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A Reston Retrospective

Stories and thoughts by Reston residents as the community turns 50.

Bud Burwell co-owns Reston’s Used Book Shop with his wife Susan. The Burwells love the real community feeling about Lake Anne and do more than their parts to promote it.

Bud Burwell co-owns Reston’s Used Book Shop with his wife Susan. The Burwells love the real community feeling about Lake Anne and do more than their parts to promote it. Photo by Andrea Worker.

Usually, when you ask a number of people to share their thoughts and opinions on any subject, you get as many different answers as the numbers polled. In asking a rather random selection of residents for their thoughts as Reston celebrates its 50th anniversary, coincidentally with the 100th birthday of founder Robert E. Simon, you do get some interestingly different perspectives, but you get an uncanny commonality in their musings, as well. Regardless of where in Reston our commentators reside, the descriptors of "community," "beauty," "amenities," "something for everyone," "a town for all ages," and "protect our core values" were mentioned by all – and more than once during each Reston retrospective conversation.

Simon’s "New Town Concept" started in the early 1960s when he purchased 6,750 local acres, mostly with money from the sale of the family’s share in the famous Carnegie Hall performance center in New York City. Reston was really born at the village of Lake Anne. It was here that Simon started building using his 7 Goals that included providing the "widest choice of opportunities…for the full use of leisure time…a wide range of cultural and recreational facilities as well as an environment for privacy." Simon’s vision also called for housing of all prices and styles, where people could remain in one neighborhood for a lifetime if they so chose. Fundamental to the master plan was the development of a community where people could both live and work, something contrary to the urban sprawl and tract communities that marked the bedroom suburb building mentality that boomed after World War II.

When Reston first came into being it was unique for another reason; at a time before the 1968 amendments to the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in housing, Simon declared his New Town to be open to everyone, regardless of color, and without any restrictions. His decision came with consequences for both Simon and Reston. By demanding integration, Simon seriously limited the pool of potential lenders for the continued development of this dream. His financier, Gulf Oil, pushed him out of his own creation in 1967 when home sales were moving too slowly for shareholders’ likings. The development that followed did not adhere to Simon’s plans for the other Reston Villages. Simon’s vision of vibrant plazas took on more of the traditional strip center persona, and many of the houses, particularly those built in the 1970’s were more of the typical production model, without the architectural differentiation the founder had envisioned. Thankfully, the developers did adhere to their promise to leave – and actually cultivate - the green spaces and recreation areas that were key to Simon’s concept. That’s a promise kept that has meant the world to Katie Shaw.

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Katie Shaw is the Director of Reston’s Nature Education Center, and the Executive Director of Friends of Reston. In honor of Reston’s 50the anniversary, Friends of Reston is donating 50 native trees and shrubs to the community to be planted on Arbor Day, April 7.

Shaw, the Manager of the 72-acre Walker Nature Education Center on Glade Drive, like many of those who shared their Reston reminiscing, is a poster child for Reston’s motto: "Live, Work, Play and Get Involved." She is also a testament to Simon’s mission to build a place where people stay. Shaw’s family moved to Reston in 1969, when Shaw was just a toddler. "Back then, Lake Anne was Reston, near where we lived in the Vantage Hill apartments," Shaw recalls. Starting out at Lake Anne Elementary School ("My grandmother walked me to my first day of kindergarten.") Shaw "opened" both Dogwood and Terraset Elementary schools, as the family moved from the Lake Anne District to Hunters Woods. She was part of the first full graduating class of South Lakes High School, attending from seventh – 12th grades. "It was nice of Reston to open new schools for me as I grew up here," she laughed. After graduate school at George Mason, Shaw found her calling, making our natural resources accessible for all to enjoy, and taking up the mantle of the environmental stewardship of all of Reston’s green and open spaces, streams, lakes and forests.

Shaw’s mentor at the Nature Center was Reston resident "Nature Nancy" Herwig, who, in turn, was the protégé of the Nature Center’s namesake, Vernon Walker, hired in 1967 as Reston’s first Nature Center Director. "Our current Center opened in 2009," Shaw recounted, "but even at the beginning the mandate was set…and Vern was a legend. They called him the Pied Piper of Reston," said Shaw. "He was famous for leading walks not only through our lands, but all around Reston. Everybody wanted to join in when they saw him walk by."

