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Reston, Va.: One Man's Scheme to Invent Something Better than Slums and Suburbs

By Deborah Shapley

Cities and their suburbs are both ideals and horrors at the same time. ideals and overcrowding threaten, but somehow the city manages to retain its image as the potentially perfect environment. Suburbs, constantly under attack as unfit for family life, are still sought by most home-buyers as the best place to live. And amid public and private disillusionment, the redevelopers in the city and the developers in the suburbs consume land at the rate of a million acres a day.

One real estate developer is now building his own solution to the city and suburb crisis--a planned model community. He is Robert E. Simon, who graduated from Harvard in 1935 and once owned Carnegie Hall. His initials. R.E.S., make up the first syllable of Reston, a town which will eventually house 75,000 people on a 6500-acre Virginia estate, 18 miles out of Washington, D.C.

It is rare enough for a real estate developer, assured of huge profits from building rows of suburban matchbox houses, to show any interest in long-range planning. But Simon, an energetic, forthright businessman, is building the only "new town" in the country worthy of the name--and at a profit.

Since Reston's construction began in 1962, the town has been severely criticized by the academic community of city planners. They claim that Lake Anne Village, the first of Reston's seven projected sub-towns to be completed, is too picturesque in its setting among the rolling Virginia hills and trees. The town houses, clustered around an Italian-looking piazza on the edge of an artificial lake, look like the pastoral idyll of some dreamer who wished that the automobile and the industrial revolution had never happened. Further, they object to the predominantly upper-middle-class character of the F F R--first families of Reston--who dared to buy homes while bulldozers had hardly completed the road linking Reston to Washington's Route 7. The future, they argue, lies with the highway, the technologically progressive city, and Megalopolis, not with a suburban housewife's dream.

Common Cause

But depite his town's idyllic appearance, Simon's goals are not so different from those of his cities. And, in the course of completing his project, Simon may succeed in bringing the planning process closer to his and the academics' common cause--a realistic solution to the problems of urban sprawl.


Reston's simple arrangement is deceptive. An urban visitor is invariably struck by the amount of wooded land, while the suburban visitor first spots the houses clustered together near the lake, looking like an old world village. But such simplicity was not simple for Simon; it required converting Fairfax Country's zoning laws and convincing the Country that a preplanned city served its goals getter than piecemeal land-use planning. In fact, this little city in the country materialized only because Simon managed to revolutionize the country's thinking on its entire growth for the next 50 years.

What the new zoning ordinance that Simon got from the country called a residential planned community, city planners have historically called a "new town." Reston is planned to be a new town in the fullest definition of the term. A town is a complete entity: a little city with all income levels, commercial facilities, and an adequate number of available jobs.

Reston will have all of these. Thus it differs completely from an ordinary suburb, where the shopping center, school, and father's office are each separate car trips away from home. At Lake Anne, Reston's one completed village, the brick piazza holds offices, a restaurant, a hardware store, drug store, art supply store, and nursery. Above these lie apartments, and town houses border the square. The town center is within walking distance of any resident. Here is the city's way of life, deliberately reproduced in a new setting. In fact, the corner store idea has been so successful that the village residents have asked for more shops, and plans call for more there and in the next villages.

But, as in the case of zoning, clustering residences and stores together was another battle for Simon. He got the idea for putting apartments over offices and shops from the British new towns, which date back to 1898. The financial community, says Simon, recoiled from this idea more than any other. Thinking in the United States has been that a shopping center is a shopping center, even if it looks like a maze of neon signs set in a huge field of asphalt. When Simon proposed that two-and three-story buildings, with commercial space and living units, would look better, and sell better, the response was skeptical. Yet the apartments over the Lake Anne Center sold faster than any others, and were taken even before the builders could get them ready for occupancy. With this first town center, Simon proved to the business world that the new town community center idea was a sound commercial investment.

As a new town, Reston will have industry, jobs, and lower-income homes--again, if Simon can prove that it is a commercially sound procedure. If he succeeds, he will have taken a major step in ending the era of the commuter and the middle-class suburb.

So far, he has succeeded. His plan called for ten major industries, and six have already signed to build or are building at Reston. Washington's suburban areas, like those of Boston and other major cities, are filling with firms eager to move farther out of the city. The offer of a nearby community, completely equipped with schools, homes, and recreational facilities, is attractive to these industries and increases the land value of Reston's planned industrial areas. Simon stands a good chance of proving his point.

