Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Bringing Small Businesses Back to Reston

This post by RCA President Colin Mills originally appeared in Reston Patch.

As faithful readers of Patch know, the longtime restaurant stalwart Lakeside Inn is closing its doors after over 20 years in business.  This has generated a surprising (to me) amount of commentary, both positive and negative.  Fans of the Lakeside lament the loss of a great neighborhood watering hole where the regulars felt a real sense of community; detractors claim that the food was mediocre and the décor was outdated, and whatever comes next can only be an improvement.

I can’t comment on that debate one way or the other; I didn’t go to the Lakeside Inn.  But I do lament the loss of a truly local restaurant, and I hope that we can do more to encourage the location of locally-owned small businesses in Reston.  We often talk about how Reston is a special and unique place, and independent businesses do a lot to contribute to that sense of place.

I tend to look at the small business issue through the lens of restaurants, because I love to eat.  Reston has a reputation as the land of chain eateries.  This reputation isn’t entirely fair, as we do have several great independent restaurants (my favorites include Ariake, Pollo Peru, and El Manantial).  But it’s undeniable that there are a lot of chains in Reston, especially in and around the Town Center.

There’s nothing inherently evil about chain restaurants: they tend to be fast, affordable, and reliable.  But if your restaurant scene is dominated by the same chains that can be found in thousands of suburbs all across the country, it’s hard to feel a real sense of place.  You could be in Anytown, USA.  The Reston I know prides itself on not being Anytown.

And it’s not just the chains themselves that create a sense of sameness; there’s also an unfortunate lack of diversity in the restaurant options.  American, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Tex-Mex cuisines are all well-represented in Reston.  But we have a tremendously diverse population; why don’t we have a wider variety of restaurants? 

Why don’t we have a German or Eastern European restaurant here?  Why aren’t African or South American cuisines better represented?  Couldn’t we support a good Korean place?  Our restaurant options don’t do justice to the wide variety of cultures we have here.

Not only can restaurants express the diversity of a community, they can also provide a place for the community to come together.  Whether you liked the Lakeside or not, there’s no denying that it was a great gathering place.  Neighbors rubbed elbows here, talked and watched sports and enjoyed each other’s company in a friendly, relaxed setting.  And in our increasingly atomized society, we need places like that.

In the Master Plan Task Force meetings, Bob Simon regularly stresses the importance of plazas, as they provide a place for community members to gather, or just to pass each other and strike up unexpected conversations.  Neighborhood bars and restaurants serve the same function.  They get us out of our cars and our self-created isolation chambers and into contact with our fellow citizens.  We need more of that in Reston.

One of the bigger barriers to having more independent restaurants and small businesses in Reston, I suspect, is the relatively high land values and corresponding high rents.  It’s hard for a small restaurant or a niche shop to make money if they have to pay sky-high lease rates. 

In recent months, we’ve seen several small businesses (such as Lakeside and At Play Café) close up shop due to lease rates issues.  As the Silver Line arrives and redevelopment gets underway, the cost of doing business will only get higher.  That’s only going to drive more small businesses out of Reston, unless we plan carefully to avoid that fate.

What can we do?  The best way to encourage small businesses is to set up a specific area or areas where they are encourages.  A lot of communities have a “Main Street” or “Old Town” area where the storefronts are small and local businesses are encouraged. 

We don’t have an old-fashioned Main Street, but we do have Lake Anne Plaza.  The shops on the Plaza are all locally-owned small business.  I don’t know if the same will be true with the redevelopment occurring around Lake Anne, but I hope so; Lake Anne is an ideal location for small shops and restaurants, and the new development will provide the foot traffic that will help them survive and thrive.

If not Lake Anne, how about Tall Oaks?  It’s already home to El Manantial, Mama Wok, and Pho Reston 75, fine local establishments all.  If it were turned into a mecca for small business (possibly with a redesigned layout to encourage pedestrians), that might be what draws people back over there. 

The Lakeside Inn is going away, and we’re not going to be able to bring it back.  But we must find a way to encourage small businesses and restaurants to thrive in Reston.  They are crucial to creating a sense of uniqueness and a sense of place, and they provide places for us to gather and commune with each other.  Our community is growing and growing up.  But it’s important to maintain some places where, just like they said in “Cheers,” everybody knows your name.

If you could bring in a new restaurant or small business to Reston, what would it be?  Let me know in the comments.

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