On Memorial Day, I spent the afternoon over at Reston Town Center. After a delicious lunch at Jackson's, my girlfriend and I went for a stroll around the place. We popped our heads into Paper Source, and I bought a couple new shirts at Jos. A. Bank. It was a fine way to spend some time on a warm afternoon.
As we walked, I thought about how much Reston has changed since I was a kid. The Town Center didn't exist at all until I was my daughter's age; now, it's hard to imagine Reston without it. When I was young, Reston was still more dream than reality; now, it's almost built out, and some parts are even awaiting redevelopment. When I was a kid, Reston was a small and somewhat remote suburb; now, it's a thriving place, an economic engine and a center of activity for Fairfax County.
As our community has changed, so too have our citizens. Our citizens' reasons for settling in Reston are often much different now than they were in our community's early days. And these differences in values and goals give rise to different visions for our future. These different visions have come into view during the discussions of the Reston Master Plan Task Force, which is trying to determine what the community will look like decades from now.
How will we reconcile these divergent visions? Hopefully, by combining the best of both. If both sides in this debate listen to each other with an open mind and if we plan carefully, we can create a Reston that's ready for the demands and desires of the future, while still retaining the timeless virtues that make it such a special place.
Let's start by considering what inspired our citizens to settle here. For the pioneer generation of Restonians, they were inspired by Bob Simon's founding principles and New Town vision. Bob imagined a community where we could live, work and play; a racially and economically diverse community; a community organized around village centers, not shopping centers, that would allow many of our citizens to fulfill their basic needs without getting in their cars; a community lush with trees and natural beauty. And most of our pioneer Restonians bought wholeheartedly into that vision. They would have had to, since most of the community was still hypothetical.
The early Restonians tended to cherish values like diversity, walkability, and nature, since that's what drew them here. And they took an active role in (literally) building the community to reflect those values and Bob's vision. If we needed a commuter bus service, the citizens started one. If we needed schools, the citizens lobbied the county to open them. If we needed a community center, the citizens taxed themselves to build one. Our early citizens took a very active role in building the community they wanted.
Those who moved to Reston in more recent years may well cherish the same values and principles as longtime residents, but that's likely not the reason they moved here. They may have moved here to be close to work, or because they like the schools, or because the housing values are strong, or because they like amenities offered at the Town Center. They may not care about or even know about Bob Simon's founding principles. They're used to driving to get places, and probably don't know that many of the old vilage centers have turned into typical suburban strip malls. They prefer the lively sounds and the bright lights of the Town Center.
As you can imagine, older and newer Restonians often have quite different ideas of what Reston should be. In many ways, Lake Anne Plaza has come to symbolize this divide. To a lot of us who have lived here for a long time, Lake Anne is the embodiment of Reston: the classic European-inspired design, the fact that it's more pedestrian-friendly than car-friendly, its role as a community gathering place, the tranquility it offers. We love the way it keeps its charms hidden from the street, and that you have to walk into the plaza to discover it. We love its assortment of small, locally-owned shops and restaurants. To many of the earlier Restonians, Lake Anne is Reston's crown jewel.
On the other hand, to many newer Restonians, the sort who think of the Town Center as Reston's ideal place, Lake Anne is a relic of another time. Not enough parking, too much concrete, too many empty storefronts, not enough action. Not only do they not value Lake Anne, they don't understand why anyone would want to keep it. The old-timers' affection for Lake Anne feels like mindless nostalgia to them. Why not level the place and build something new and modern?
How do we resolve these two visions? It's not easy, but it's possible. Lake Anne itself is acctually taking some steps in the right direction. They've added the Saturday Farmer's Market and craft market, as well as a variety of concerts and events that draw in people who might not otherwise visit the plaza. They've added some new shops and restaurants (I especially like Kalypso's). And if it's done right, the planned revitalization of the neighborhoods around Lake Anne could be a godsend. The plan is to preserve the existing plaza, while added some additional density that could help to preserve and support the businesses on the plaza (and add some much-needed parking).
What about the rest of Reston? I think it's important for both sets of citizens to consider the merits of the other side.
For those who have been here since Reston's early days: acknlowedge that there's no stopping the clock. You may have loved what Reston was in 1965 or 1975 or 1985, but we can't preserve those times in amber. Times change, values change, and people change. If we insist on preserving everything exactly as it used to be, we put ourselves at risk of stagnating and letting the times pass us by. Not all growth is bad. Not all redevelopment is bad. It's important to separate the desire to preserve Reston's founding values from a reflexive opposition to any kind of change or growth.
For those who are newer in town: remember that Reston's special qualities, like its natural beauty and its community amenities, are a big part of what makes Reston appealing and keeps your property values high. And those qualities are exactly what the pioneer Restonians worked hard to build and preserve. Longtime Restonians have spent decades shaping the community, and they have strong views about what this place should be. It's worked pretty well so far, hasn't it? So consider their views with respect.
Also, newcomers: get involved! I know you're busy and it's hard to find time to attend meetings and join community organizations. But that's where the decisions are made about Reston and it's future. It's your future too. Because newer Restonians are less likely to come to these meetings, the case for denser and more urbanized development usually winds up being made by the development community. This leads older Restonians to suspect that the push for higher density is a cash grab by developers (even though most developers - successful ones, anyway - build what the public demands).
For all of us, the debate on the Task Force and elsewhere needs to be about more than FARs and density numbers. It needs to be about values. We need to think hard about what principles and features truly embody Reston, and then figure out a way to preserve those things while modernizing Reston so that it continues to be a popular place to live, work, and play.
And sometimes, modern values and old-school principles may support each other. As an example, the coming of the Silver Line and the increased densities it supports may revive interest in Reston's old village center model, as more walkable neighborhoods make it possible to consider a carless lifestyle. We should look for more examples like this.
In my blog post celebrating Bob Simon, I described the experience of taking one of my friends to Lake Anne for the first time. He's my age and he's never lived in Reston, but he loved it. He also loves the Town Center (in fact, he's located his new business there). There's room for both in Reston, just as Bob envisioned. If we work together and think together, we can come up with ways to bring the old Reston vision into a new century.
- - - - -
If you're still deciding whether to run for the RCA Board, time is running out! You must file your candidate form by this Sunday, June 3. Go to the RCA website, download the form, and turn it in today!