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A New Vision for Tall Oaks

Tall Oaks Village Center has struggled for years. Learn more about the center's history, and read my big idea for reimagining it as a true village center.

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?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Skip Endale January 17, 2013 at 09:56 PM
Karen, the problem here is that the community is becoming divided over issues that are preventable. Not a fortnight goes by when the police helicopter hangs over Lake Anne below the dead man's curve. In contrast I see the cops out in full force on the bike trail, protecting the good part of town. What we need is a police outpost at Tall Oaks and one at Lake Anne. Perhaps then we would feel less divided over gun ownership, poor people and running a business in general. Its good to have all voices heard, even if they sound shrill. Last but not least, I would like to see law enforcement step up and not sit in some vacant parking lot monitoring the freeway. Better yet, get them to exercise daily and ride a bike or walk a foot patrol around Lake Anne. Its been done in other cities so why not here in Reston?
Laura Calacci January 17, 2013 at 11:44 PM
Colin, I choose to stay in Reston because I have lived here since 1984. I have raised two children here and I own two homes here. One in 20194 & one in 20190. I love Reston . And I hate seeing it ruined. Reston used to look like Disneyland. It was immaculate and crime was unheard of. Fairway Dr. and Cameron Crescent were nice communities. Now, Reston is dirty. Trash & animal carcasses sit on the streets for weeks. Crime is a problem. And even though Kathy Kaplan thinks I am a racist, that could not be further from the truth. Karen said this is not a discussion about illegal immigration, but rather about Tall Oaks. I guess Lake Anne kind of piggybacked into the discussion. Lake Anne does not feel safe to me and that is because they have a problem with loitering. It is true that the police told me when my car was broken into, "you live near the low income housing". If I couldn't afford to live here, I would move. Buyers would line up to spend 500K on a townhouse on the golf course between 2 metro stops. . I would not want to risk my money leasing space at Tall Oaks or Lake Anne . Reston must have a higher percentage of low income/sec 8 housing than anywhere else in the county. High concentrations of low income residents are not going to support a gourmet shop or a Dave & Busters. Its simple. The principles of highest & best use should be applied & the problem would be solved.
Tammi Petrine January 18, 2013 at 12:54 AM
Colin, thanks for a very interesting & timely column this week! Reston definitely needs more indoor recreation facilities. Wouldn’t Tall Oaks be a fantastic location for the large rec center that was proposed for Brown’s Chapel a couple of years ago? The facility could also provide passive rec space and a gourmet snack bar so chatters, chess/checker players and WIFI’ers could enjoy the location close to the senior high rise across the parking lot. We need to talk to the County to see if some of our tax monies can finally come back to Reston to help build this needed facility that could also serve the new TOD/Metro areas.
Tammi Petrine January 18, 2013 at 01:02 AM
Speaking of Hunters Woods, how in the world did RA's DRB approve the "new" paint scheme for this center??? The white facades of the buildings make the strip center look cheap and tacky! So sad... I know the management of the center is planning parking lot changes to accommodate mobility impaired folks which is a huge kudo to them. I'm just sorry that the new color scheme detracts from that noble goal.
Dave January 18, 2013 at 04:07 AM
Michael, you are probably right, just thought I'd throw the thought out there. The advantage that the napa/Sonoma area has is the almost year round rich agricultural surroundings that support the market along with the tourist draw of the area. Reston does seem to have some of the same types of people that would be drawn to something of its nature though; just observe the popularities of the farmers markets in the area. Was just a thought :). I can picture people eating slice of fresh real pizza with a glass of Virginia wine or local brew either inside, or in a pavilion type area outside. (Although I'm sure VA abc would beg to differ)
Orlina Tucker January 18, 2013 at 12:19 PM
Respectfully Kathy, 3 failed grocery stores are compelling evidence that a grocery store doesn't work at Tall Oaks. There are too many other options in Reston, plus PeaPod. And while I like the coop idea, I don't think Tall Oaks is the right location for one.
DGeorge January 18, 2013 at 12:35 PM
New paint at Hunters Woods is just putting lipstick on a pig. Changes nothing.
Colin Mills January 18, 2013 at 03:08 PM
Thanks for answering my question, Laura. It's always nice to meet another longtime Restonian. I would say that Lake Anne is in better shape than it was 5 or 10 years ago, with events like the Farmers Market and the Jazz Festival.
Colin Mills January 18, 2013 at 03:11 PM
Thanks, Tammi! Tall Oaks would be a great location for the indoor rec center, I believe. There's room enough to accommodate it, without costing us existing open space. I'd like to see if we could make that happen.
Michael Hans January 18, 2013 at 05:20 PM
I owned the german restaurant from 93 to 96, we all know what happened to Hunters Woods owned by the Lerner's at that time. No reinvestment into the center for well over 15 years, let to the demise and eventual closures and remake of the center. Now, we have a center with mediocre restaurants and retail which is truggling, Safeway has the worst reputation, changes in progress are terrible at Hunters Woods with the new color scheme etc. It really has no class at all.
