still have a lot of tired developments and very ugly utility poles and lines that, for whatever, reason have never been buried during all of the disruptive redevelopment.

          • Walter Hadlock

            I am a resident of the Town of Herndon. Yes, we pay a town property tax, but we get significant benefits from it: trash, yard waste, and recycling pick ups once a week; snow plowing; street maintenance; town police; a town government with planning and zoning authority; a balanced town budget; town employees who go out of the way to be helpful. Move here and give us a try.

          • Greg

            Thanks for that update. I am sure there are some who are unaware of those town services and they are valued by many, but our point is that Reston is not a town and does not have pre-emptive zoning authority over that of the county. As such, anyone residing in Reston has to accept that which the county determines is best for us with no greater citizen inputs than are provided to others county citizens.

            The alternative, of course, is for Reston to push harder, much harder, to secure town or city status if it does value zoning control and other town-provided services.

            We will be looking forward to seeing Herndon’s progress as it revitalizes its downtown and redevelops around its metro station. Please, though, bury the utility lines in all of the downtown and level the manhole covers, especially along Elden street.

        • What the supervisors did is consistent with what the Reston Master Plan Task Force recommended!

      • Mike M

        There are some benefits to empty buildings until they start to fall apart or attract crime. The low density space contributes less traffic, less crowding, less clutter then the redevelopment. And somehow, redevelopment never seems to pay its way. Seems it always takes a new tax increase to keep up with it. At one time developers used to say increased development would “increase the tax base.” But that was disingenuous because taxes don’t go down with redevelopment – they go up!

  • Ming the Merciless

    Better than a dead strip mall?
    Better than an empty office building built in 1974?

    These are not hard questions.

  • Nate_VA

    I’d rather see an empty brutalist building than a stick built townhouse with fake plastic shutters. Character is lacking in modern architecture.

    • GreenVillage

      ^ A million upvotes

      • Greg

        A billion down votes. Divide them how you wish.

        • Mike M

          OK. So far. a billion down votes is in the lead.

    • Greg

      You had your four years to see it, and you might get a year more before it’s razed. However, if the builder is wise, he will tear the concrete bunker down ASAP.

  • Jbg sucks

    Replacing one brutality with another doesn’t make sense, Eg reston heights parking structure

  • Mike M

    I don’t want anymore change than we can afford. So, no more change than can pay it’s own way by some reasonable measure.

    • Karen Goff

      Heck, in the next few weeks.

      • Mike M

        I am sure you will keep us posted.

  • John Higgins

    I nominate this for Article of the Year (so far.) Informative, interesting, and in perspective.

    • Good article which puts things in a rational perspective. No way to recreate the ole Reston of some peoples imaginations/dreams..

  • 30yearsinreston

    can the lake house be demolished
    It has no redeeming value
    The land could be used as a dog park

    • Chuck Morningwood

      How about a Skate Board park? Reston doesn’t have one of those, and it would be someplace that our teens could really use.

  • 30yearsinreston

    Tall Oaks may finally have some ,life

  • Greg

    Definitely better at both locations. Tall Oaks has been dead since Giant left (and it was on life support even with Giant) and the API bunker for at least four years.

    The most exciting thing that ever happened at Tall Oaks was the big deer going shopping at the Giant. I guess that’s what did them in? Both the deer and the Giant.

  • 45yearsinReston

    Tall Oaks was not always a strip mall contrary to what is suggested in this article. It had an ABC store as well as a hardware store and a number of other features that made it cozy to shop there. I rarely returned after it was converted to a strip mall. What continued to draw me there was the Reston Tailor, which now is in Lake Anne. What I’d like to see is a mini town center with both housing and shopping for people who don’t want to pay $2 an hour to park. What is needed is people with imagination and skill in marketing without the singular attitude “if we build it they will come” or the short term profit motive of some developers. Let’s keep Reston a model community.

    • Greg

      Are you confusing the old Hunter’s Woods with Tall Oaks?

    • Evey Hammond

      Another problem with Tall Oaks Center is that if you’re driving past it, you can’t tell that there’s any shopping there. It looks like an office building from the road. There is also no readily visible signage that would let you know that it’s a shopping center.

      • Karen Goff

        Yes. that definitely was a factor in its demise.

        • Greg

          But the signage and visibility is 100% Reston’s fault. I was at several DRB meetings where Tall Oaks’ owners tried to clear some trees (denied) and create a larger, brighter and more colorful sign. That, too, was denied.

          Also, Tall Oaks is inward facing (much like old Hunters Woods and current Lake Anna), and we’ve learned those don’t work here, in Greenbelt, in Columbia and elsewhere.

  • 45yearsinReston

    I realize that some of my previous comments applied to Hunters Woods as opposed to Tall Oaks (although I am surprised that Hunters Woods hasn’t generated some redevelopment interest. Tall Oaks is virtually hidden and unlikely to draw customers who don’t realize it is there. There has been a virtual lack of promotion. It is too bad that we no longer seem to have someone like Robert Simon with great vision around to prevent Reston from becoming an overcrowded standard suburb.

    • Karen Goff

      actually, what simon said repeatedly in later years about the village centers: Tear them all down and start over. He was disappointed they (except for Lake Anne) ended up being strip centers and not at all what he had in mind.

    • Greg

      Those who are endeared to the past will always have Lake Anne. Bob Simon was disgusted with the village centers and wanted them all redone. I think even peripheral Lake Ann eventually made the list as he realized it was moribund and hidden.

  • Why do you bother?

    “That brings up the question of which is better — to remain rooted in nostalgia and Reston history even if means a long-vacant property, or to demolish buildings that are past their usefulness and move forward into a new era in Reston?”
    These are NOT the only two options. RA failed to find anyone to repurpose the building. I have to wonder how hard they tried.

    • Karen Goff

      RA had nothing to do with this nor should they have. These are private owners who sought to change the property into something else under county comp plan guidelines (and Reston DRB guidelines)

  • Why do you bother?

    “I don’t want anymore change than we can afford.”


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