by Jeff Green
Today, the Reston Town Center, with its multitude of shops, restaurants and entertainment options represents the cultural hub of modern day Reston.
However, for longtime Reston residents, champions of the "New Town" concept, pioneers like Priscilla Ames, Lake Anne Plaza symbolizes the heart and soul of Reston.
"Lake Anne Plaza, that's my home. That is home to me," said Ames, who first moved into Lake Anne Village Center shortly after the landmark planned community was built. "Other people have gardens and front yards and back yards. When you live down here, you have the lake and the plaza."
Recently, hundreds of former Reston residents from around the country and the world who grew up in Reston in the 1960s and 1970s came back to Lake Anne and to Reston. Ames was there to meet them and talk to them about their experiences in growing up during the civil rights struggles and the Vietnam War in Reston. Ames was moved by what she heard.
"When they left here they thought all communities were like Reston, but they said there was one thing missing in their new hometowns, and that was acceptance. I found that astounding," Ames, 70, said. "For almost 400 people to come back to Reston is an amazing tribute. They just love Reston, and they wanted to return and experience that sense of acceptance."
What they found was a very different Reston than many had remembered. With more than 60,000 residents and nearly 4,000 businesses from corporate giants like Microsoft, Northrop Grumman and Sallie Mae to small mom and pop stores, Reston and its neighbors along the Dulles Corridor continue to grow and mature. However, one thing remains the same, Ames and others like her said, "the acceptance is still there."
IT WAS PROMISE of tolerance that attracted longtime resident Vicky Wingert and her husband to Reston originally three decades ago. "We were both very active in the civil rights movement," Wingert said. "Naturally, the idea of an open community in Virginia was very attractive to us."
Therefore, in 1973, the same year Reston received its first stoplight, the Wingerts quit their jobs, packed up their Philadelphia home, and moved south shortly after visiting some friends in this new experimental planned residential community. They haven’t looked back since.
Wingert said they moved into a small cluster near Lake Anne that was as remarkable for its diversity as it was for its convenience. "It was like mini-United Nations. We had an Asian neighbor, an Israeli, Hispanic, Latino, African-American, Filipino and more. It’s no wonder that our daughter is so cross-culturally educated today. She is an Asian studies major in college."
At that time, there was nowhere in Virginia could one find such rich diversity in a community, Wingert said. Even today, South Lakes High School is a multiculturalism prism and, perhaps only in Reston, where one finds $600,000 town homes built just blocks away from Reston’s 15-year-old homeless shelter, a homeless shelter that the community fought to build in the first place. "We are all accepted here. That's what one of Reston's first preachers, Embry Rucker [for whom the shelter was named], used to preach. That's what religion is all about, acceptance for all. He sure got Bob Simon’s message."
The sense of acceptance is a pretty "rare gift," Ames added. "In this country, it seems we are always judging or criticizing someone or something — not in Reston. Reston is so accepting of the individual: man, woman, child, rich, poor, immigrant, whatever."
THE ACCEPTANCE TRAVERSES political lines, as well. Even Republicans, like Donn Dears, are welcome in this traditionally secluded liberal enclave of Northern Virginia.
Dears, a local Republican activist, and his wife moved to Reston from Dallas in 1994. The couple had moved 26 times before relocating to Reston.
"We've seen a lot of communities and how they develop and we've seen a lot of the things that have been done right and a lot of the things that have been done wrong."
Dears, who grew up in New York, said he and his wife, a graduate of the Julliard School, were originally attracted to Reston because of its suburban feel and its proximity to major Washington metropolitan landmarks like the Smithsonian, Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center. "It's close to important urban centers, but at the same time, it gives you the sense of being in a quiet and peaceful suburban setting where you don't have 20-story buildings crowding you everywhere you look," Dears said.
Wingert still marvels at the suburban lifestyle that allows her to sit and watch the birds on her back deck overlooking Lake Anne while still being able to walk to the grocery store or dinner. "People would be surprised at all of the convenience of everything," Wingert said. "The fact that you really can walk to the grocery store or a restaurant in a suburban setting is so great."
When Ames first arrived in Reston, she was surprised by its then-secluded location. "It was shocking when I first came here," she said. "I didn't know Reston was in the middle of nowhere. But despite that, I never left the neighborhood."
Since then, Reston, and the surrounding area have matured to an extent that many original residents may find surprising. Even in the last decade that Dears has called Reston home, many buildings, especially commercial office buildings, and high-end townhomes, inspired by the tech-boom of the 1990s, have sprung up along the Dulles Toll Road and Reston Town Center.
"The amount of development has been reasonable, and it has been well done and balanced. The Town Center is an excellent development," she said. "It’s a great place to sneak away to when you have a moment."
On the other hand, Dears says that the development of roads and infrastructure did not keep up with the number of new people living and working in Reston now.
"Unfortunately, the automobile is an integral part of modern American life and the original vision for Reston didn't accommodate that," Dears said. "I think its great that we have lots of open space, biking paths, walking paths in Reston. It's nice to be able to have people live and work in the same area, but I think we have to accommodate the majority who don't live and work in the same area. Transportation is a real problem now."
FOR AMES, THE QUESTION of housing, not transportation, worries her most as Reston nears its 40th birthday. "Lack of affordable housing is the greatest disappointment for me," Ames said. "Children grow up here and they can't come back and buy a house."
Wingert, a former executive director and board member of the Reston Association (RA), said she hopes that as "Reston ages and the home prices continue to rise," future boards will preserve the same "value base that Reston was built upon by [Reston founder] Bob Simon." Wingert said it is vital to keep the balance housing styles and prices.
One of Simon’s concepts for Reston was to ensure that residents who wanted to remain in their neighborhoods, without uprooting their families, could do so even as their finances changed. The Reston concept called for communities and clusters to have a varied mixture of housing opportunities. "I still really believe in the values that Bob Simon set out," Wingert said. "I think Reston has preserved those ideals and continues to live up to them."
Like Wingert, Dears, too, is a former RA board member and both agree that homeowners and renters, alike, should take an active role in RA. I hope it would be something a lot of people would get involved in," Dears said. "The more people who get involved, the better they will like their community. On balance, RA provided a mechanism for ensuring a good community."