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 thedevastated home sales.
In 1960, Robert E. Simon's family sold its majority share in Carnegie Hall in New York City. With his share of the proceeds, Simon bought 6,750 acres of farmlands and woods at the western edge of the Washington, D.C., suburbs. By 1962, Simon, with planning and architectural expertise from the New York firm of Conklin and Rossant, had published the master plan for his new prototype community of Reston. This series of maps, from the original master plan, showcases both the boundaries of his acquisition and the ambition of his vision. Note that in the first image Simon includes the proposed "Outer Loop" of the Washington Beltway, which has never been built. The town schematics themselves show Simon's interest in mixed-use planning in the interest of, in his words, "a full life centered around neighborhood living, working, educational and recreational opportunities."
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.
Simon vowed that Reston would be different when he announced his “Seven Goals” for the new community. These ranged from the straightforward—”the fullest range of housing styles and prices”—to the almost philosophical: “beauty—structural and natural.” The goals anticipated important and innovative lifestyle trends that would reshape America socially and economically in ensuing decades. Simon’s Reston was the seedbed for “smart growth,” “green cities,” “new urbanism,” and similar anti–sprawl ideas and policies that, by the 1990s, would inform almost all new suburban development.
In another visionary stroke, Simon decreed that Reston would be open to everyone regardless of race—years before the 1968 amendments to thethat 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.”
Yet somehow, fewer than two years later, Reston’s plan was not working. Simon’s townhouses were designed by top architects, but some were priced at $35,000 and higher—more than larger single-family homes cost in other, more traditional Fairfax suburbs. Built into the prices of the Reston homes were all the amenities from Simon’s wish list—swimming pools in every neighborhood, trails connecting homes with open space, a lake with a fountain inspired by the Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva in Switzerland, even a resident artist who created sculptures on which children could climb. But most home buyers, having been raised during the depression, wanted value that was calculated according to more simple principles, such as cost per square foot. Simon’s marketing team put together a “white sale” in 1966 offering homes requiring virtually no down payment; still, sales failed to pick up. By the autumn of 1967, Simon was forced out by his major lender, Gulf Oil.
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.
In a steady stream of full-page ads in newspapers and magazines, Mobil began selling Reston as a better place to live. The campaign produced results. Reston attracted scores of businesses as well as new home builders who focused on creating more aesthetically pleasing designs and better amenities, including big kitchens and opulent bathrooms. Home sales in the new villages of South Lakes and North Point took off. Moreover, in 1984, the Dulles Toll Road opened which gave Reston a fast new connection to Washington, D.C., making it seem less remote.
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
In the twenty-first century, Town Center’s core acreage has more than one million square feet of offices in five towers, a 518-room Hyatt Regency hotel, a twelve-screen multiplex, and more than 2,500 apartments and condos in five towers, townhouses, and lofts. In 2007, Reston had a population of about 60,000 occupying a full range of housing, from public housing to senior-living high-rises to million-dollar single-family homes. Exceeding all expectations, Reston has more than 60,000 workers, many of them employed by leaders in the high-tech and knowledge industries, including Microsoft, Oracle, Fannie Mae, ComScore, AOL, Accenture, Titan, Northrop Grumman, and Sprint Nextel. And while virtually all land zoned for single-family homes and townhouses has been developed, Reston is not likely to stop growing. On the horizon is high-density mixed-use development around the two future Metrorail stations that will include residential and other high-density development. Coming sooner will be high-rise residential units (and offices and shops) that will replace a big-box retail complex adjacent to Town Center.
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.
But time has also had some positive results. One of Reston’s most interesting demographics is the number of children of the first residents who have returned to raise their own families. Many of them have bought homes in Lake Anne Village and are bringing a new generation and fresh ideas to Reston’s tradition of civic and community activism.
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.”