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

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.