When Robert E. Simon Jr. founded the now internationally known planned community of Reston in 1964, it was a strikingly different place. Fifty years ago, Simon recalled in a recent conversation with the Fairfax County Times, his New Town “was half fields and farm with 3,000 cattle grazing and half woodlands. We charged [A. Smith] Bowman [who previously owned the property] $3 a head per year for eating our grass.”
Purchased with money acquired from the sale of Carnegie Hall (Simon’s father was the famed concert hall’s majority owner), Reston, when founded, was regarded as a revolutionary form of suburban development.
“Simon’s Reston was the seedbed for ‘smart growth,’ ‘green cities,’ ‘new urbanism’ and similar anti-sprawl ideas and policies that, by the 1990s, would inform almost all new suburban development,” wrote Tom Grubisich (former executive editor of Times Community Newspapers, including The Reston Times, and a founder of The Connection newspapers) in the Encyclopedia Virginia, a publication of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Harvard and European educated, Simon, a native New Yorker, shaped Reston — whose name is Simon’s first three initials plus a contraction of the word town — around seven key principles, which still undergird its growth.
They include: the “importance and dignity of each individual” as a focal point of planning; a full range of housing styles and prices to allow varied groups of residents to stay in Reston throughout their lives; that people be able to “live and work in the same community”; the “widest choice” of leisure opportunities; that “beauty, structural and natural,” be fostered; that “commercial, cultural and recreational facilities be made available to the residents from the outset of the development”; and that it also “be a financial success.”
Now boasting a population of approximately 60,000, Reston, which received “America’s Best Intergenerational Communities Award in March from the MetLife Foundation and Generations United, is celebrating two exceptional anniversaries in April with two special events — Reston’s 50th year and Simon’s 100th birthday.
On April 5, Founder’s Day festivities will take place at Lake Anne Village Center, the community’s historic heart. On April 10, Simon’s actual 100th birthday will be celebrated at the annual Best Of Reston Gala at the Hyatt Regency Reston in Reston Town Center. (See information box for celebration details.)
The following are highlights from the recent conversation between the still spry Robert E. Simon Jr. and Janet Rems for Fairfax County Times.
JR: You were a native New Yorker, a Manhattanite. Why in 1964 did you pick the 6,750 acres of farmland and woods to found your now internationally known planned community, the New Town of Reston?
Simon: “My father [Robert E. Simon Sr.] was on the board of Radburn in New Jersey, (a New Town founded in 1928 but never completed). … I was aware of New Towns but hadn’t thought of developing my own until I saw the site. I was intrigued by the land, the location and the terms. Between the airport-to-be and the nation’s capital, it couldn’t be a better location.
“The broker was the biggest thing in Washington; so big he had a weekly luncheon with J. Edgar Hoover. … He first offered it to Roger Stevens, a big deal in real estate, who produced plays and was the first chairman of the Kennedy Center. Stevens didn’t want it. … Henry Rice, a friend of mine, steered him to me. I couldn’t resist coming down and investigating.
“He should have gotten two ‘Pinocchios.’ He said there was an intersection of two major roads on this property. … When I got here, I found out there was no such intersection. But I got a rental car and looked around to be sure there would be an airport. I found a lot of heavy equipment digging around. It indicated something exciting would be happening. [The original deal] was $800,000 in cash, and $12 million over a 10-year interest-free mortgage. … When the deal [the selling of Carnegie Hall] was done, my family got $2 million. That $2 million is what started Reston.”
JR: Fifty years ago, what made Reston so innovative as a community?
Simon: “The seven principles, which were not formally on paper until we opened up. I had made a list of what should go in the community from what I had seen in the world that I enjoyed and crossed out what didn’t make sense. … And everything was in place before the first people moved in.
“It’s still an amazing phenomenon. The initial project was 227 townhouses in three clusters — Hickory, Waterview and Lake Anne and the 60 units of Heron House … the first high-rise in the boonies. It was a pretty small project. Yet it had an incredible reception — The New York Times, The Washington Post, foreign publications. It was such spontaneous combustion. I asked myself why. It was the total community … and it was the plaza [at Lake Anne Village Center]. It was the first such plaza in the U.S.
“Our townhouse blocks had a wide range of sizes. Hickory Cluster had 23 different floor plans for 90 houses so people with a variety of incomes could be living side by side. I recall a man saying to me, ‘There are no Joneses in Reston.’
“The idea of [racial] integration didn’t take much time and thought. A New Town had to be inclusive. I didn’t worry about doing it in Virginia. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. Local brokers tried to dissuade people from looking in Reston, saying we were communists. It’s amazing how the term ‘socialist’ is misused. After Gulf Oil (Simon’s major lender) said ‘we’re going to let you hang by your fingernails,’ I saw General Electric was interested in New Towns. They studied our books and budgets and decided they wanted to do it. … When it went to the full board, a single guy said: ‘An integrated development in Virginia; that’s crazy.’ So after two years of work, they abandoned the whole deal. No New Towns for GE.
