Silver Line snags — “Though there are three outstanding concrete issues for the line from Wiehle-Reston East to Ashburn, only one of them has had a plan approved to address it: The more than 1,000 faulty framing panels at stations.” [WTOP]
Mardi Gras party — Head to the Tall Oaks Assisted Living from 3-4:30 p.m. for a Mardi Gras celebration. Partygoers can enjoy a live performance by the Louis Pettinelli Jazz Duo. The event is free. [Facebook]
School lottery — Eyeing the magnet school program at Hunters Woods? Registration for FCPS elementary magnet lottery programs opened today at 8:30 a.m. [FCPS]
Photo via Marjorie Copson
Reston is built on planned village centers. Sometimes they work. Tall Oaks didn’t.
This week on Reston Then and Now we return to the Lake Anne area where Fairfax County’s Historic Imagery Viewer shows us the rise and fall of Tall Oaks Village Center and the plans that indicate how the area hopes to recover.
Like much of Reston, the site was open fields in aerial photography up to 1976. The development opened in 1974 as the smallest of Reston’s five village centers. According to the Washington Business Journal, the location enjoyed a brief golden age with 240,000 square feet of retail by 1990.
But gradually, Tall Oaks faces more modern competition. Between the 1990s and the early 2000s, Reston Town Center, North Point, Spectrum and a range of other retail options expanded throughout North Reston.
The first big blow was losing Giant in 2007, and two replacement stores failed within a year of opening in 2009 and 2011, leaving the location without an anchor tenant since 2011. Curves, Domino’s and 7 Eleven all vacated their locations as well.
But work is underway on a new project to for Tall Oaks. The redevelopment will convert the area into a largely residential neighborhood with 156 homes with more limited retail. The Reston Association recently voted in favor of vacating an easement it held in the Tall Oaks village to facilitate the redevelopment.
For more Reston Then and Now stories, check out our most recent coverage of:
The Reston Association’s Board of Directors voted in favor of vacating its existing pathway easement at the Tall Oaks Village Center at the request of the site’s developer.
The site is currently getting redeveloped by Stanley Martin Companies into a residential community that will include a public green space next to commercial space and a new pathway.
Since the approved development plans require public access throughout the site, the developer asked RA to give up its existing easement, which RA has had since the original development of the site.
RA’s pathway easement spanned the underpass from the Tall Oaks pool through the commercial area and extended to the northeast area near the Tall Oaks Fellowship House, according to the meeting’s draft agenda.
The discussion and vote on the developer’s ask was one of the fastest agenda items tackled at the meeting yesterday (Feb. 21), taking roughly 30 minutes.
Image via Reston Association/YouTube
The Reston Association’s Board of Directors is set to consider at its meeting Thursday night a developer’s request that the RA vacates its existing pathway easement at the Tall Oaks Village Center site.
Stanley Martin Companies currently is redeveloping the former village center into a residential community with townhomes and condominiums. Part of the new project will have a public green space next to commercial space and a new pathway.
Since the approved development plans require public access throughout the site, the developers now want RA to give up its existing easement because the planned path is located elsewhere.
“Since the original development of the Village Center, Reston Association has had a pathway easement through the site, starting at the underpass from Tall Oaks Pool, through the commercial area and extending to the northeast near the Tall Oaks Fellowship House,” according to the draft agenda.
Additionally, Stanley Martin has also said that the homeowners’ association for the site will take care of the new walkway, which takes away RA’s maintenance obligations. RA staff estimates that vacating the easement will result in long-term budget savings.
The board is also set to vote on a series of questions that will give the RA’s Governance Committee further guidance for changing the power structure of RA’s key staff.
The resolution before the board will address specifically RA’s legal counsel, chief financial officer, director of finance, controller, chief operating officer and the authority of the board’s chief executive officer. Currently, RA’s bylaws say that the chief executive officer controls personnel and compensation schedules, along with hiring and firing responsibilities.
The RA is also scheduled to discuss the recent contentious PRC zoning ordinance amendment, which the county’s Planning Commission recently recommended that the county’s board deny, along with the monthly report from the treasurer.
The meeting starts at 6:30 at the Central Services Facility (12250 Sunset Hills Road).
