RESTON, Va. – Robert E. Simon Jr. died at his Lake Anne Village home in Reston, Virginia, Monday at the age of 101. Aside from his exceptional longevity, Simon’s death may not have much been noted aside from Fairfax County websites and newspapers. But Simon was, in fact, the founding father of Reston, a still growing community of some 60,000 residents not far from Washington, D.C.
Simon, a New York real estate investor, bought a huge patch of what was once mostly rural farmland located west of Vienna, Virginia, and just a few miles from an obscure crossroads dubbed “Tyson’s Corner” after the owner of a service station at the junction of Chain Bridge Road and Virginia Rte. 7.
Carnegie Hall Connection
Just prior to the transaction, Simon had owned New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall building, which had been gradually deteriorating over the years. It had been purchased earlier in the 20th century by Simon’s father, Robert Sr. There was talk of tearing it down and redeveloping its parcel. But Simon simply decided to sell it, leaving the issue to others.
Simon used the proceeds to help fund his Virginia purchase, largely to pursue his evolving utopian dream. In 1961, he bought 6,750 primarily undeveloped acres of land in the northern part of Fairfax County.
Intriguingly, part of the property Simon acquired was once part of an earlier utopian experiment known as the Town of Wiehle. The Virginia town designation remained extant for this area for many years, but under political pressure it was eventually dissolved. (A single, historic home built in the original Wiehle remains, still owner-occupied but largely hidden from view by a series of garden apartments.)
Simon’s “Seven Goals” for his “New Town” of Reston, Virginia
Simon dubbed his envisioned new town “Reston,” appending his initials (R.E.S.) to three of the four letters in “town.” He laid down “Seven Goals” for this massive new project in urban planning, which would focus not just on reasonably priced housing but on quality of life:
- That the widest choice of opportunities be made available for the full use of leisure time. This means that the New Town should provide a wide range of cultural and recreational facilities as well as an environment for privacy.
- That it be possible for anyone to remain in a single neighborhood throughout his life, uprooting being neither inevitable nor always desirable. By providing the fullest range of housing styles and prices – from high-rise efficiencies to six-bedroom townhouses and detached houses – housing needs can be met at a variety of income levels and at different stages of family life. This kind of mixture permits residents to remain rooted in the community if they so choose as their particular housing needs change. As a by-product, this also results in the heterogeneity that spells a lively and varied community.
- That the importance and dignity of each individual be the focal point for all planning, and take precedence for large-scale concepts.
- That the people be able to live and work in the same community.
- That commercial, cultural and recreational facilities be made available to the residents from the outset of the development – not years later.
- That beauty – structural and natural – is a necessity of the good life and should be fostered.
- Since Reston is being developed from private enterprise, in order to be completed as conceived it must also, of course, be a financial success.
In his new development, Simon desired to go “back to the future” to invent a new city where none had existed before, but a city that was carefully planned from the ground up and strictly usage-controlled to avoid the inevitable hodge-podge of development, crony politics and closed ethnic neighborhoods that were clearly contributing to the slow decline of America’s major cities.
The then relatively new urban planning concept of the “New Town” was relatively simple. A “new town” or city would be built not as some mushrooming suburban monolith, but as a series of interconnected neighborhoods or “villages,” each containing a variety of housing choices at all price points and each anchored by a village shopping center offering the usual services.
Each “village” in Reston would also have its own elementary school, each of which, in turn, would feed centrally located middle and high schools.
But, in a major departure from the usual “bedroom community”—one or more suburbs near a major city where workers chose to live to raise their families apart from the crime and violence of urban life—Simon’s plan additionally allocated considerable real estate to businesses and business development, with most of these sites conveniently and somewhat prophetically located on either side of what was then known as the Dulles Access Road which, at the time, was a one-way, exitless trip to the nowhere-land of the little used Dulles International Airport.
The new town concept has since been employed in many new areas across the country over the last 50 years. Columbia, Maryland, launched at about the same time as Reston, was a pioneering new town in that state, conveniently located between the two large urban centers of Washington and Baltimore and convenient to each, while supporting its own self-contained business and shopping areas.
A more recent example of a new town is Celebration, originally a Disney project located near Disney’s theme parks, as well as the major city of Orlando, Florida.
Back in northern Virginia, Simon envisioned that the entire new town of Reston would be buffered by extensive natural areas and parks. Taken as a whole, the idea was to invent a new kind of city where people would live, shop, work and play, avoiding not only those long and costly commutes but also the lack of planning and vision that was bringing America’s older cities down—and still is.
Ending Segregation in Housing
Simon added one final, provocative idea into the original by-laws of his new project: Reston’s newly built housing would be required to be marketed and sold to new residents without regard to race. This proviso was, in fact, contrary to Virginia state law at the time, which permitted the kind of “red-lining” traditionally used to maintain segregation by keeping black families from purchasing homes in areas designated off-limits to them.
According to the Reston area’s U.S. Representative Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va.:
Most of us know Bob as the founder of Reston, but it is his legacy as a civil rights icon and its lasting impact on our community, that I will forever hold in my heart. You see, Bob hated discrimination and bigotry because he experienced anti-Semitism firsthand as a young man. That experience forged in him a passion – a quiet passion – to build a small corner of the world where equality would be a reality.
