The other day, I was driving past Tall Oaks Village Center. Seeing its forlorn condition, with so many vacancies, brought me down. But rather than just letting it depress me, I turned my mind toward ideas to revitalize the forgotten village center.
Suggesting tenants to fill the storefronts at Tall Oaks, or dreaming up ideas for revamping it, is one of Reston’s most popular pastimes. It’s been done several times here on Patch. (I’ve often thought that if every Restonian who’s come up with an idea for improving Tall Oaks actually shopped or dined there once in a while, the center would be thriving.)
But imagining a new future for Tall Oaks is more than an idle pastime for me. It’s personal. Because Tall Oaks was my childhood village center.
It may be hard to imagine for some of you newer Restonians, but Tall Oaks once thrived. It was within perfect walking distance for us, and my family stopped there often. We did our grocery shopping at the Giant Food. I always tried to cadge a couple quarters so I could get a pack of baseball cards out of the vending machine. I remember buying birthday cards at the Hallmark that was next to the Giant, and renting videos from Erol’s on the other side of the grocery store.
There was a great Italian restaurant at Tall Oaks, Da Siano, that my family loved. It was run by a local family; one of the sons was my classmate. Di Siano’s daily specials introduced me to a variety of exotic and delightful dishes, from osso bucco to linguine with baby octopus.
Tall Oaks was also a popular destination when my buddies and I roamed around the neighborhood. I had many a Slurpee at the 7-11 in the summertime. When we’d emerge from the Wiehle Avenue underpass and race up the stairs, as long as I had a couple bucks in my pocket, I was ready for fun.
Sadly, time marched on and Tall Oaks began to fade. First the Town Center, then the Spectrum, then Plaza America drew away the neighborhood traffic that used to frequent Tall Oaks. Even during my childhood, there were spots at Tall Oaks that were a tough draw. Di Siano had been preceded by several restaurants that failed, in no small part because the space was so well-hidden. But newer, easier-to-find competition made times tough for the entire center.
The property owners tried what they could. Originally, Tall Oaks was a two-level center; there was a nice little pedestrian plaza on the lower level. The owners demolished that plaza (along with the strip of buildings where Hallmark used to be) and expanded the parking lot. Like Hunters Woods, Tall Oaks was transformed from a true village center into more of a strip mall. It didn’t help much; the new layout eliminated the problem of hidden shops like Di Siano, but the whole center was still practically invisible from the road.
The old shops last out to newer and more visible competitors elsewhere in Reston. Di Siano’s owners moved their restaurant (to Great Falls, if I remember rightly). Erol’s was bought by another video store, which was eclipsed by Blockbuster and Hollywood Video (which were in turn eclipsed by Netflix). The 7-11 withered away for lack of traffic, and eventually gave way to Curves gym (which itself has vanished). Many of Giant’s former customers (like my parents) began shopping at Harris Teeter instead, and after lingering for years, Giant gave up the ghost in 2007. A couple international supermarkets tried the space, but both failed within 2 years. The renovation of the center brought in a Burger King, but even that failed. When you can’t make a Burger King work, you’ve got problems.
Today, there are a few popular restaurants at Tall Oaks, including El Manantial (my parents’ favorite), Mama Wok, and Pho Reston 75. But the village center as a whole is still ailing. Some say the Silver Line may be the shot in the arm that Tall Oaks needs, but the station isn’t really close enough to be walkable, and the center is likely to be on the periphery of any new Metro-related development.
So what is the answer? Some think that luring the right anchor tenant to the old Giant space is the key. Maybe a Trader Joe’s or another anchor would be the draw that gets people into the center. Others have suggested a larger redesign of the center, one that would open it up and making it visible from Wiehle Avenue. If people could see from their cars what Tall Oaks had to offer, they might stop in.
If these solutions would allow the vibrant Tall Oaks of my youth to return, I would be happy for that. But between the awkward location and the other newer shopping options nearby, I’m not sure it can happen. That’s why I think it might be time to turn Tall Oaks into something other than a shopping center.
There’s a reason that Bob Simon called them “village centers” rather than shopping centers. He envisioned Tall Oaks and its ilk as being more than just a place to shop; he saw them as community gathering spaces, where you might stop to talk to your neighbors, or relax for an afternoon, or attend an event. Unfortunately, with the exception of Lake Anne, Reston’s village centers have morphed into strip malls, useful for little more than taking care of your retail business.
Reston has no shortage of shopping options nowadays. What we lack is true community gathering space. What if, for instance, RA or the County purchased Tall Oaks and turned it into a true village center? We could honor Bob’s original vision by making Tall Oaks into a place where the community could gather. We could use the space for an amphitheater, or a recreation center, or a public park. There are plenty of paths leading to Tall Oaks; if there were a community amenity in the space, we might give residents in surrounding neighborhoods a reason to walk there again.
I realize that a vision on this scale is far easier said than done. But given the state of things at Tall Oaks, and with Metro-related development and redevelopment poised to reshape Reston, it’s time for big ideas and big visions. A repurposing like this might just be what Tall Oaks needs. And a true community gathering place – a real village center – might just be what Reston needs.
I’d like to hear from you about your ideas for Tall Oaks. Do you think a wholesale repurposing is the ticket? If so, what would you like to see in that area? If not, what do you think would help bring Tall Oaks back?