Photo via Reston Association/YouTube
Reston Association’s Design Review Board approved minor changes to the size and number of windows for previously approved architectural designs for the Tall Oaks Village Center redevelopment on Tuesday night.
The redevelopment plans to transform the village center (12022 North Shore Drive) into a mostly residential neighborhood by adding 156 residential units, which include 42 two-over-two multi-family units, 44 single units and 70 multi-family units in two residential buildings. Nearly 8,500 square feet of retail and 5,800 square feet of office space are also slated for the site.
On Dec. 19. Stanley Martin Homes officially purchased the residential portion of the property from Jefferson Apartment Group. Currently, Stanley Martin is completing the site plan and brought “small changes” to abide by the county’s zoning to the Design Review Board.
Richard Newlon, the board’s chairman, said he was concerned about replacing some of the larger windows with smaller ones. “It’s not going to have the same architectural drama we thought we were getting before,” he said. “We’re always looking for good design and stuff that is a little bit different and a little bit progressive.”
Ultimately, the board approved the changes.
During the nearly three-hour-long meeting on Jan. 15, the Design Review Board also approved stream restoration with a year-long timeline for the Colvin Run Stream.
Tree clearing is set to begin for the stream restoration on Feb. 4, with an estimated completion of the work sometime in the summer. Planting will then follow in the fall.
The board also OK’d playground equipment and signs at the Primrose School of Reston (1309 N. Village Road).
An affected party — who did not show up to the meeting — had previously raised a concern about the size and color of a red plastic fire truck in the school’s playground.
“Reston is pretty much known for the lack of vibrant color in all of its playgrounds. It’s always supposed to be natural looks — greens and browns,” Newlon said. “I personally have never seen a green or brown fire engine.”
W. Neal Roseberry, the board’s vice chair and architect member, was the only member to vote against approving the playground equipment’s appearance.
Images via Reston Association/YouTube
Scattered pieces of the skeleton of Tall Oaks Village Center (12022 North Shore Drive) remain as the redevelopment of the property officially begins.
Demolition of the property, which will be redeveloped into a mixed-use project with 156 residential units, 8,500 square feet of retail and 6,000 square feet of office space, is nearly complete.
Construction of the new homes is expected to begin in October and be completed by the end of 2021, according to estimates provided to Reston Now by the development team in September. The development team, which includes Stanley Martin, the contract purchaser of the property, did not return requests for comment from Reston Now.
Stanley Martin’s plan transforms the village center from a predominantly retail-heavy site to a small residential neighborhood with a strip of retail. The center has long struggled with a lack of visibility from the main street and the vacancies left by Giant Foods’ departure in 2007. The plan calls for 44 townhouses, 42 two-over-two townhouses and 70 multi-family units in two buildings.
Recently, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is considering plans to reduce garage size requirements necessary to make the development team’s current plan work.
Tall Oaks’ longtime challenges have been a location on a dead end and lack of visibility from the main street. Its longtime anchor tenant, Giant Foods, moved out in 2007 and vacancies have been mounting since.
Photos by Fatimah Waseem
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the owner’s plan to redevelop the retail center into a mixed-use project with 156 residential units, community space, 8,500 square feet of retail and 6,000 square feet of office space. Jefferson Apartment Group purchased Tall Oaks Village Center in December 2014 for $14 million. A mix of townhouses, two-over-two townhouses, and multifamily buildings are approved for the 7.5-acre site.
Site development is expected to begin in March next year. Home construction will likely begin in October next year and be completed by the end of 2021.
In an Aug. 21 proposal submitted to the county, Stanley Martin, the contract purchaser of the property, says the county’s requirements for the size of garages, which are included in original entitlements, are too generous and create a “design challenge that is inconsistent with the planned site layout.” The county requires personal garages to have a minimum width of 11.5 feet for single-car garages and 20 feet for two-car garages.
Truett Young, vice president of land for Stanley Martin Homes, told Reston Now the following:
“There was an error in the original entitlements that created a requirement that the garages have an interior dimension that could not be achieved with the size of homes that were planned for the community. The county has standards regarding the size of parking spaces and the revised proffer language is consistent with those standards as well as the commitments that have been made on more recent projects of this type.”
