A Promise and a Legacy
In the early 1960s, Robert E. Simon, Jr., established a community almost revolutionary for its time: a large-scale, master-planned new town of residential clusters mixed with commercial and office space far from the downtown of Washington, D.C. Although we take this development prototype for granted today, we should appreciate how unconventional Reston was at its founding and understand how the principles on which it was established affect our life here today.
Not far from Dulles Airport, then under construction, and the town of Herndon, Simon bought more than 6,700 acres of rolling, wooded farmland, which included the tiny 100-year-old town of Wiehle. The developer aimed to apply his architectural and social ideals in a New Town. These ideals have become basic to the planned communities of the 21st century clustered residences with common ownership of park and open space, mixed uses, trails and greenways, expanded public transportation, appreciation for design, and respect for the environment.
The ideals Simon sought to apply in Reston included: a wide choice in housing to accommodate all income and age levels; the ability to work and live in the same community; the proximity of commerce and culture; the importance of recreation and leisure activity; privacy in the midst of public space; walkability and convenience with a minimal role for the automobile; preservation of trees and woodland and a minimization of lawns that require maintenance; and underground utility lines.
In the early 1960s, Simon's new community struggled to sell itself and overcome financial difficulties. Buyers were skeptical. The original clustered townhouses near Lake Anne, with retail on the ground floor and residential space above, didn=t seem to belong in a suburban setting. Most of the early residential units, with an emphasis on glass and vertical space, didn=t conform to the typical suburban model. Restrictions on individual land use and design were unappealing to many. Furthermore, Reston was out in the middle of nowhere, reachable only by two-lane Route 7 and a few feeder roads, and far from public transportation, employment, and shopping. (Although there was a four-lane highway to Dulles Airport, it was open to airport traffic only; one could not exit the Dulles road except on the return trip.)
One of the biggest obstacles to selling Reston and one of its enduring and appealing characteristics was the cluster concept. Simon believed in clustering residential units together to create a sense of community and to preserve open space. Although the overall density of Reston compares with other suburban developments, the community broke the mold of repetitive, detached houses on individual lots. Reston's homes, including single-family detached, townhouses, apartments, and high-rises, were clustered in groups, almost like blocks. Each cluster was architecturally distinct and provided a sense of community within the larger community.
Home sales in Reston were slow at first; by the end of the first four weeks, only twenty families had bought into Simon's dream. With expenditures far exceeding revenues, the community was sold in 1967 to Gulf Oil Corporation. Gulf persuaded the John Hancock Insurance Company to invest $20 million in addition to its $15 million advance and worked to made Reston financially viable while remaining true to Simon's ideals. Models of existing contemporary homes were furnished more traditionally; new construction was less avant-garde; entry-level, less expensive housing was added; more apartments were built. By 1969 sales had picked up.
Through the 1970s, particularly with the opening of the toll lanes parallel to the Dulles Access Road in 1974, the population of Reston swelled to nearly 40,000. Office buildings were constructed along Sunset Hills Road and Sunrise Valley Drive from the exits at Hunter Mill, Wiehle, and Reston Parkway. By 1984, there were more than 22,000 jobs in Reston, and more than 55,000 by 2000. Over the years, the developer of Reston changed hands several times. In 1978 Gulf sold out to Mobil Oil, which operated the subsidiary Reston Land Corporation. In 1996, Mobil sold to Terrabrook. Today more than 60,000 people live in Reston, and thousands more commute to the offices and shops located there.
Simon's early plans for Reston have been modified and enhanced. The award-winning Town Center brings together a mix of retail, offices, restaurants, hotel, homes, and recreation in what was intended as Reston's suburban core. This core was originally supposed to be supported by seven village centers around which all residential development would cluster. Early village centersCpredominantly pedestrian-accessed meeting pointsCproved economically unsound. Later centers, like South Lakes and North Point, were built more along the lines of traditional shopping centers. Only Lake Anne Village Center remains as it was first conceived. Lake Anne, now a historic district, owes much of its success to a public appreciation for its architecture, design, and heritage.
Today Reston is home to households of many sizes, ages, and incomes. Founded as a community open to all regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, Reston is truly international in scope. Over the years Reston has added facilities that appeal to the wide diversity of its population. Its moderate and low-income housing, housing for senior citizens, and homeless shelter operated by Reston Interfaith are models for the nation. Early on, citizens instituted both internal and commuter bus systems that have been nationally recognized. Two community centers have been built, one with a spacious theater. Reston's ball fields, swimming pools, and tennis courts are remarkable. The community's extensive network of trails, preservation of wooded areas, buffering of development from the road, artful landscaping, and location of utilities underground contribute to a beauty that contrasts markedly with surrounding suburban neighborhoods. Simon's original premise-that well-designed physical space can create a sense of community has clearly been borne out.