No piece of Northern Virginia real estate was more praised and honored in the 1960s than Reston's Lake Anne Plaza.

The plaza's city-in-the-suburbs atmosphere, with people shopping, dining, schmoozing, boating, fishing or just hanging out in one big crazy quilt of activity, was celebrated as the new town's eloquent answer to the sterility of suburban living.

National magazines put photographs of Lake Anne Plaza on their covers. Architectural and planning awards poured in. Reston developer Gulf Reston began its sales pitch with the splendors of the plaza.

But today real estate broker Karl J. Ingebritsen, who has known the plaza from its beginning, says bluntly:

"Lake Anne is in the pits."

The storefronts behind Ingebritsen provide an explanation for his harsh judgment.

Dockside, the second biggest store in the plaza, has closed. So has Scoops, the ice cream shop. Lake Anne Restaurant and the Hallmark gift shop have been closed, temporarily, because their interiors were ruined by water from leaking roofs.

The Common Ground coffee house and the adjacent community center have been padlocked by the landlord because of a rent dispute.

Safeway, which rents the biggest store on the plaza, has a month-to-month lease and is expected to be gone before the end of the year.

From a graceful wooden brick arch leading to a cluster of arches hangs a naked lightbulb, its globe smashed by vandals. The globe in the next arch is held in place with duct tape.

Bright afternoon sunshine casts diamond reflections off Lake Anne's waters, but the only appreciative audience is the ducks.

In the Reston Used Bookshop, one of the few stores that has a thriving business, co-owner Sue Schram says: "It's really depressing. When it gets dark, nobody is here."

Those words would never have been spoken when Reston was taking shape in the late 1960s. Tourists, including planners from all over the world, came to see what Robert E. Simon Jr., Reston's creator, had wrought at Lake Anne.

Simon liked -- and wanted to exploit -- the natural setting found in the countryside. But having been raised in New York, he wanted his new town, Reston, to have some of the hustle and bustle of the city.

So at Lake Anne he did what was anathema in conventional suburban planning: He put apartments on top of stores. Nearby he clustered offices and town houses. The purpose of these mixed uses was to maintain a movement of people day and night. In the middle, he put a lake that would both attract more people and serve as a spectacular backdrop.And cars were banned from the plaza.

But as Reston continued to grow toward its present 35,000 residents, Lake Anne Plaza went into a decline.

What went wrong?

There are several theories. Patrick S. Kane, a longtime Reston resident and planner who had an office above the plaza for many years, said the answer has something to do with what he called the "Reston spirit. The plaza was the place where we all went to find out what happened," he said. "But now we're a much bigger place. We have our churches, cable TV, clubs. Our need to go there has diminished."

Others say the plaza has failed because Restonians, like other suburbanites, would not abandon their affair with the automobile, and when bigger and more conventional shopping malls opened nearby, they took their dollars there.

The design of the newest shopping center being planned for Reston will not ignore the reality of the automobile. According to planner William Steiner of Reston Land Corp., the Mobil Oil subsidiary that is continuing the development of Reston, the center will be a compromise between a commerical strip and pedestrian-oriented stores.

Another factor, say Kane and others, may be the size of the plaza. It has only 45,000 square feet.

"The critical mass may not be there," says Kane. The Safeway is too small to stock all the products available at larger supermarkets, so many nearby residents, instead of walking to the store, drive to a neighborhood Giant Food store that is roomier and more fully stocked.

James Rossant, a New York planner who helped design Lake Anne for Simon in the early 1960s, says he has no regrets over how the plaza was built. "Hindsight is marvelous . . . the plaza is basically beautiful and marvelous and the design has little to do with the problems." He said the problem was with the plaza's management.

"You have to go back five or six years," say broker Ingebritsen, who like Rossant and many other observers, also blames management. "Gulf Reston [the Gulf Oil subsidiary that used to own all of Reston] began concentrating on the south side of Reston. It didn't pay attention to Lake Anne. There was a long period of management neglect. When you let commercial property drift too long, it gets into trouble."

Francis C. Steinbauer, who is general manager of Reston Land and held the same position to Gulf Reston, differs. "Gulf Reston didn't lose interest in Lake Anne. It was one of Reston's assets."

He acknowledged, though, "There were a number to things Gulf-Reston chose not to do that Donatelli & Klein [which bought the Plaza from Gulf Reston] did."

Rodger W. Klein, vice president of Donatelloi, said his firm spent more than $200,000 making repairs in the plaza. But despite that investment, Donatelli already has decided to get out.

It tried to sell the plaza as a package, reportedly asking more than $2 million. When there were no takers, it put the stores up for sale on an individual basis, a decision that Ingebritsen and other longtime plaza observers fear could compound management problems.

Meanwhile, attorney Calvin F. Larsen and others who both live and work in Reston are brainstorming for solutions that would bring people back to the plaza. Larsen would like to see the now-closed community center turned into a visitors' attraction with an archive on Reston's development as a new town.

Ingebritsen, though saddened by what he has watched happen to the plaza over the years, does not despair. "It is a unique piece of real estate," he says. "It's beautiful and in the right location. It will take time to turn around, but I am positive it will happen."