Instead, the developer wants to remove the size requirement and add a commitment advising future purchasers of units to review the unit’s garage space. Covenants would also restrict the use of garages for parking, storing trash and other uses. Stanley Martin says it has received approval for garages as narrow as 10 feet in width at the Dulles Technology Center site. If the county approves the change, the development would “finally come to fruition,” wrote Mark Looney, the applicant’s representative, in a statement.
The Planning Commission will review the requested amendment on Nov. 15, followed by a public hearing before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 4.
In 2007, Giant Foods, the center’s longtime anchor, closed, slowly pushing the center to slip into suburban malaise. The center’s location on a dead end and with a lack of visibility from a main street has also long remained a challenge.
Rendering via Jefferson Apartment Group
Farewell, Tall Oaks Village Center as a retail spot. Welcome, Tall Oaks Village Center as a mostly residential neighborhood.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors took an unprecedented step for Reston development on Tuesday when it unanimously approved Jefferson Apartment Group’s (JAG) proposal to rezone, rebuild and transform the smallest of Reston’s village centers.
JAG will now go forward with plans for 156 homes (a mix of townhomes, 2-over-2 townhomes and multifamily buildings), community space, 8,500 square foot of retail and about 6,000 square feet of office space.
“We are very excited about the approval and the chance to rejuvenate a shopping center that has been fallow for a number of years,” said JAG CEO Jim Butz. “This will be one more nice neighborhood for Reston.”
Butz said he estimated the retail site plans and permitting will be processed in the next nine months. Because the retail space will be located in existing free- standing buildings on the property, that will enable a smooth transition for current retail tenants who desire to stay at Tall Oaks.
The residential permitting process will take about 12-14 months, Butz said. Construction would begin sometime after that.
Tall Oaks’ longtime challenges have been a location on a dead end and lack of visibility from a main street. Its longtime anchor tenant, Giant Foods, moved out in 2007 and vacancies have been mounting since.
JAG representatives have said the property was marketed to retailers in the last several years but there was little interest in locating there as more than five major retail centers featuring a grocery anchor are located within a few miles.
More recently, the developer conducted a market study that showed large retail was not viable at Tall Oaks, which is now only 13 percent occupied.
“This has been a very difficult center to remodel or upgrade,” said Hunter Mill Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, who lives in the Tall Oaks area. “The hope I have is JAG is able to provide what is necessary to provide that.”
JAG paid $14 million for the property in 2014 and has held numerous meetings with the community since then. After noting community concerns, JAG has added green space and additional retail space to its original plan.
But many in the community were still not in favor of a complete overhaul for Tall Oaks. Some residents still maintain that retail would thrive at the center if it were properly managed.
At the supervisors’ public hearing Tuesday, three residents commented that the new development should not go forward without accompanying infrastructure; that mature trees should be planted along North Shore Road; and that the development was still too crowded and the outdoor space too small.
“While I acknowledge that some of the residents are not happy with the end product, I believe once the area is fully built out with the new residential community and amenities, they will grow to appreciate the new development” Hudgins said.
Will Tall Oaks Village Center get another shot at being a retail destination?
Come to a community meeting Tuesday, May 10 to find out the results of a retail study — and whether it has any impact on Jefferson Apartment Group’s (JAG) plans for the ailing shopping center.
The meeting is at 7 p.m. in the vacant anchor store space at Tall Oaks.
The future of the village center has been been a development topic for more than a year and JAG’s proposal is now scheduled to go before the Fairfax County Planning Commission on June 23.
JAG purchased Tall Oaks in December of 2014. The group held a series of community meetings in the spring of 2015, where it initially outlined plans to turn the 70,0000-square-foot center into more than 100 multifamily units and townhomes and limited (about 3,000 square feet) of retail.
Tall Oaks’s 25,000-square-foot anchor space, occupied for years by Giant Foods and then briefly by two international grocery stores, has been vacant for more than five years.
At a meeting last year, Tall Oaks representatives said at community meetings in spring of 2015 that Tall Oaks’ current retail space — which went from 90 percent occupied in 2007 to 13 percent in 2015 — was not viable.
They said they shopped the store vacancies, including grocery store space, to retailers but there was no interest.
That did not sit well with neighborhood residents, who said the center could work as retail if marketed properly. Reston Association also said in a letter to county officials last summer that the plan fell “woefully short” on retail and community space.
