From Garden City to Reston
New towns were start-from-scratch urban projects that used creative planning to combine the best of the country and the city. The genesis of such developments in America stemmed from Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement in England early in the twentieth century. Howard's ideas inspired a sprinkling of new communities in the United States, the most famous of which was Radburn, New Jersey, where walkers could amble down pathways that passed under roadways, and clustered houses shared large swaths of common green space. Founded in 1928, Radburn drew considerable attention but was not completed because the Great Depression devastated home sales.
With his purchase of the land in Fairfax, Simon was, for the first time, in a position to do something about his frustrations with the suburbs and desire for community living. He started by drawing up a wish list of what he wanted his dream community to be and to have. His jottings included pathways separated from roadways (a Radburn inspiration), swimming pools in every neighborhood, outdoor courts for tennis as well as volleyball and badminton, childcare, a community center, and garden plots. He also wanted everything to be in place when the first residents arrived. To develop ideas for his list, Simon toured cities, old and new, in England, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe.
Meanwhile, just as Simon was putting together his dream community, suburban sprawl was becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. Uninspired instant subdivisions were spreading to every metropolitan region of the country. As the baby boom saw births per woman rise to an all-time high of 3.75 in 1961, the new suburbs springing up to accommodate America's growing families in the Middle Class consisted almost entirely of single-family houses, designed for those who could qualify for loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration. The majority of housing opportunities available in these new communities, however, had no employment base few cultural adornments, and little heterogeneity, as they were often exclusively white.
In another visionary stroke, Simon decreed that Reston would be open to everyone regardless of race—years before the 1968 amendments to the Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination in housing. His position, he said, shut many doors to potential financing. After more than fifty rejections from lenders, however, Simon finally succeeding in assembling $35 million to finance the first phase of Reston's development. With planning and architectural expertise from the New York firm of Conklin and Rossant—one of whose founders, Julian Whittlesey, was a junior planner involved in the Radburn project—Simon began the staggering task of making his Seven Goals a reality. The crucible was the first of five future villages, Lake Anne. There Simon and his planning team built the first townhouses in the suburbs, artfully clustering them on the gently rolling land.
With its first phase of 227 town houses and Lake Anne Village Center finished, Reston attracted national media attention. The first family to settle there—a Central Intelligence Agency officer, his wife, and their children—moved into a lakeside townhouse in the autumn of 1964. About the same time, the first company, Air Survey Corporation, arrived. Between 1964 and 1966, Reston was featured in more than thirty American magazines, including Life, Time, Newsweek, and even Esquire, as well as on three major television networks. On December 5, 1965, it was showcased in a page-one article in the New York Times, where architecture and planning critic Ada Louise Huxtable called Reston "one of the most striking communities in the country, " asserting "Reston has had to shatter precedents to make its plan work."
Gulf pledged to stand by Simon's innovative master plan and kept some of his key executives, but concentrated on churning out cost-competitive "production housing" that had little of the architectural distinction of the original clusters. Still, the lower prices attracted more buyers, and by 1979, when it sold its interests to another energy giant, Mobil, Gulf had recovered its investment and paid Simon $1 million for his stock in the company's Reston subsidiary. Mobil's purchase agreement required it to follow Simon's master plan as well, and the new owner kept most of the Gulf executive team, but Mobil developed an aggressive new marketing strategy designed to capitalize on what it saw as encouraging new trends: more employers moving to the suburbs and affluent home buyers demanding more features in their shelter choices. Demographics and lifestyles were finally catching up with Simon's dream.
Mobil's biggest decision was moving forward on an idea that had been shelved for more than a decade—development of Reston Town Center. The big question was what kind of town center it should be. Until then, the few existing suburban centers were mostly sterile agglomerations of two or three office buildings and perhaps a hotel, all spread out on a pedestrian-unfriendly "superblock" footprint—a hallmark of suburbs that led to large expanses of space that separated major attractions and businesses from one another and often necessitated use of a car or public transportation. Mobil, prodded by the Urban Land Institute—a nonprofit educational group from the development industry—decided on a bolder, more innovative design. Reston Town Center would be much denser than typical suburban centers, and, in the first phase, whole blocks of office buildings, a hotel, and shops would be built at the same time.
It was a daring financial gamble to build speculative office towers, but the decision paid off, with Mobil eventually selling its holdings at a substantial profit. In subsequent development, Town Center added high-rise residential units to its urban core.
Reston in the Twenty-first Century
Reston is showing some age spots, though. Its stream valleys have been heavily damaged by erosion from urban floodwaters. The production housing built in the 1970s is deteriorating, and some of it may have to be demolished. The Nature Center that was part of Simon's original plan is yet to be built because of a lack of financing. Town Center has grown rapidly but still lacks a major civic or cultural expression, and there are no plans for one. Most significant of all, Lake Anne Village Center is in need of a major renewal effort and new development to help pay escalating maintenance costs borne by neighboring residential and condominium owners.
In 1993, fourteen years after he was ousted as founding developer, Bob Simon, at the age of seventy-eight, returned as a resident, moving into Heron House, the high-rise that is the centerpiece of Lake Anne Village. Going out for his daily walk, he met Cheryl Terio, another resident and fellow walker; they were later married. In a speech he gave in the mid-1960s, when Reston was gradually making the transition from dream to reality, Simon said: "The planners of Reston were neither arrogant nor presumptuous enough to conceive of their task as the building of a Utopia, [but] it was and is hoped that something a little closer to the heart's desire than is now available for most people would be made possible."
1961 - With proceeds from the sale of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1960, Robert E. Simon, through a company that included his three sisters, purchases the 6,750 acres of farmland and woods that will become Reston, Virginia, in western Fairfax County.
1964 - A Central Intelligence Agency officer, his wife, and their children move into a lakeside town house in Reston, Virginia, becoming the city's first residents.
1964 - Air Survey Corp. arrives in Reston, Virginia, becoming the city's first company.
1967 - Gulf Oil buys out development interests in Reston, Virginia, from Reston's founder, Robert E. Simon.
1979 - Gulf Oil sells its development interests in Reston, Virginia, to Mobil.
1984 - The Dulles Toll Road opens, giving Reston, Virginia, residents a fast new connection to Washington, D.C.
2007 - Reston, Virginia, reports a population of more than 60,000.
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First published: January 29, 2009 | Last modified: November 29, 2012