Shaw’s first Reston residence was a condo at Lake Audubon. Then she moved to the house she lives in today where she can walk to work just like she walked to school years ago. "There’s one of our wonderful paths right by my house. When the roads are bad in winter I can just haul on my snow boots and walk. And the path is part of the entertainment of living in Reston. You can just sit back and watch the folks along the trail, just like I used to watch the boats on Lake Audubon."

Shaw speaks a lot about the sense of personal network and community when she talks about Reston. She has witnessed the return of people who moved away, only to come back saying things like "I couldn’t think of any place better when I started my family," or "So many of today’s jobs are right here in Reston!" "In fact," said Shaw, "I could skip the class reunions. I see classmates and kids I grew up with all the time."

Her opinion on all of the changes that she has seen come to Reston? "I grew up knowing that Reston was this experiment, knowing that Reston would be evolving since it was so new when we came here. Change is just part of the deal." There are challenges and annoyances ("The traffic!") but very little that has come to her hometown has distressed Shaw. "Except for the losses to our tree canopy," she adds. "That disturbs me. It’s not necessary. We are at a real crossroads now, a new level of urbanization in Reston. Going forward we need to challenge our designers and we need to hold to the values that made Reston a world example," she declares, holding a binder that is stocked with press releases and stories about awards and accolades for Reston’s progressive environmental planning. "Ask me again in five years if there is anything about our changes that bothers me. We’ll see. I hope it’s a short list."

Realtor Tracy Pless, has fully embraced the urbanization that Shaw mentioned. She originally moved to the south of Reston from a nearby community that "didn’t have sidewalks, let alone paved walking trails. No pools. No tennis. I like all those activities so I wasn’t very happy where I was. Reston was the natural choice." As Town Center grew, Pless was ready to make her next move. She had her eye on a condo in Reston Town Center two years before the building opened. There was a line around the block when they began taking offers. "Thankfully I was first in line. My clients and me. And I just love it." Pless sees Reston as having become more sophisticated and urban in these last few years. "There’s certainly more interest in the arts and theater than when I first came here in the 80s. The growing Town Center and the residents it attracts adds another new dimension and level of diversity to the community. And we have a great mix of young people coming in, as well as the boomers who are thrilled to live someplace where they can just lock up and go when they want and to have all of Town Center available to them without a drive."

She’s less than pleased with the traffic situation and is really looking forward to the opening of the Silver Line. "That’s going to be great."

What else sets Reston apart according to Pless? "There’s a very open and innovative mindset here. That probably comes from the founding ideals and the people they attracted. I talk with people from other areas who say this and that can’t be done in their community. Once I pointed out that we are doing them without all the problems they foresaw. The answer I got was ‘Oh, that’s just Reston.’ And they are right!"

The Reston paths that so please Kate Shaw are also quite familiar to Kim Williams, another long time resident. As the owner of her own Reston-based business, The Pet Elf pet sitting service, Williams has walked every one of them with her "clients," although she admits she can still get a bit lost as she navigates those 55 miles of trails. "But it’s amazing and beautiful, always changing with every season. There’s no where else like this, that’s so connected, one neighborhood to another."

Like Shaw, Williams arrived when the family moved here for her father’s government job. Williams immediately saw Reston as "a place to stay and put down roots." Her first impression was how green everything was in January and the diversity of the landscape. "And by the 80s when we got here, there was quite a lot here already and it all seemed pretty cool to the girl from Montana." Williams has taken most of the changes to Reston in stride – although the closure of a Hunters Woods establishment called Fritzbe’s ("It was like the ‘Cheers’ of Reston") brought some sadness, but she expresses the same concern as Shaw. "We need to keep in mind Robert Simon’s original Master Plan. Reston is the green spaces and thinking about how to connect each new area in more ways than just with cars."