JAG then came back with a new proposal, which offered a reduction in the number of residences and doubled the planned retail space to 7,000 square feet.
Several Tall Oaks-area residents have said they would like to see a study done independent of the one JAG is conducting.
They have also said they would like to see about 10,000 square feet of retail, as well as more green space, on the site.
Graphic: Tall Oaks concept as of June 2015/Credit: JAG
Tall Oaks Village Center is planned for redevelopment by new owner Jefferson Apartment Group (JAG). JAG is planning to make the center mostly residential, with 156 residential units (garden-style condos, townhouses and two-over-two townhouses) and up to 7,000 square foot of retail on the site of the nearly empty 70,000-square-foot village center at Wiehle Avenue and North Shore Drive.
JAG tweaked its design last spring after citizens said they were disappointed in the early plan for only about 3,000 square foot of retail.
Reston 2020 is among the citizens groups that thinks it should be tweaked more.
“The essence of the alternative proposal is the re-constituting the residential property there (more condos, fewer townhomes) to still permit the full allotment of allowable dwelling units while also creating about 49,000 square feet of retail and a much larger green space/plaza,” Reston 2020 Co-Chair Terry Maynard wrote in a letter to Reston Association, which will be discussing Tall Oaks at its monthly meeting on Thursday.
Reston 2020 points out that a similar approach of residential-over-retail redevelopment is being taken in Arlington.
“In short, Reston 20/20 believes that a true village center is viable at the Tall Oaks location and offers at least the beginning of alternative concept to achieve that end,” wrote Maynard.
Reston 2020 says “the so-called village center is crammed with housing and asphalt. It does not in any sense of the County’s Comprehensive Plan, meet the criteria for a Reston ‘village center.’ “
Reston 2020 says that a new vision could be achieved by
- Scrapping the so-called “2 over 2” townhomes (42 dwelling units)
- Not building the row of townhouses closest to the village center entrance (8 units)
- Not building the proposed small amount of retail space (less than 10,000 GSF), less than currently is operating at the shopping center.
Reston 2020 would like to a see more condos and a much larger central green space, with additional underground parking for the condo buildings.
See the full report on Reston 2020’s website.
At meetings last spring, many Tall Oaks-area residents were upset that the plans are for more residences without giving retail another try. JAG said at that time there was virtually no interest by retailers in moving to the site, which has poor road visibility and has been suffering for more than a decade, after additional retail options have opened on Reston Parkway and at Plaza America.
Said Reston 2020: “We are well aware that JAG has insisted that retail at this location is infeasible because of the proximity of retail shopping centers within several miles. While it has repeated this statement on numerous occasions, it has yet to provide a market study that demonstrates that conclusion. It simply asserts it.”
Another citizens group, Concerned Citizens of Tall Oaks, also has an alternative plan.
JAG’s plan is scheduled to go before the Fairfax County Planning Commission May 6.
Photo: Empty storefront at Tall Oaks/file photo
The first motion authorized RA President Ellen Graves to send a letter to Fairfax County authorities requesting that the developer, The Jefferson Apartment Group (JAG), include the Urban Land Institute’s defined standards for public plazas and meeting areas.
JAG, which purchased the ailing village center last year for $14 million, plans to redevelop it into a neighborhood of more than 140 residences, including two garden-style condo buildings, 2-over-2 townhouses and 100 traditional townhomes.
The developer said it listened to public input after the community meetings in April, when residents said there was not enough public or retail space. At a June meeting, JAG showed concept plans for double the initial retail space, a decrease in the original number of townhouses, and expanded park areas.
The Urban Land Institute has documented the importance of public-outdoor plazas and meeting areas as follows:
“A successful public realm is one in which commerce, social interaction, and leisure time activities may mix easily in an attractive, pedestrian-friendly, outdoor setting. People are drawn by the simple enjoyment of being there. If that enjoyment is to be felt, the public realm and public spaces must be well designed and programmed.
The public realm is open to programs that are significant to the community such as charity events, holiday events, and civic events. It becomes a true public place, taking on a life of its own. As part of the community that goes beyond simple commerce or public relations, it ultimately becomes a place with a history. The public realm should allow for the integration of the people, the place, and the larger community.”
Graves will send a letter to Fairfax County Hunter Mill District Supervisor Cathy Hudgins and Planning Commissioner Frank de la Fe with that request.
