Q & A with...

Q & A with...

Robert Simon reflects on another year gone by in Reston.

In 1961, Robert Simon invested money and a vision into the purchase of the land, all 6,750 acres of it, that was then known as Sunset Hills Farm. Some 41 years later, Simon, the Reston founder, sits 13 stories above the planned community that he envisioned where a Virginia bourbon distillery once stood. Proud and protective of his accomplishment and the community, Simon, nonetheless, is not entirely happy with some of the controversies affecting Reston.

<b>Q</b>: One of the biggest local stories in the last few months of the year has been the controversy over the Reston Community Center's (RCC) proposed skate park behind the YMCA. You are on the record strongly in favor of it and you have had some equally harsh words for those who oppose it. Could you talk a little about that?

<b>Simon</b>: I will go back to the early days of Reston when we didn't have any NIMBYs [Not In My Back Yard] at all. It was a joy to work on things back then. We were doing something unprecedented; we were building town homes in the boonies. It's hard for some people to imagine. Here we have New York, Philadelphia and Boston with millions of people living in town houses. However, nobody had built townhouses in the boonies. The other example is that when [Sen.] Janet Howell was president of Reston Citizens Association (RCA), she went to the Board of Supervisors and said Fairfax County needed a homeless shelter and she said, "we want it in Reston." The supervisors couldn't believe their ears.

So now, we can't start anything, anywhere without the NIMBYs jumping in. From an expanded parking lot in the Catholic church on Lawyers Road to the bubble on the tennis courts in Barton Hill to the Nature House to moderately priced townhouses in North Point to lighted ball fields in Lake Newport to the dog park. And now the skate park.

<b>Q</b>: When did you first notice the change? Was it gradual? Was it a specific change in Reston Association (RA)?

<b>Simon</b>: I was on the RA board for six years and I saw it immediately.

<b>Q</b>: To what do you attribute this dramatic change?

<b>Simon</b>: In the early days, most of the people who moved here were pioneer types who were being advised not to move here by their lawyers and bankers. When people relocated to a job in the District and they started looking for housing, they would ask their brokers, "What about Reston?" The brokers would say, "Don't go there, they are all Communists." Therefore, those early pioneers were something else.

<b>Q</b>: While Reston attracts different people than the pioneers of yesterday, is it still attracting people who understand your initial vision?

<b>Simon</b>: I clearly can't answer that question with any degree of responsibility but my guess is that the people who are moving here today are moving in because of bathrooms, kitchens and square footage. Those seem to be the major selling points these days.

<b>Q</b>: Is that frustrating? Maddening? What's the word?

<b>Simon</b>: Well, when it shows up in terms of NIMBYs, then it is disheartening and disappointing.

<b>Q</b>: Is it a safe assumption that you don't think the Embry Rucker Community Shelter wouldn't happen today?

<b>Simon</b>: The shelter wouldn't happen today, no.

<b>Q</b>: So, are you surprised that it is still here today?

<b>Simon</b>: No. There is great support throughout the community.

<b>Q</b>: Are there any arguments ever that you have heard from the NIMBYs that you have said, "OK, they have something there?"

<b>Simon</b>: Sure.

<b>Q</b>: What are those?

<b>Simon</b>: We've had two major community triumphs. I haven't said this to anyone like you before, so it's kind of fun to think about. The drug store at Hunters Woods was wrapped with multiple bands of neon. This was approved by everybody — design review board, county, whoever. So, they built it and it was approved. When the community saw it, they went up in smoke and the pressure was enormous. A compromise seemed to have been worked out which was one band of neon, but the neighbors wouldn't stand for it and there is no neon there today. That's no. 1. And No. 2, when Stratford was built, the plan was to have a gate or a decorative fence around the property and there was going to be a gate that would swing open if you had the right card. The theory behind it was that it would keep cars out once the garages over at the Town Center were full and this was not an obstruction to the pathway, nevertheless despite the fact that this was a benign and logical approach to the problem, the community got up in arms about the concept of a gated community. You don't have to go too far from Reston to find a real gated community. The decision was that they would do nothing about it for year and then they would poll the community. Now, neither of these stories is exactly a NIMBY because they weren't generated from people living next door. So other than those, I can't think of an actual NIMBY action that I think was warranted. Oh wait, I'll give you one. There was a very large tennis operation proposed for Lake Newport area that was going to be tennis courts for all kinds of organizations, many of which were from outside of Reston. It was going to be a fabulous facility, but it was going to bring an awful lot of new people in there and that was voted out by the NIMBYs and I think that was quite justified.