Bob’s insistence on making Reston the first racially-integrated housing development in Virginia made him a civil rights pioneer. It was not the popular thing to do, and he lost critical investment opportunities because of this decision. But to Bob, it was not a matter of doing the easy thing, or the popular thing. It was about doing the right thing. He had great clarity that to realize his vision of Reston there could be no racial barriers. To fulfill Reston’s goals we had to be inclusive and welcoming.
Time was on Simon’s side. As national support for civil rights grew, particularly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, the state never bothered to go after Simon or Reston for violating the law. The commonwealth’s red-lining laws were gradually and quietly withdrawn over the years and no longer exist. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Reston has always had a strong and prominent black community from its very beginnings.
Governing a New Town
One larger issue yet remained as Reston’s early history began to unfold. How would this “new town” be governed once it evolved beyond its first few developments? The answer: Reston would be governed, at least at the outset, by a quasi-governmental body run by the developer but devolving to the homeowners over many years.
Simon departs, Gulf Oil, Mobil take over
As time went on and as Reston grew, the burden of developing such a vast stretch of increasingly valuable land put Simon and his company under some financial stress, and he eventually sold the project to the real estate arm of what was then one of America’s largest oil companies, Gulf Oil.
The Gulf subsidiary, known as Gulf Reston, was responsible for managing and building out much of the rest of the city before selling it in turn to a subsidiary of Mobil, which had by then moved its corporate headquarters to Fairfax prior to the company’s own eventual sale to Exxon.
The large development firms have essentially departed. Today, as Simon initially envisioned, Reston is run and managed by what was once the Reston Homeowners Association (RHA), renamed Reston Association (RA) a number of years ago. Somewhat unusually, Reston’s nearly new major downtown build out, known as Reston Town Center, is run by a separate association.
A city that’s not really a city
Thus, Reston today is technically not a city but instead is a pair of giant homeowners’ and/or business owners’ associations. The upside is consistently-applied building appearance and maintenance standards that help keep property values on the upswing, plus an absence of the usual, corrupt urban governmental structures that have put many cities on the path to decline. The major downside? Homeowners’ and association dues—Reston’s equivalent of taxes—are, legally speaking, not taxes and are therefore not income tax deductible.
Simon returns to Reston
Simon returned to New York for many years, but eventually decided, in retirement, to return to Reston in 1993, where he took up residence in Heron House on Lake Anne, Reston’s original development, innovatively designed as a small European-style plaza facing a large, picturesque, man-made lake.
How the Reston vision has changed
Over the years, Simon was gratified to see his original designs largely carried out, but perhaps not quite in the manner he had envisioned.
The Lake Anne Village Center, as well as the somewhat later Hunters Woods Village Center were, by design, built somewhat off the city’s main arteries and buffered by Reston’s ever-present natural green spaces. Ultimately, however, this cut them off visually and contributed to the centers’ decline as shopping areas. Major tenants gradually withdrew, resulting, in the case of Hunters Woods, in relatively new construction that was left vacant like a retail ghost town, perhaps an early indication of what has been happening in major shopping malls across the country since 2008.
Hunters Woods center was eventually torn down and rebuilt with greater street exposure, more generous parking areas and two new major retail anchors. Another failed center, Tall Oaks, is making similar plans, while Lake Anne’s center—now a designated historical area—will be preserved while its surrounding areas will undergo major housing and retail development in future years.
Another of Simon’s visions that eventually faltered was his forward-looking concept of a town that could take care of some of its own public utilities. Aside from providing a beautiful view and some fishing and boating, Reston’s various lakes were initially meant to serve as part of a town-owned chilled water air conditioning and heating system, something of an early take on modern geothermal heating and cooling systems. Only one of these systems ended up getting built—the one that serves the Lake Anne Village Center and several contiguous housing developments. But it ended up being a difficult-to-maintain, unpopular system that remains expensive and controversial to this day and may ultimately be replaced by conventional utilities.
One of Reston’s earliest public elementary schools, Terraset Elementary, also helped pioneer the concepts of passive heating and cooling as well as individualized solar power. Opened in 1977, the school was partially built into a built-up earthen berm, taking advantage of the kind of passive insulation systems now being employed in the “Earthship” developments near Taos, New Mexico.
Likewise, after being turned down for grants by the National Science Foundation and others, the school and Fairfax County were surprised by an offer from the Saudi royal family to fund an overhead solar system using technologies already in use by the Saudis. The unusual school, with its space-age look, became a magnet for scientists and even tour groups wanting to see this new kind of construction and solar-powered systems in action.
Unfortunately, that system gradually failed, due to the vast differences between Virginia’s variable climate and the Saudi Kingdom’s extraordinarily hot but stable climate. The entire school and system was redone, eliminating the old solar system, but the renovated school still remains in use.
Simon’s original Lake Anne developments also included leading-edge urban housing concepts that ultimately proved to be too expensive for average homeowners to purchase. After the city’s highly-original architecture, as best exemplified in the original areas of Lake Anne Village, and particularly after Gulf-Reston took over development of the new town, conventional developers and conventional developments ended up providing most of the housing that’s part of Reston today.
