The South Lakes Village Center plaza on a recent Sunday evening.  Image by the author.

Some Restonians are opposed to making a local public plaza nicer over fears that the improvements will lead to more teenagers and vandalism. But Reston's public spaces such as plazas are what helps make the community strong, as well as unique in Fairfax County.

When you think of Reston, you may think of spending time at the ice rink at Reston Town Center, or maybe enjoying the waterfront at Lake Anne Village, or maybe the new public plaza at Reston Station. Public space where residents can enjoy their community was an important part of founder Bob Simon's original vision for Reston.

One of those spaces is the lake front plaza at South Lakes Village Center. Nestled between Lake Thoreau and South Lakes Drive, the village center is a pretty typical shopping center anchored by a Safeway along with other shops and restaurants. Unlike a lot of typical suburban shopping centers, there is also a public plaza that lets shoppers enjoy some of the waterfront. Nearby residents can use paths to walk to the village center.

The Chevy Chase Land company owns the South Lakes Village Center as well as the plaza. The company recently came up with a plan to add features to the plaza to make it more inviting, as well as easier to access and navigate. Then some residents balked, so the Reston Design Review Board decided not to approve the plans just yet.

The objections mostly come from some people who live at the nearby Lakeport neighborhood, where some homes are very close to the plaza and village center. According to them, new features like a ping pong table or cornhole will invite vandalism and noise from local teenagers.

The plaza today is sunk below the storefronts and the plaza is easy to miss if you drive by. This picture was taken around 5 pm on a Sunday.  South Lakes Plaza by the author.

Is new activity so bad?

People look for a lot of different things in parks and public space. Some parks are meant to be quiet and to offer people a break from otherwise busy lives. That's the great thing about the Glade Stream Valley Park near South Lakes Village Center.

Other places are meant to be lively and encourage people to do things, whether that's play games, people-watch, or enjoy a snack outdoors. The plaza at South Lakes is definitely meant to be the latter type of park, but it doesn't have the components to be that type of place.

Most of the plaza is sunk below the storefronts, and the stairs leading down to the water are steep. Part of the new plan would make the descent more gradual. Someone who typically drives to South Lakes Village Center could be forgiven for not noticing the plaza at all.

Most of the open space at South Lakes Village Center is dedicated to the parking lot. 

The games planned for the site would be scattered throughout, letting people explore the area section by section. One vandalism claim was that game pieces would be tossed into the lake. That has some merit, but that threat has not stopped other projects around the region from putting throwable pieces near water.

The Wharf in DC has Chess, Scrabble, rocking horses, and Battleship along its waterside promenade. One of the things that keeps people from throwing pieces in the water is its popularity. Since the area draws a lot of people, it's difficult to anonymously be a jerk.

People playing giant board games at the Wharf in DC.  Image by Dan Malouff.

The teens are coming!

Plaza naysayers specifically called out one group: teens. Taking a cue from the band My Chemical Romance, there was a lot of concern about how the new plaza might encourage more teenagers to hang out at South Lakes Village Center. The center is walking distance from nearby South Lakes high school, and if you stop by after class lets out you'll find yourself in a mid-afternoon rush at Starbucks and Chipotle.

Opposition to something because teenagers might use it is nothing new.

Store owners at Gallery Place installed a high frequency noise generator a few years ago with the aim of annoying teenagers while leaving adults alone. Anti-loitering efforts in Silver Spring focused on removing mostly teenaged skaters from the area. Even the Fillmore music venue was criticized because some residents thought the music would appeal to teenagers too much.

This sign is right by the plaza and keeps the space small since most people cannot use the path here.  Image by the author.

However, teens have just as much a right to the community as any other group of people, and teens especially need places where they can be themselves. Kids obviously have to be close to their parents, and people who are not quite adults can't make their own spaces yet. When efforts to stop “loitering” are too heavy-handed, this has the potential to encourage teenagers to spend more time away from society. Include teens in planning efforts, and you will see improvement for people of all ages.

For the moment, plans for the new plaza are on hold. We will see what changes the Chevy Chase Land Company comes up with to deal with some of the concerns. In the meantime, we should remember that teenagers need public spaces too, and that human activity helps bind a community together.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.