<b>Q</b>: What do you make of the argument regarding the small-tax district? Is it a smoke screen?

<b>Simon</b>: No, it is not a smoke screen. It is a very serious matter and I am doing all I can to turn things around. The chamber cannot be seen in one light. The chamber is a good bunch of people. The chamber voted for the sales tax that indicates they are not a bunch of right-wing, conservative-types, but they got started on this idea of lowering the amount of the small-tax district from 5.8 to 5.2 cents. And some of the members managed to get a resolution passed which said they shouldn't do anything they weren't already doing. And there are members who are looking to eliminate the entire small-tax district. In Herndon, not far from Reston, it is not 5.2 cents, businesses pay 30 cents. In Columbia, Md., they pay 37 cents. So not only should businesses not be objecting to the small-tax district, they should be contributing to RA. The reason why they are free as far as contributing to Reston is that when we started, we needed to get commercial companies to the boonies. So when we started, I decided, rightly or wrongly, we wouldn't make it difficult to get commercial properties out here to Reston by adding a tax. In retrospect, I should have done it differently. They have had a free ride. What I believe should happen is that all of the businesses in Reston — all 3,000 of them — should be asked to contribute to the Friends of Reston. They should make their contributions. This would be better than paying dues to RA, because the dues are not tax-deductible. I would like to see, in five or 10 years, a majority of Reston businesses contributing to the Friends in lieu of taxes and leaving the small-tax district alone — leaving it alone to do the programs. Major programs are called for like the watershed. There is a lot of delayed work that needs to be done. We are just treading water. Second, we need to limit the number of times kids are home alone, the latchkey kid. Big programs are needed.

<b>Q</b>: What about the chamber's suggestion that RCC board set aside seats for commercial-property owners?

<b>Simon</b>: Yes, recently there has been communication from the chamber that they — the chamber — should have representation on the RCC Board. This is a proposal that runs counter to the whole operation of everything in the U.S.A. There is no reason why commercial-property owners can't run for election to the RCC Board. There is nothing stopping them from being elected. They just lost track of how things work.

<b>Q</b>: How comforting was it to see the final vote total for Southgate. Granted, most people were sure that it would pass. The only question was would 40 percent vote? They did. Still, you don't see 96 percent very often.

<b>Simon</b>: The thing is, it is very tough to vote against Santa Claus. The county is doing it and it is a wonderful program. It has taken six years to get it moving. It wasn't Santa six years ago.

<b>Q</b>: How would you grade the current RA Board?

<b>Simon</b>: Well, it is certainly better than any board that I worked on, fortunately for the community.

<b>Q</b>: Looking back to the days in 1961 when you first purchased the land, what surprises you most?

<b>Simon</b>: That we would be the No. 2 high-tech center of the United States right behind Silicon Valley.

<b>Q</b>: Is there a correlation between the rise of the high-tech corridor and economy and the NIMBYs?

<b>Simon</b>: I don't think so, particularly since they don't get to vote on the RA board.

<b>Q</b>: In talking with Kerrie Wilson [executive director of Reston Interfaith], among others, she indicated to me that affordable housing, or the lack thereof, is the most pressing issue facing Reston and the surrounding area. Do you agree and, if so, what can be done?

<b>Simon</b>: This is a very tough nut to crack. There is not much land left to build on and the only low-cost housing is Habitat for Humanity. The logical organization to bring low-cost housing to Reston is Interfaith. One of its missions is to build lower income housing and it has done some work, but there is more work to be done.

<b>Q</b>: You mentioned Herndon, what are they doing over there across the parkway that you like?

<b>Simon</b>: The one thing about Herndon is that when Herndon wants something, they get it. They float a bond issue. They've done a wonderful job of building and rebuilding their town center. I am not privy to what they do or how they do it, but they do. When we want something, years and years go by and people start whining about the cost of it and pay less then they do in Herndon. Our housing people pay a lot less. Our commercial people don't pay anything. It's to see what Herndon can do with $20 million and around 25,000 people, meanwhile we are 65,000 people and we are having a tough time getting $750,000. I don't understand it.

<b>Q</b>: Do you still have big sweeping long-term goals for this community?

<b>Simon</b>: You bet. The latchkey-kid problem, for one. It could be unprecedented.

<b>Q</b>: What sort of ideas are you thinking about?

<b>Simon</b>: We've got 21 institutions in Reston that deal with youth and that is not including the schools or the churches. We have plenty of programs out there, but we also have plenty of latchkey kids.

<b>Q</b>: What does having a large number of latchkey kids do to a community?