“There also was the integration of sculpture into the design of the community. [Uruguayan sculptor] Gonzalo Fonseca spent six months in a rented apartment in Herndon while he worked at Lake Anne doing all he did. Staff worried that I was not sufficiently budget conscious when I engaged him. … I particularly like the boat. I remember children sitting in it yelling bloody murder. When I asked them what was wrong, they shouted, ‘SHARKS!’ That’s so important to me. It’s playing and fantasy that you want to engender. Right next to the boat is a stairway to nowhere. It’s been a great place to get engaged.”
JR: How has the 50-year-old Reston fulfilled your original vision for your planned community? What have been your biggest satisfactions? And how do you like living there yourself?
Simon: “I love it! … People seem to feel they’re living in a place warmer than most, and Reston Town Center’s Fountain Square is everything I hoped for [in a plaza where people congregate]. … Fountains were on my [original] list. There were no fountains in those days [50 years ago]. A fountain in Lake Geneva inspired the fountain in Lake Anne. Nowadays, you can’t have a puddle of water without a fountain.
“Its inclusiveness is wonderful. We have a crazy number of languages in the schools and that is wonderful, the enormous variety of leisure-time activities, physical and mental. And it’s such a walkable community. We have 19 underpasses, more than any other place … and community garden plots, common in Europe but not here, since the first settlers in Reston … 300 now.
“I’m thrilled by the arts and performance activity here and the possibility of having a new 600-seat theater in Town Center North (a 47-acre area bounded by Baron Cameron Avenue, Fountain Drive and Town Center and Reston parkways), a new library and new government center.
“I’m also so pleased with the wonderful job Cornerstones (formerly Reston Interfaith) is doing. It’s adhering to the original vision of having all economic groups here.
“The first people who moved to Reston moved here as pioneers. Now we have quite a number of kids whose parents also were born here. That’s wonderful! It takes about five years to overcome the newcomer level, and not everyone gets it. It’s a bit of a challenge.”
JR: How has it failed or only partially fulfilled that vision? What have been your disappointments? What changes would you like to see?
Simon: “I was disappointed that no plazas were built in the other centers. They’re shopping centers, not plazas. … I have no thought of destroying the clusters. … Clusters should stay just as they are. But the rest of Reston should be urban. Spectrum and all the other centers, except Lake Anne and Town Center, should be torn down and rebuilt as urban centers. However, I wouldn’t want to duplicate, be cookie cutter, but the plaza is the hub. … If South Lakes Shopping Center were to be torn down, it would reveal a lake; a plaza could be built there, I hope, around the lake supporting the retail.
“You want high density surrounding the plaza, at the same time integrating trails and natural areas into the community. I have problems looking at Reston’s future with people who just want to preserve nature. You need to create these areas. Central Park [in New York City] is not preserved but created. There is a major misunderstanding about this. … You don’t preserve anything; if you want trees, you plant them.
“In the United States architecture is not a priority. The emphasis [in homes] is on kitchens and bathrooms. Town Center is the ultimate plaza … but there are no beautiful buildings in Town Center. They serve their purpose; they house people. But they’re ho-hum. I’m hoping we [still] get some. … Heron House (at Lake Anne Village Center and where Simon lives) — that’s good architecture … my favorite in Reston.
“[Also], I’d love to think in Reston kids are not spending six to seven hours a week with activities using their thumbs. I’d love to see them in Reston hiking, rowing, paddling on lakes, playing volleyball and, of course, tennis — it’s the best game. I’m satisfied that Reston is living up to ‘live, work, play,’ but our kids are not playing enough. … I would like to see more scholarships for all the community’s [child-oriented] programs. I’m hoping before the next 50 years is over to have a global program where any kid, when out of school, would have something to do.”
JR: What impacts do you hope the coming of the Silver Line will have on Reston’s future — the pluses and minuses?
Simon: “I don’t see any minuses. I’m not sure what the pluses are. … None of the people who live and work in Reston will use it, neither are the kids and elderly going to use it five days a week. It’s for the people coming from Loudoun going to D.C. And if we don’t have a fabulous increase in the bus system, we won’t have enough usage.”
JR: Fifty years from now, how do you want to be remembered?
RES: “I got it started! And I spent the last 20 odd years of my life working for its development.”
JR: Are you satisfied with that development?
RES: “You’re never satisfied. In my next incarnation, I will be carried out from the same place where I was born. [Reston] is a place where you can spend your whole life comfortably and profitably. … People who could afford mega-mansions prefer to stay here. … Some people have proudly told me that they’ve moved five times since they’ve moved here — all in Reston.”