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Whatever the weather, Mary Beth Coya enjoys her view. Coya admits there are things about her house that she would like to see different, but she can’t see leaving behind her protected view and the community of friends she has found in her Reston Cluster neighborhood, where she purchased the very first home.

Those open green spaces and the ability to be surrounded by woodlands while only minutes from everything you might need brought Mary Beth Coya and her husband to purchase the very first lot in a new Reston cluster. They - and six other families - all moved in on Memorial Day, 1986. "My mother-in-law lived in Mclean and she was horrified by our decision," Coya remembers. "She asked us why we wanted to move to ‘the end of the earth.’" With no Toll Road and no Fairfax County Parkway and much of Route 7 a two-lane road, no wonder Coya got that reaction. But there have been no regrets. "I have a gorgeous lot. I have watched what I planted grow all these years. Little twigs that are now 30-foot trees. And it’s all surrounded by these walkable communities."

Coya, the Vice President, Public and Government Affairs for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, describes her location as her "little piece of perfection with all of the amenities." She loves the serenity where she lives coupled with the fact that she has an ever-increasing choice of shops, restaurants and entertainment options within brisk walking distance. "When Town Center came along, suddenly we had parades and festivals and other events that just strengthened the sense of community. In Reston, you get so much, and you get it with neighbors who still look out for each other and take time to get together. "

That same sense of community defines Lake Anne, according to Bud and Susan Burwell, owners of the Reston Used Book Shop in the Plaza. Susan toured the model homes at Waterview Cluster during their construction in the early ‘60s and vowed that she would live there one day – which she does. Like Coya, Susan Burwell’s family reacted negatively to that goal. "To pay $22k for a townhouse in the woods! Maybe if it was Georgetown!" But come to Reston Burwell did in 1980. Mrs. Burwell’s words about her home base sound like echoes from other residents interviewed. "It’s part of what makes Reston so different," she said. "In our neighborhood there are units ranging from 2 – 5 bedrooms. They meet people’s needs at different times of their lives. We have a lot of folks who move up to accommodate growing families, then back down when they are empty-nesters."

Susan came to Reston first. Husband Bud, a self-proclaimed "military brat" whom she had known in high school had other places to see and things to do before making his way back to Susan and Lake Anne, although he declares their home here to be "my favorite place I have ever lived." In 1988 they became a couple, and Bud started working in the bookshop part time, while teaching in the Fairfax County Public School system.

The store has been a beloved part of the Lake Anne landscape since 1978, although the Burwells only took ownership in 1999, buying from the "Two Sues" - Sue Schram and Sue Wensell - who owned it originally. Since one Sue still lives just upstairs and one just around the corner, they keep a rocking chair in the reading room for their use – so you had best be prepared to give it up when one of the "Sues" come in! [Time Out! The interview with the Burwells goes on "PAUSE" as Susan points out the window facing into the plaza. "There goes Bob Simon," she says. "He’s probably meeting someone for lunch." "You see him around a lot," agreed Bud.]

The Burwells like to create an atmosphere in the shop that mirrors the communal sentiment of the village. "Kids come in to sit and read when their parents are eating out here. They play in the fountain in the summer and we give them rubber duckies to add to the fun," said Susan, while Bud, a musician himself, helps the Friends of Lake Anne by bringing musical events to the Plaza. The shop even hosts the "5th Sunday Blue Grass Jam on each of the four fifth Sundays of the year."

Any concerns about the path that Reston is on? "Sure, we’re nervous about the proposed Lake Anne revitalization," admitted Susan, "but we’re also optimistic. There’s been a great level of communication all around." "That’s part of what holds us here," was Bud’s response. "There’s a lot to look forward to. We need to stick around and see what’s next."

Community involvement continued to be the theme when relative "newbie" Jill Norcross (she’s only been a resident for about 10 years) shared her thoughts on Reston. Norcross worked in Town Center for some time, right after college. Her parents live in Reston. With family ties and having an up close and personal view of the development of the town, she and her husband felt more and more drawn to relocate here from Alexandria. "We live so close to Town Center we can just walk here. We have a pool, tennis courts, playground and trails through the woods right across the street. We looked all around Northern Virginia, but from what we could see, Reston really has it all."

