The Often-Imitated Reston Eyes Future With Trepidation

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008

From Tysons Corner to Rockville Pike, communities across the Washington suburbs are aspiring to become what Reston has been for more than 40 years: a place where you can buy milk, take a photography class and commune with nature without stepping foot in your car.

Now, Reston -- which famously pioneered the kind of walkable, environmentally friendly, mixed-use suburban neighborhood that is all the rage these days -- is on the cusp of its own transformation. And some residents say they fear it could lose the delicate balance that made it a model.

Three Metrorail stations are slated to open in the town as part of a planned extension to Dulles International Airport, and high-density developments are expected to be built around at least two of them. Plans are underway to redevelop Lake Anne Village Center, a lakeside plaza in Reston that was modeled after a European village. And several other redevelopment projects that would add density elsewhere in the town have been proposed.

Some residents have objected because of the traffic the changes could generate. They also say they fear that the character of the community could be altered.

Kathy Kaplan, a children's book author, said she learned about the Lake Anne plans after discovering that her neighborhood library was being moved. She said she worries that development will eventually drive her from her home.

"I can just walk out my door and be on a path. I can listen to the owls and take my granddaughter out to the stream," Kaplan said. She is within a few miles of the community center, where she took a watercolor painting class this summer, and the shopping mecca of Reston Town Center. "I don't want to lose that."

But local leaders say change is inevitable and the community ought to plan for it. They say the Metro will change Reston in ways never imagined by its founder, real estate developer Robert E. Simon.

"What Reston has become is because there was a good plan," said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who represents Reston on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "When Bob Simon was planning, he was planning for 2030. We're almost there, so we need to plan for 2050."

Among the most staunch proponents of change is Simon himself. At 94, he lives on the 13th floor of a high-rise jutting up from Lake Anne Plaza.

Simon founded Reston in 1964 on 6,800 acres of the wooded countryside that existed between the District's earliest suburbs and the newly built Dulles airport. Reston was conceived as a self-contained community, with dozens of miles of walking trails through quiet woods, a variety of housing types to attract a diverse population and amenities and shopping that were easily accessible and shared by all.

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in a 1965 front-page article in the New York Times, described Reston as "an attractive cross between an updated Georgetown and an Italian harbor town like Portofino."

Since then, Reston has become a model for developments around the world. But Simon said he thinks the execution of his vision was flawed. Only part of the town center was developed to its potential, he said, and the area has too many strip malls that should have been built to be more pedestrian friendly. About 60,000 people live in Reston, although Simon's original plan called for 80,000. Simon estimated that after Metro moves in, 100,000 people will live there.

One of the most studied and beloved parts of Reston is Lake Anne Village Center, a tiny bistro-lined plaza hugging a lake named after Simon's former wife. A statue of Simon seated on a bench sits placidly on the water's edge. The plaza was once full of life but has lost some vitality, he said. It needs more housing and shops to keep its sidewalk culture vibrant and its businesses afloat. The redevelopment project calls for more housing and stores.

"Think of it this way. You have a wonderful portrait of your grandmother, and you love it and want to preserve it," he said. "But the frame looks like hell. So you go to a store where they have frames, and you buy a frame. That's what it is. We're not monkeying with your grandmother; we are enhancing her."

Some residents say they fear that Lake Anne will be the first domino to fall in a chain reaction that would turn Reston into a traffic-clogged Manhattan.

"We are not doing design that is in the character or quality of the original Reston," said John Lovaas, who has lived in Reston since 1975. He said he favors adding shops and residences to Lake Anne but thinks the current proposal is far too dense.

The most dramatic change, one Simon could hardly have conceived of in the 1960s, is the expected coming of Metro.

Fairfax officials are encouraging developers to propose Metro-focused, mixed-use projects. It is part of the county's larger goal to concentrate development around mass transit hubs.

A parking garage that could accommodate 2,300 cars is tentatively slated for the Wiehle Avenue Metro stop. That would affect traffic patterns, said Mark Looney, a land-use attorney for some landowners along the proposed rail route and a former chairman of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce.

"Everybody is extremely excited about the prospect of rail coming, in part because of the transportation benefits, but also the opportunity to see Reston move to the next level," Looney said.

Even the opposition is beneficial, he said, because it will ensure that the changes keep to the spirit of the town. "I don't believe that the people who live and work in Reston are going to allow these exciting investments to change their community in a negative way. They have too much pride in Reston to allow that to happen."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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