The board also approved a motion to allow RA counsel inform Fairfax County/INOVA that a parcel of land located in the area known as Reston Town Center North is RA-covenanted property.
RA says its wants to make clear any future development there is subject to RA Design Review Board standards and that new residents will be members of the association.
Fairfax County and Inova recently completed a land swap to organize the 49-acre space from New Dominion Parkway to Baron Cameron Avenue. The county also recently issued a Request for Proposals for the first two blocks of Town Center North.
Town Center North will be a mixed-use district, with renovated or relocated space for the Reston Regional Library and Embry Rucker Community Shelter, as well as offices, hotels, a performing arts center, an indoor recreation center, a town green and at least 1,000 new residences.
Graves noted that deeds for the space recorded in 1974 and 1986 “subjected all but 16,500 sq. ft. (parcel 5A) of the land that is included within the Fairfax County/INOVA Reston Town Center North Redevelopment Project (RFP #20000001682) to the Reston Deed declaration of covenants.”
“As this Board has found no action taken by its predecessor Boards or the RA members to remove this land from the Reston Deed, it is the position of the Reston Association that the referenced land remains subject to the Reston Deed covenants. This means this land is subject to RA Design Review Board review and new residents shall be Reston Association members.”
Graves also said the board has been made aware of a recorded Restrictive Covenant on a 10-acre portion of the land that is within the Town Center North Redevelopment Project RFP.
“While this restrictive covenant limits the use and development of this 10-acre portion of land to natural open space, none of this land was ever deeded to Reston Association or designated as Common Area of the Reston Association,” she said in her motion. “This restrictive covenant presents a title defect which may impede or hinder the
Graves moved that RA counsel be directed to assist Fairfax County and INOVA in
working around this restrictive covenant but only in a manner which preserves and/or enhances natural open space within Reston.
Photo: Plans for Tall Oaks/Courtesy JAG
Tall Oaks Development Group, a division of the Jefferson Apartment Group of McLean purchased Tall Oaks in December for $14.3 million.
The Jefferson Apartment group has developed more than 18,000 rental units in 10 states, including Virginia.
Locally, the Jefferson Apartment Group has developed, among others, the Residences at the Fairfax County Government Center, Tellus in Arlington, The Asher in Alexandria and the Jefferson at 14W, a seven-story, mixed-use luxury development in Northwest DC.
Jefferson representatives, who did not return phone calls Wednesday, will hold meetings April 23 and 27 at 7 p.m. at Reston Association headquarters, 12001 Sunrise Valley Dr.
RA says Tall Oaks is being considered for a redevelopment project that would include a mix of residential and commercial uses. The Jefferson Group will provide a brief overview of the center’s history along with a proposed conceptual plan for redevelopment at the April meetings. The company will also provide comment/response cards for meeting attendees to fill out.
Tall Oaks is zoned industrial/commercial, so turning the 7.6-acre parcel into residential would likely involve rezoning, as well as approval by the RA Design Review Board, Fairfax County Planning Commission and the county Board of Supervisors.
What do do with Tall Oaks, which in the last several years has seen many tenants leave the village center without new ones opening, has been a subject discussed at length in Reston.
Last fall, residents at a Master Plan Phase 2 meeting suggested that it may be time to repurpose Tall Oaks‘ 18-acre site as something other than a retail center. The center is about a mile from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro.
The anchor space, which housed a Giant Foods and later two international grocery stores, has been empty for more than four years. The stand-alone former Burger King space has been vacant for nearly a decade. Other recent departures include El Manantial restaurant, Curves, 7-Eleven and Total Rehab Chiropractic.
It was suggested at the Phase 2 meetings last fall that Tall Oaks could survive as a convenience center with limited retail and the remaining space could be used for a variety of other purposes.
Fairfax County is getting closer to its final plan for Reston’s neighborhoods and village centers.
Fairfax County officials say the the current comprehensive plan, last updated in 1989, requires revision because Reston no longer has a master developer to update the plan for Reston; the plan for Reston has outdated elements; and with population expected to grow with the arrival of Metro, Reston is evolving as a community.
After nearly four years of committee work and revisions, the county Board of Supervisors in early 2014 approved Phase I of the Master Plan, which provides a framework for development in the areas surrounding Reston’s transit stations.