The diversity of Reston was also a factor in their decision. "We didn’t want our kids to grow up someplace that only had single family houses with no diversity in the cultural make up of the community. We wanted them to have more full and real experiences. Reston was built to provide that."

Norcross is an affordable housing consultant, working with clients and communities that want to increase affordable housing options in their areas. Easy to see the connection that she developed with local social service agency Cornerstones (formerly Reston Interfaith), where she now serves as Chairman of the Board. Norcross is in a position to see first hand how much still needs to be done to ensure that all of Reston’s residents enjoy the standard of living that has come to be associated with the town. "There are a lot of people who haven’t recovered from the economic downturn, or who have been effected by sequestration. Poverty can be almost invisible, especially someplace as generally prosperous as Reston, but part of the appeal of Reston is the fact that we have a homeless shelter right in the middle of daily Reston life – not tucked away somewhere. I think that shows the kind of commitment this community has to acknowledging and working on the problems."

All of the interviewees expressed the need to protect Reston’s founding principles come what may during the next 50 years of the town’s growth, and Ken Knueven couldn’t agree with them more. That’s one of the main reasons he became involved with the Reston Association. Knueven has served in a number of capacities and is now in his second term as the President of the nonprofit organization that maintains the 1300 acres of open space, the recreational facilities, paths, and infrastructure of Reston with the Town Center and the Dulles Corridor that encompasses the local Metro Stations of the long-awaited Silver Line, being the exceptions.

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Reston Association President Ken Knueven and Lake Anne resident ready to jump into the freezing cold lake during the Winter Polar Dip. Knueven thinks there is plenty to celebrate about Reston’s last 50 years, but acknowledges that there’s lots to work on going forward.

Knueven remembers the excitement when Reston was being developed. "Coming out here was like a trip to Disneyland," he recalls. "There was just nothing like it anywhere else. And when Dulles Airport was built, that made it something out of Star Trek." The son of a Navy Captain who was frequently stationed at the Pentagon, Knueven spent a lot of his youth in Fairfax County and recalls his Alexandria school class being bussed out to attend the grand opening ceremony at Lake Anne. "That day, and our many family outings to Lake Anne, sold me on Reston even back then. When I got my first paying job and had the ability to buy something of my own, it was here."

Knueven understands Bob Simon’s wish to provide housing for everyone in all phases of their lives. "I am living proof that Bob’s idea works. I am on my fourth property here in Reston, having chosen different places for different stages and needs. I am in Waterview Cluster now and I love it. I may own other properties in my life, but this one I will always keep in the family."

Settling into the area and making friends with his neighbors, Knueven soon learned that even "Disneyland" has challenges to face and that pulled him into the Reston Association where he could listen, learn, and do his part to keep Reston thriving. "We are thrilled to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Reston, but with that milestone comes the fact that some of our communities and infrastructure are feeling and showing their age. There’s a lot to be done, and it won’t be easy."

Like Kate Shaw, Knueven feels mostly positive about the changes he’s seen over the years, but he also recognizes that the changes are now coming on all fronts and with exponential speed. That’s why "it’s more important than ever that the many voices of Reston work together to do what’s best for our common denominator – Reston." With some 130 homeowners’ associations, the Reston Association, The Reston Town Center Association and other groups like the Reston Citizens Association all passionate about their Reston focus, cooperation hasn’t always been the name of the game. "But together we are finally getting our seat at the adults’ table, and that is crucial for the welfare of all of Reston," said Knueven. "There’s a very encouraging level of cooperation and communication. We may have different missions and different points of view, but as separated as it can seem at times, it is still Reston."

Reston has certainly been fortunate. With its close proximity to DC and the government, with the types of businesses that have come here, the community can be said to have, in large part, been spared from the worst effects of the recent economic woes. But listening to the stories about Reston "back in the day" and what makes so many people determined to "Live, Work, Play and Get Involved" in whatever part of this new "Ur-burb" of Reston they call home, it’s obvious that it was more than just luck that got Reston to where it is today. It sounds like the ripple effect from Robert Simon’s 7 Goals and the people who settled here can take a lot of the credit.