<b>Simon</b>: Well, you are losing a certain about of leadership and you can have a gang activity. But the negative is not pushing this program. This is not an anti-gang organization. This is for the kid of the yuppie, who's sitting at home because his parents are scratching out there for the home that they don't need, as well as those whose parents are scratching to meet ends. It's the whole range.

<b>Q</b>: How does Reston stack up today against the likes of fellow planned communities like Irvine, Calif., and Columbia, Md.?

<b>Simon</b>: There are three Restons. There is the Town Center with West Market and Stratford. They have their own design review board, they don't pay a thing to RA, and that has its own characteristics. That is a wonderful place at Fountain Square. It does what it is supposed to do; it is a great gathering place for people to meet their friends. Then there is Lake Anne and it is the village center, the only one in town. Then there is the rest of Reston with the shopping centers. So I say, if you take the rest of Reston, you can compare it along similar lines to Columbia and Irvine. I don't think there is any place in the country like Lake Anne or the Town Center.

<b>Q</b>: The Toll Road. Obviously, it played a huge part in jump-starting the hi-tech corridor, but in retrospect, was it good for Reston? Some have suggested that it is a definite dividing line between south and north Reston or is that something the press just likes to talk about?

<b>Simon</b>: I don't think it is a dividing line. I see developments south and north of the border. I don't see much difference. I don't see much difference between Lake Newport and South Lakes. It's a wonderful thing.

<b>Q</b>: Now that the sales-tax referendum has been defeated, what is next? How do we get rail to Dulles, now?

<b>Simon</b>: The federal government should pay it all, take a minute drop of money from what we are spending on defense and do justice to the nation's capital.

<b>Q</b>: How confident are you that the federal government will step up to the plate?

<b>Simon</b>: I think if they don't do it, it will be a long time before we do it. The feds were in it, at one time, for 80 percent then it dropped to 50 percent and now they are going to drop out of sight if we don't watch out.

<b>Q</b>: Were you surprised at the election outcome?

<b>Simon</b>: No, not really. I was surprised the chamber was able to come out for it. It's not easy to get people to pay more taxes. It was the wrong tax. The right tax, I think, would be to pay a couple of extra bucks at the gas pump. Try comparing our gas prices to those in Europe.

<b>Q</b>: Should the tolls be raised, as some have suggested?

<b>Simon</b>: No, I don't think so. They are hitting too many people for whom money is important, but I don't think they should be done away with it.

<b>Q</b>: What's the biggest misconception about Reston?

<b>Simon</b>: Well, Lewis Mumford, who is one of the great pundits of all time, said that Reston was nothing more than a country club. And that great self-appointed New Urbanism guru, Andres Duany, who built Seaside, a nice little community for second-home people in Florida, thought he discovered the secret of all time. I was a panelist at this seminar where he was speaking about one of his other early projects — Kentlands, in Maryland. He was going on about what a great walkable and bikable community it was. So when he was done, I went over to introduce myself and I said, "you know, in Kentlands, they don't let their kids ride to school on bikes because it is all cross streets and cars and it is very dangerous." Therefore, when I got to my room that night, a fax was waiting for me from Duany. He said that if I got up tomorrow and said what I told him today, that he would stand up and say that Reston was nothing more than an ordinary subdivision.

<b>Q</b>: Switching gears, where is your favorite place to go in Reston?

<b>Simon</b>: Lake Anne Plaza. Unbelievably, it is still a big secret. If you interview 27 people in North Point, you will find that 25 have never been to Lake Anne.

<b>Q</b>: Why the mystery after all these years?

<b>Simon</b>: I don't know, I do not know. As far as I am concerned, there are six restaurants in Lake Anne and it hard to beat them. You can always get a table.

<b>Q</b>: So, what is a perfect day for Robert Simon?

<b>Simon</b>: Well a perfect day includes exercise in the morning in my apartment and a walk around Lake Anne, Lake Newport or both. I guess some kind of a lunch with a friend, dinner with my very dear Cheryl Terio. And icing on the cake would be a performance at the community center at Hunters Woods. It is so surprising to me just how excellent the performances there are.

<b>Q</b>: Ever take this view for granted?

<b>Simon</b>: No. We are thinking of getting a camera to capture the sunrises. In our bedroom, we have more of an expanse than this. It is before the sun gets there that the colorations are so fabulous.

<b>Q</b>: Any resolutions for the New Year that you want to share?

<b>Simon</b>: [Laughs] Stay out of trouble.

<b>Q</b>: Is that easier said than done for you sometimes?

<b>Simon</b>: [Long pause, then laughs]

<b>Q</b>: That's a telling laugh.

<b>Simon</b>: [Laughs] No comment [Laughs]