Colin Mills January 18, 2013 at 11:45 PM
Thanks, Michael, for providing a shopowner's perspective on the changes at Hunters Woods. And if you ever wanted to open another German restaurant in Reston, I'd be the first one in line!
Southie January 19, 2013 at 01:58 PM
Agreed. More like half a pig with the redesign holdouts of Safeway, Burger King, and Wells Fargo. My vote for Tall Oaks would be a Barns and Noble or a Wegmans.
Jack January 22, 2013 at 01:16 AM
This is a great post Colin ! Thank you for the initiative... It would be great if we continue this conversation and come up with some action items Be it reface the entrance , kids play area, indoor swimming , library , Jazz Festival , or whatever serves the community & Reston as a whole I personally would vote for a Indoor Rec Center and this part of Reston certainly needs ones Its easy to talk about what we like and its great to hear from so many folks but what are we planning to do next ? Maybe have a meeting in RA and invite people ? Have patch send out an online survey ? Thanks again to you , RCA and Patch !
Colin Mills January 22, 2013 at 01:25 AM
Thanks, Jack! This is obviously a subject that resonates with a lot of people. And I would like to turn this conversation into action. I'm going to talk to my Board and some other community leaders, and I'll keep you posted on the next steps. Thanks for reading!
Rob Ross January 22, 2013 at 04:23 PM
Tall Oaks would be an ideal location for a Community Center akin to the one in Herndon (without the baseball fields). Yes, there is the Reston Community Center but I think the area is now large enough for at least one more and frankly RCC is lacking. An indoor pool, exercise equipment, meeting rooms, hand/raquetball, maybe a basketball court. Heck, you could even put in a small Performing Art Center in that space if you wanted (although probably not both). Reston has plenty of commercial options, and the ever-expanding Town Center will provide even more. I've lived within walking distance of Tall Oaks for 15 years now, it's time to go a different direction - a "Reston North Community Center" makes the most sense.
Laura Calacci January 22, 2013 at 04:33 PM
First of all, no one has mentioned what the owners of the center want to do. Would they prefer to lease the space, leave it vacant until Metro arrives, or sell the shopping center? After all, it is their property. Secondly, I doubt the county would buy it and I certainly hope Reston Association would not consider investing our money in such a venture. So while the speculating is interesting & fun, I doubt any of it will come to fruition. The owners of the center will decide, as they should.
Tammi Petrine January 22, 2013 at 06:30 PM
Jeez, Laura, you have an amazing grasp of the obvious: of course the owners of the “center” have the last word… or do they? If they have property within the Dulles Toll Road (DTR) corridor, perhaps they could be persuaded to donate or at least sell for a reasonable price their Tall Oaks property to the County for use as a community center in return for maximizing their opportunities. Please note that I said COUNTY, not RA. Absolutely, positively the county OWES Reston big time for recreation / park expenditures. Given our % of affordable housing and the dearth of parks plus our 100% self-funded RCC, we deserve a substantial facility built and serviced by the county. The parks and rec people always try to lump outside Reston facilities into Reston to claim that we get our fair share. They are kidding no one. Lake Fairfax is not within Reston and is a regional park. Stratford park is ACROSS the FFX Co. Parkway and not a Reston park either. Recently we were told that some south of Reston linear park with no improvements was ours: not so. So Laura, why not put a little sunshine in your negative posts? Positive thinking will get you a long way when trying to navigate a complex world. Why not think of what could/should be and work toward making it happen?
Laura Calacci January 22, 2013 at 06:47 PM
Tammi, Donate or sell at a "reasonable" price?? HAHAHAHA. Keep on dreaming Tammi. I know a fair amount about real estate development and its clear you have no idea what you are talking about.
Tammi Petrine January 22, 2013 at 07:20 PM
Wow, Laura, you are on a roll, aren't you? Ever hear of "proffers?"
Rob Ross January 23, 2013 at 02:49 AM
It's apparent the owners are content to take a financial loss on the property, presumably to write it off and realize a tax savings. To allow that much square footage to go unoccupied for this long (nevermind not renewing the lease at Curves so they could allow.... nothing... to move in) leaves no other explanation as a valid possibility. Their actions (or inaction) make it obvious they do not feel the property can be profitable. Perhaps they are waiting for the Metro to force enough development so that they *have* to be be bought out. Simply put, they are serving as placeholders for the next project. Regardless of what the owners strategy is, the point of the article was to generate ideas for the best use of the property. A mixed-use Rec Center is certainly lacking in this area and would serve the needs of the community better than empty buildings and parking spaces.