A Project

Attracting industry is one part of the job of making Reston a complete city. Getting low-cost housing for industrial workers is another, and it is tougher. Money for housing projects is difficult to obtain the FHA is sufficiently pressed by the private developers and in-town redevelopment authorities to pay much attention to experimental model communities. However, the U.S. Geological Survey, which employs 8000 low-salaried workers, has decided to move to Reston. As a result, Simon has obtained federal funds to build a low-income housing project right in Lake Anne village. This, hopefully, will become the model for including low-cost housing in following villages. Reston's planners know that on this score every other so-called new town in the country has failed--if it has attempted it at all. They are eager to pioneer--to restore the social balance in their new community by including a real cross-section of population and by making it self-supporting.


Reston's residents--so far there are 800 families--are enthusiastic. "If they keep going the way they are, they'll have a dream town here"; "It has all the advantages of a large city without being one"; "You can have privacy without being isolated," residents tell interviewers. They enjoy owning a share in the community and in its open land. And many participate in community organizations, attending school planning meetings or forming a committee to get the state circulating library to stop at Reston. Last year, a group of parents decided that they wanted to start a Montessori school, and 15 children now attend it. "I did not realize there would be so many cultural things to do," said one woman. Sports too--one of Simon's hobbies--are readily available and include tennis, sailing, fishing, golf, and skating.

By definition, a new town offers available space and facilities for the daily interests and activities of its residents. At present, Reston's country club image; its golf courses and Montessori schools, reflects the composition of these first families of Reston. By and large, they are a well-educated, well-paid group. This beginning was necessary, for Simon had his first houses range from $27,000 to $50,000 in order to get his idea commercially off and running. His market advisors assured him that urban lower-income people would not be the first to move to the country where bulldozers were still breaking ground. As the composition of the residents moves to a broader cross section of income levels and interests, image of life at Reston will change as well. Reston's publicity, too, which thus far has been directed at middle and upper-middle income groups, will change as the availability of lower-priced homes increases.


City planners see Reston as an oddity, an inappropriate regression to rural Americana. A planned community cannot be a model for megalopolis when it deliberately keeps its population density at 13 persons per acre. Wood and trees, they claim, are irrelevant media for the city of the future. And the attempt to preserve large tracts of hillside is unrealistic when the eastern seaboard of this country will be entirely covered with building in the next half century. "The philosophy of Reston is focused too much on the picturesque and the pedestrian," says one planner, "and it ignores the dynamic, rich, and pertinent part of our society--cars, industry, technology."

No Cars

Furthermore, city planners often condemn Reston by judging it aesthetically as some sort of pastoral anachronism. The automobile is missing; Simon has carefully wound his parking areas behind the houses and the town center. But to the planner, this seems a negation of the automobile's existence. And the Lake Anne center, with its yellow brick walls and walks and clay chimneys reflected in the lake looks too much like an Italian fishing village to belong in the age of plastics, steel, and pre-stressed concrete. To some urban designers, Reston appears to deny the visual, as well as the statistical facts of the twentieth century.

But these criticisms ignore what is essential about Reston; that it is a New Town tailored to the American suburb, and that it is being built.

Simon does not propose to be solving the urban problem; Reston is definitely and experiment in revised suburban life. The Washington area will quadruple its size by the year 2000. As it grows, its suburbs will become more than bedrooms for the city. Implicit in the figures of city expansion is the spreading of the city's functions into the suburbs. And developing a model plan for this new type of suburb is as crucial as finding a model for in-city redevelopment.

Reston is not just an anomoly, but a much needed experiment in solving part of the problem which the city planner faces; how to help suburban areas handle their new functions. And Simon's wish to integrate industry, private homes, commerce, and recreation for optimum use by all classes is not different from the aims of the most technically ambitious planner.

By applying these goals to the new type of suburb, Simon is helping to bring the city planners' goals closer to reality. Changing the Fairfax zoning ordinances, for example, won the county to a more realistic view of its planning needs. Getting federal funds for a new-town-style low income housing project is another major step.

To build Lake Anne village, Simon's greatest breakthrough was with the financial community. Over 70 corporate and lending institutions turned Simon down when he set about getting capital for the huge initial investment needed for Reston. The story goes that at one point there were two briefcases on Simon's desk, one containing the orders to dismantle the whole project, the other with the plans to go ahead. Simon recalls, "It was a tense time. Very tense." Fortunately, Gulf Oil pulled through at the critical moment with a considerable grant, and, since then, Simon has found the task of obtaining capital for his project somewhat easier.

Simon aims to make Reston a commercial success; he wants to prove that New Towns area sound commercial investment. In the process, he will do more than make a profit. He will overcome the obstacles, philosophical and material, which currently baffle Reston's critics.

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