The county has been working on Phase 2 since last summer, holding several community meetings to obtain feedback. It is expected to get to the approval process in the next few months.
Key points of the latest draft:
Reston’s two golf courses are to remain as golf courses. This is good news for proponents of open space as the owners of Reston National Golf Course, the 166-acre public course in South Reston, head to a Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals hearing on Jan. 21. Owners RN Golf have inquired as to whether their zoning can be considered residential rather than recreational open space. Reston’s other course is the private Hidden Creek Country Club near Lake Anne.
The updated land use map includes areas clearly marked as open space and recreational space.
Residential land use categories have been expanded from their current three broad categories (low, medium, and high density) to five categories to more closely reflect what has been built in the community, with the desired result of maintaining established neighborhoods.
The Reston neighborhoods section provides guidance to maintain the established residential neighborhoods. In the event of residential neighborhood redevelopment requests, more stringent redevelopment criteria have been established that go beyond the County criteria.
The village centers shall remain village centers. However, should a village center want to rezone and rebuild as something else, there is also specific criteria for that. That is good news for the ailing Tall Oaks Village Center, which was purchased by an apartment developer last month.
Environmental stewardship shall remain a key focus in Reston planning.
To see the entire draft, visit the Fairfax County website.
The county will have a public meeting/presentation on the draft on 7 p.m. on Jan. 29 at Reston Community Center Lake Anne.
Photo: Hunters Woods Village Center/file photo
The board’s comments came in a mark up of the Reston Master Plan Phase II draft plan. The board made a series of tweaks and changes it hopes Fairfax County planners will keep in mind as it formulates a Master Plan for Reston’s village centers and neighborhoods as the community heads into its second half-century.
On Oct. 20, county planners held the second in a series of community meetings to obtain priorities and feedback on the draft proposal. The Oct. 20 meeting concentrated on the village centers — what works, what doesn’t and what should be considered for the future.
The focus groups seemed to agree — Tall Oaks has been failing for years. With storefronts sitting empty for years and no new ones opening, it may be time to rezone some of the land to something else keeping some of Tall Oaks a “convenience center” or a mini village center.
Reston Association agrees.
From notes issued by RA to the county planners:
Reston was originally planned with Village Centers serving as the focal point of activity for the surrounding neighborhoods.
FOUR of the five existing village centers – Lake Anne, Hunters Woods, South Lakes and North Point (Tall Oaks is crossed out) are planned to continue to serve this purpose in the future. They are planned to allow currently approved intensities and to densities to remain but are envisioned to also accommodate some more intense vertical use redevelopment in the future to fully achieve the goal of being vibrant centers of activity.
Other suggestions from the document:
Senior housing and universal design residences are encouraged to be located within the village centers.
Tall Oaks is the smallest of the five Village Centers. Consideration should be given as a re-designation of this center as a smaller convenience center.
Other opinions of note from RA’s comments:
Reston has, since its inception, been envisioned to be a place to live, work, play and get involved. The overriding goal of the Plan is for Reston to continue to evolve in a sustainable manner over the next four or five decades. … As Reston evolves, it is important to respect and continue the characteristics that have helped define Reston from its inception.
As Reston’s population increases, added capacity should be achieved through development of land and/or facilities to meet the demands (not needs) generated by the development or redevelopment.
Protect the headwater areas and other environmentally sensitive areas through the implementation of innovative stormwater management practices and Reston Association’s stream restoration/preservation program.
Increase senior housing, ensure opportunities are provided for adequate senior housing designed to suit a range of age, income and health needs.
Wherever possible, missing connections in the pedestrian and bicycle networks should be rectified with new sidewalks, bike lanes (shared or separate) or trails.
Should the Hunt Club property be redeveloped residential, it should be part of Reston Association.
The Lake Newport Convenience Center designation should be deleted and the land is planned for office use at the existing density to maintain character.
To see the entire document, visit Reston Association’s website.
Certainly, it’s a welcome change from the largely barren winters we’ve had the last couple of years. The snow and ice meant a surprise four-day weekend for my daughter Leslie. For my wife and me, this meant working from home.
While I was tapping away on my computer and watching the flakes fall, I thought about the phenomenon of telecommuting. It’s pretty remarkable that technology has advanced to the point where we can be practically as productive outside the office as in it.