Java Master January 23, 2013 at 03:40 AM
Hold on there Laura! I too know a great deal about commercial real estate development & finance, it's been my liveihood for many years, yet my "qualifications" do not give me license to be so utterly dismissive --to the point of insult--of individuals seeking to make well-meaning suggestions, regardless of actual viability in a competitive real estate market. Some of these notions may qualify as pie-in-the-sky thinking, but are still interesting to note. Hey, RA , r u listening to ur residents? And while I occasionally enjoy mixing it up with certain anti-growth, anti-development interests on Reston blogs ( there may be a special circle in hades for a few of these people, of that I am certain) I try not to be doctrinaire or arbitrary in my views, and I don't blame Reston's issues on immigrants, or poor people, or liberals, or the guy who didn't pick up the roadkill on North Shore Drive last week. And I would never castigate someone for an errant post, no matter how certain I was of my own position. I just admit to the disagreement and move on, and that is exactly what I suggest you do. I have no idea what the future holds for the Tall Oaks property ( or Lake Anne Plaza, for that matter and the bungled planning process there so far is truly a tragedy). My suggestion would be an intensive residential redevelopment, but who knows? I'm not purchasing the site anyway! Eventually the owners will stop tallying their tax losses and move forward. Getting off the soap box now.
Orlina Tucker January 24, 2013 at 11:33 AM
they don' t actually have to be citizens; they must be legally in this country however. Legally documented is sufficient, in addition to tax records for income verification, for qualification.
Orlina Tucker January 24, 2013 at 11:55 AM
Tammy, this is one of the ideas my DH and I have been bouncing around for some time. FFX Co buys the property for a negotiated, lower price. In return, the Co grants tax credits and such to the property owner on other properties in the Co. Co turns in into a Co rec center. It really does seem like the property owner is holding out to sell it to developers though
Orlina Tucker January 24, 2013 at 12:10 PM
Based on what I've heard from one merchant, the property management raises rents and monthly maintenance fees on the existing merchants to make up some of the income lost on vacancies. At some point, it makes more sense for stores to move elsewhere. No one is arguing that the owners don' t have the right to sell the property to the highest bidder (I'm hoping for mixed-use residential myself), we're simply discussing our ideas.
Jack January 25, 2013 at 06:42 PM
Can we can start by getting some street lighting on wiehle avenue Given the metro is coming & traffic would be crazy , would be good for people to see where they are going and maybe find Tall Oks center while they are driving on wiehle avenue Whats the process to request for street lighting on wiehle avenue ? Can someone please respond Thanks!
Jack January 25, 2013 at 09:33 PM
Here is patch comment from Mike Collins ( (Reston Association - Board of Directors ) how to request lighting on one of the main streets near the future Metro Mike Collins : 1:42 pm on Friday, January 25, 2013 ""I understand that lighting has been an issue for years with various advocacy groups, task forces, community meetings, action plans, demonstration projects, etc.. Short version: Some people like the dark; some don't. I asked Supervisor Hudgins office for the latest thinking at the county level and her staff provided the following info: "Installation of street lighting is primarily dependent on funding availability. FFX County has been relying on redevelopment for new street lights. There is a small amount of funding available for street light funding in the Hunter Mill District and our office is in the process of setting up a street light task force to discuss future street lighting endeavors in Reston." "As Reston moves towards a 24/7 community, we will have to balance safety concerns with light pollution concerns. This will be addressed through our task force. FFX County has a site detailing some street light information at http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes/construction/streetlights/light_main.htm"; For further info and to make a specific recommendation, I would suggest contacting Paul Davis Legislative Aide Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins Hunter Mill District Office Phone: 703-478-0283 Email: Paul.Davis@fairfaxcounty.gov -Mike
Jack January 25, 2013 at 09:35 PM
Here is the correct link http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes/construction/streetlights/light_main.htm
Richard Holmquist January 27, 2013 at 03:31 AM
As I recall, Orlina, Giant did not "fail". It left for reasons other than profitability. The other two stores catered to specific ethnic markets. If you're going to generalize, you might say that an ethnic low-price supermarket won't work in Tall Oaks. I suspect that a modestly-sized grocery store carrying quality products with English labels would still turn a profit.
Richard Holmquist January 27, 2013 at 04:21 AM
Laura, I don't think you have a very long memory. Reston has always had the same issues that you're complaining about. Development has brought a lot more people to Reston, but I don't think the problems have grown disproportionately. When the big crimes of the month are graffiti and petty theft, it's clear the place is not dangerous. And you seem ready and willing to trade a few minor inconveniences for the traffic, higher expenses and added pavement that are on the way with the redevelopment that you propose - not a quality of life improvement in my mind. I agree with Colin that it's important to consider the positive aspects of having affordable housing available in Reston. You're quite vocal about your desire for less economic diversity. I can tell you that growing up in this diverse community during the late 70's & 80s was valuable to me as a military officer and in other management roles I've held during the past 25 years. It's the rare minority of low-income housing residents who are criminals and deadbeats. Most are people we rely on in the community and who play important roles educating our kids, providing necessary services, or protecting our property or freedom.
Richard Holmquist January 27, 2013 at 04:32 AM
Your headlights don't work? Thanks for your post from Mike Collins. I like his summary of the issue. "Some people like the dark; some don't." I'm from the "dark side."

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