Reston is a special place. It is the product of a remarkable vision which has been largely realized despite obstacles, even opposition.
Robert E. Simon, Jr. inherited well from his New York developer father. He owned Carnegie Hall and sold it. With the proceeds, he bought 6,750 acres of land in Fairfax County. While arranging financing for his planned community, he was turned down by a large corporation which was and still is a household name.
Turned down because Bob Simon insisted his planned community would be open to everyone. Reston was denied an entrance to the Dulles Access Road for the same reason. Diversity was not welcome in 1960s Virginia. Yet, he persevered with his vision which he embodied in his seven goals for Reston, goals I believe should be included in the curriculum of Reston’s public schools. His vision was ahead of its time. Mixed use development—businesses and residences side by side-- and townhouse clusters out in the boonies did not sell well in the early years. In fact, sales were so slow that after barely four years, his senior partner, Gulf Oil Corporation, fired Simon in 1967. Alarmed early residents were so concerned that they formed a Reston Community Association (now the Reston Citizens Association) to protect Simon’s vision from Gulf Oil and subsequent developers. Those early settlers believed in Simon’s community vision and the seven goals.
We’ve come a long way in 50 years. From land that was largely pasture and fields when he purchased it, we have grown to what should be a “town” (as Simon planned it) of 60,000 residents and a similar number of jobs. But, how have we done qualitatively in achieving Mr. Simon’s vision? In a conversation I had with Bob about 15 years ago, he told me he was disappointed in many ways. It certainly hadn’t been the financial success he’d hoped for in those early days. And, the seven planned village centers—the walkable mixed use places with community plazas as focal points—had not materialized as he had hoped, except for Lake Anne which struggled commercially and Hunters Woods before its redevelopment into a strip shopping center.
Recently, he seems more pleased with his creation, focusing on the very successful Town Center, the wonderful natural areas and paths which enable enjoyment of them, and the redevelopment plans for his beloved Lake Anne. Those plans put forth by Lake Anne Development Partners in consultation with Bob, are faithful to the vision--a charming, walkable village complete with the added density in Bob’s original vision. After many years laboring with the bureaucracy and a few not-so-good development concepts, Bob will celebrate his 100th birthday April 10 knowing the plans for the new Lake Anne will go forward. Challenges lie ahead, big ones. The arrival of rail is one. If we plan it well, e.g., by making the station areas community friendly areas for people to gather and enjoy, they can be icing on a great cake. But, plans could detract if we cut corners on design excellence and making them places for community activity. Likewise, the new master planning process must include community voices and voices for excellence and innovation and the founding principles provided by Bob Simon. If I were grading Mr. Simon on his creation, I would give him an A-plus for exceptional creativity, for caring so much to make the vision a reality, and for giving us a wonderful place to live our lives. Happy Birthday, Reston and Happy Birthday, Bob.