One of Bob Simon’s founding principles for Reston was that “the people be able to live and work in the same community.” In a way, telecommuting is the ultimate version of that goal: people living and working in the same house. And there are people who think that this is the future: widespread telecommuting will be what saves us from traffic paralysis and environmental degradation.
Maybe they’re right. But the move toward telecommuting is emblematic of a troubling trend in our society, toward less face-to-face human interaction. That trend runs the risk of damaging our sense of community.
We live in an increasingly atomized society; we spend less and less time in the company of others. For a lot of folks, life is a continuous cycle: from home to work to shopping and back home again. With the new self-checkout feature at grocery stores, you can get in and get out without having to talk to another person at all. It’s a lonely way to live.
Civic and fellowship organizations are a lot less popular than they used to be; so is going out for bridge night. Many of today’s leisure activities can be done at home alone (video games, surfing the
Internet, etc.). Lots of people work out at the gym, but that’s a solitary pursuit too, a time to plug in the headphones and unwind from (or get ready for) the day.
The office is one of the few places where we really spend time with people outside of our families anymore. If we’re no longer going into the office every day, what happens then? We are social creatures; instant messaging and video conferencing aren’t a real substitute for face-to-face contact as our primary source of human interaction.
Moreover, that’s not how you build and sustain a community. A community isn’t a group of individuals holed up in their hives; it only happens when people come together. Interaction and relationships are how communities are built. In a world where people tend to be more isolated than ever, we need to explore other ways to bring people together.
Fortunately, in this way as in many others, Bob Simon was ahead of his time. By developing village centers that were built around plazas, he created spaces that fostered human interaction. Plazas force us out of our cars, and they increase the likelihood of chance encounters between neighbors, friends, and strangers. They are a breeding ground for community.
Plazas also serve as a staging ground for festivals, which are a great opportunity for bringing people together. Lake Anne Plaza is Reston’s best example of this. It was the original home of the Reston Festival, and today it’s the home to celebrations from Founder’s Day to the Multicultural Festival to the Jazz Festival. Not to mention the Farmer’s Market, where I run into at least a few people I know every time I go. If you want to bring a community together, you need to have spots for them to gather.
I remember the plazas well from my youth. We lived closest to Tall Oaks, so I spent plenty of time walking through their on my way to get baseball cards or sodas from Giant. But I remember being especially taken with the plaza at Hunters Woods; the multi-colored flags hanging from the pergola-style roof always made me feel like I was in a foreign country, somewhere European, perhaps.
Unfortunately, many of our village centers have abandoned this original concept; today, all of them besides Lake Anne are strip malls rather than village centers. That may make them more efficient places to shop, but it’s not good for encouraging people to interact. The heart of the “village center” concept is that it’s not just a place to shop, but a place for people to commune.
I’m hoping we can bring the plazas back as Reston redevelops. And I’m not the only one. During the Master Plan Task Force, Bob was a big proponent of making central plazas a part of any Village Center redevelopment. RCA strongly supports Bob’s suggestion. Community is created when people come together. Bob was right 50 years ago, and he’s still right today: plazas help make that happen.
And as I’ve suggested in the past, perhaps we should start with Tall Oaks. If ever a village center needed a shot in the arm, a reason to get people to come, it’s that one. If we re-envisioned Tall Oaks around a community amenity like a plaza, or an amphitheater, or a public park, we’d be creating something truly distinctive. Tall Oaks would have a genuine draw for the first time in years, a reason for people to seek it out. Maybe we could even hold a revived Reston Festival at the revived Tall Oaks. The possibilities are endless.
Many things about modern life are individualized and isolating. There’s not much that we can do about that, but we can help mitigate it by creating common spaces for people to gather and interact with each other. These spaces were a hallmark of Reston in its beginning; with thoughtful planning and redevelopment, we can get back there again. I hope to see you all someday at the plaza in one of our revitalized village centers. Communicating online is nice, but it’s even better if we can talk face-to-face.
Also, time’s running out for Citizen of the Year nominations! The deadline is Sunday, so if you haven’t submitted yours yet, download the form and get writing.
Colin Mills is the president of the Reston Citizens Association. He writes weekly on Reston Now.