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Reston Founder Reflects on 40 Years

Community to celebrate Founder's Day.

From his 13th floor high-rise condominium, Reston founder Robert E. Simon, Jr. gazes out over Lake Anne Plaza, the jewel of the town he created 40 years ago.

“To start with, I’m having a wonderful time. I love it here,” he said. “I love Reston's beauty. I enjoy the walks along the trails, but most of all the people.”

This year, as Reston celebrates its 40th anniversary, Simon will mark his 90th birthday. For the first time, Reston will hold a Founder’s Day celebration to commemorate the two occasions on April 17 at Lake Anne Plaza.

SIMON GREW UP in New York, where his father ran a real estate business whose holdings included part of Carnegie Hall. Also among Robert Simon, Sr.’s holdings was part of Radburn, N.J., America’s first Garden City that was founded in 1929. Robert Simon, Jr. helped his father name Radburn’s street names around the family’s dining room table.

When his father died in 1935, Simon was 21 and had just graduated from Harvard. Within a couple years, he was running the family real estate business, Hercer Corp.

Part of his responsibilities involved running Carnegie Hall. About 75 percent of Simon’s co-workers lived nearby in the city, while Simon commuted by train from Syosset, a suburb of Long Island.

Simon also saw the value of convenient, local recreation and shopping centers at this time in his life. Much of this translated directly into Reston’s ideal of working, playing and living in the same area.

During this period, Simon also observed the value of housing opportunities for all income levels, not just the very wealthy.

“If people were brought out of the slums and given a good place to live, everything would change,” he wrote in 1968 in the first issue of the Restonian.

In 1961, a representative of the Washington, D.C. real estate firm Shannon & Luchs wanted to sell a 6,750-acre parcel of land in Northern Virginia, located 18 miles from D.C. Simon inspected the land and instantly fell in love, knowing it would be a sound investment. Fairfax County was then the fastest growing county in the country and nearby Dulles International Airport was being built.

Simon decided to develop Reston into a New Town, which is a large-scaled development that includes all functions of a well-rounded community — residential, commercial, industrial, cultural and civic. Simon and his team utilized more than 50 consulting firms and hired some of the world’s most revolutionary architects.

The team first developed the modernist Lake Anne and the more traditional Hunters Woods simultaneously. The first families started moving into their homes in November 1964.

BY THE MID-1960s, Gulf Oil, who had helped bankroll Reston’s development, began more closely tracking Simon’s financial affairs. Because Simon was developing the town from the ground up, much of it was trial and error, he said at the time.

In the fall of 1967, Reston’s population had grown to 2,500, though it had fallen short of projections. Gulf Oil was forced to provide more money for the project, eventually loaning a total of about $100 million from 1967 to 1968.

Simon was fired as Chairman of the Board in 1967, but quickly tried to buy out Gulf Oil with backing from General Electric. GE was attempting to bankroll 20 New Towns, and was particularly interested in working with Simon.

The deal was almost done, Simon said, but GE backed out when they discovered that Reston was home to both black and white families — a key ideal upon which Reston was based.

“They told me they couldn’t have an integrated community,” Simon said. “When General Electric was lost, I had to surrender.”

Simon left Reston and moved back to New York, where he worked on various land development projects.

Eleven years ago, Simon returned to Reston, pleased that his successors had remained faithful to his vision. The best thing his successors implemented in Reston, Simon said, is the 55 miles of pathways and the 25 underpasses. By having such an extensive walkway system, residents can reach their nearby shopping and recreation centers by foot or by bike.

Also, Simon was pleased that his ideal of maximizing open space was maintained, ensuring trees and common areas exist among Reston homes.

“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to tell you that 75 percent of Reston is still town homes,” Simon said.

THESE DAYS, Simon spends much of his time walking along the myriad pathways that permeate the Lake Anne area.

Simon is often visited by foreign developers and architects seeking tours of Reston’s landmark designs.

“It's exciting,” he said. “I get a big kick out of walking them around.”

This week, Simon is being visited by a dozen German planners, and representatives from Russia, China, Japan, Korea and Thailand have visited him in the past year. Simon said he enjoys showing them Lake Anne Plaza in particular.

“They get knocked out, no question,” he said.

As for the Founder’s Day celebration, Simon said he is thrilled to be honored and is looking forward to the event. The festivities will begin at noon on April 17 and will continue on through a 6:30 p.m. birthday party at Lake Anne Plaza.