A Tall Order For Tall Oaks?
Compare Foods is latest grocery store to come and go. What happens to the center now?
When Compare Foods closed its doors at Tall Oaks Village Center this month, it was the third grocery store to shutter in that spot in the last four years.
Longtime anchor Giant Foods left in 2007. In its place was international supermarket Fresh World, which closed in 2009 despite signing a 10-year lease. Compare Foods moved in in the fall of 2009 and was gone within 18 months.
Tall Oaks now has a nearly empty parking lot and a big, empty space, causing some residents to wonder about Tall Oaks' future as the Reston Master Plan Special Study Task Force prepares to assess the village centers' role in Reston.
"The community [near Tall Oaks] really depends on it," says Ken Knueven, Reston Association board member representing Tall Oaks and Lake Anne. "Tall Oaks needs a proper anchor. People who live near there want the basics.
"Tall Oaks seems to be the center that gets the least amount of discussion," he said. "I don't think it is malicious. Lake Anne and Tall Oaks represent the oldest part of Reston. The demographics are there though. I still think Tall Oaks could support a Trader Joe's, a Magruders, [or] a Safeway."
While big retail has struggled, many smaller restaurants are doing just fine at Tall Oaks. Mama Wok is a popular Asian food spot, and upscale restaurant El Manantial is thriving. El Manantial is seeking RA Design Review Board approval to expand and add patio seating to its space.
Knueven points out that Tall Oaks has plenty of apartments, townhouses and single family homes in walking distance. And as the Metro's Reston Wiehle stop prepares to open down the street in 2013, there will be more residents, more traffic and more desire to shop within walking distance of home.
That was the point Tara Coonin Winfree, former cluster president at nearby Bentana Woods, tried to make in 2007. Winfree felt so strongly that grocery store chain Bloom - which does not have a Reston location - replace Giant that she started a postcard petition. More than 5,000 residents mailed the postcards to Bloom executives, lobbying for a store at Tall Oaks.
"Bloom would have been successful," says Winfree. She says the two international markets that took the spot were a poor fit for the neighborhood.
"I wish I could just go up the street when I need something," she says. "But at this point, maybe it is time to try something different."
Among Winfree's suggestions: a drive-through coffee shop in the space that used to house Burger King (and has been empty for several years) and a kid-friendly play space.
"If there were a dog- and kid-friendly coffee shop, people would walk there," says Winfree, a real estate broker and the mother of two small children.
Marty Flax, senior vice president of Renaud Consulting, the shopping center's property management group, says the space "will probably not be home to a supermarket" in the future. He said he is close to signing an anchor tenant for the Compare Foods spot.
"Supermarkets have not been able to make it there," Flax said. "It is still a viable shopping center in Reston. But the way the center is situated, it is hidden. It really is a neighborhood center."
Meanwhile, some residents think it might be time to start over at Tall Oaks as Reston looks towards its future as a transit-oriented community.
"You have to look at it as 'what does Reston need? What is it lacking?" says Deb Pestronk, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker's Reston office and president of the Golf Course Island Homeowners' Association.
"It is hard for retail to succeed there," says Pestronk. "When I show buyers houses nearby, they ask me 'what is the deal with that shopping center?' The best thing they can do there is put in a mixed-use development, similar to what they are doing at the Metro. What we lack in Reston is housing for people 60 and over, who want to stay in Reston but don't want a condo. That area could become patio homes and small retail for the necessities."