However, in spite of this more conventional, largely “stick built” construction put up by big building chains such as today’s NVR-Ryan conglomerate (which is still headquartered today in Reston’s Plaza America), much of Simon’s originally planned green space has remained intact. To this day, casual visitors of Reston aren’t aware of its considerable urban density, due to its extensive shielding and buffering by the generous urban forest that remains.
And the state of all this open space has not been left to chance. While it’s still largely forested, it is carefully maintained by either RA or one of the homeowners associations that owns portions of the area. Reston has also established a nature center, numerous tennis courts and neighborhood swimming pools, and a large network of nature trails that are still extensively used by hikers, bike riders, joggers and families.
Conveniently, the WO&D hiking and biking trail, extending from beyond Leesburg, Virginia, down to Arlington’s urban core, runs right through Reston’s far eastern portion, providing yet another method for beating the DC area’s urban traffic.
The Silver Line arrives
Reston is mostly built out today, but some redevelopment is now already under way, largely due to the arrival of Metro’s Silver Line in 2014. Currently, its aptly-named Wiehle Avenue station serves as the Silver Line’s temporary terminus, and it has already become a major bus, commuter and airport hub, with substantially increased Fairfax Connector bus service feeding numerous new routes to and from the Wiehle station and Fairfax Communities.
Likewise, at least for now, taxi and bus service to and from Dulles Airport, the Silver Line’s penultimate goal in 2019, extensively serves the station.
Consequently, the areas around Wiehle and Reston’s other eventual stop at Town Center are being developed and redeveloped into denser urban cores. Reston itself continues to evolve, not only due to the Metro’s arrival, but also to the proliferation of high-tech businesses that have concentrated here and in the even denser urban living and shopping core that has grown around what was once Mr. Tyson’s tiny service station.
The battle for Reston’s public golf course
Reston still has its problems and must still occasional battle with its early legacy issues with the mega-developers who mostly built out the new town. A current fire-hot issue is the fate of Reston’s beloved public golf course, a major part of Reston’s green space, which is close to its first and still most distinctive mini-skyscraper, the jet-black Reston International Center.
Developers, headed up by the gigantic Northwestern Mutual Insurance company and its high-powered attorneys, have somehow managed to plan a redevelopment of the golf course into high-density usage, despite apparent covenants prohibiting this kind of use. The outcome remains uncertain, but could begin to upset Reston’s carefully balanced land-use plan if Reston and the county are somehow overruled.
Simon re-engages with Reston
Until recently, Simon remained deeply involved in community actions, particularly in issues like the golf course dispute that clearly threatens his initial vision for Reston. Keeping his hand in, he also served on the Reston Association’s board from 1996 to 2002 and helped celebrate Reston’s 40th anniversary in 2004.
A life-sized statue of Simon, known in Reston as “Bronze Bob,” was placed on a bench adjacent to Lake Anne that same year, where it continues to reside today. Simon also remained remarkably fit in the new century until a recent illness. He kept fit by taking frequent walks around Lake Anne and by playing tennis as often as he could.
Reston today: Edge City
While contemporary Reston may not quite have turned out to be the innovative urban package Simon had originally envisioned, this “Place called Reston” has become a standout location in Northern Virginia, a superb city with varying housing densities and price points where families can still work, shop and play.
Unlike the majority of suburbs spreading across the nation, Reston—despite the fact that it’s an association—has become a real “edge city,” not just a bedroom community feeder for workers who can’t afford to live in Washington, D.C. Proof: today’s east-west commute via the Dulles Toll Road and/or the Silver Line, is just as dense either way now, as many residents of the District, Arlington and even Maryland commute the other way to high tech jobs in Tysons Corner and Reston.
Simon still had issues with some of the directions his original development had taken over the years, particularly with the way Reston’s popular Town Center had developed. According to Reston Now,
He disliked New Dominion Parkway, the Reston Town Center street that “cuts off the Town Center like the Great Wall of China.” He also said Lake Anne Village Center was the only shopping area that stuck with his original idea. The rest were “all just shopping centers.”
That said, this writer’s Reston home is only a picturesque 10-minute walk through the woods away from the rustic-looking but still “conventional” South Lakes Village shopping center, proving at least here that urban-style convenience can indeed exist in a relatively tranquil suburban setting. So this “conventional” village center still supports Simon’s initial concept, albeit in a less architecturally innovative way.
Appreciation for Robert E. Simon
Writing in an online association publication, RA CEO Cate Fulkerson observed, “Bob Simon was not only the founder of Reston, he was the person who conceived and helped implement the way Reston was and continues to be governed…. He placed his trust in the association and residents to protect the founding principles – principles which have led to Reston setting the standard for all planned communities. Bob Simon will be dearly missed, but his work and vision will continue on through the efforts of the association, its members and volunteers.”
According to RA, “In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Cornerstones (www.cornerstonesva.org), 11150 Sunset Hills Road, #210, Reston, VA 20190.” The family has requested that all calls be directed to the Reston Historic Trust (703-709-7700) or [email protected]).