I got to meet one of my heroes the other day. He’s the man who founded and designed my hometown, Reston, which has grown into the largest town or city in Fairfax County, with about 60,000 residents.
Robert E. Simon Jr. turns 98 today. He’s still sharp as a tack and still extremely opinionated — I’d expect nothing less from a native New Yorker. He’s actually fairly easy to meet, because he lives in the Heron House overlooking Lake Anne Plaza, the first development to emerge after he bought 6,750 acres of undeveloped land in Fairfax County in 1961. People started moving into the Lake Anne area in 1964, and this weekend, Reston will celebrate its 48th anniversary with Simon on Founder’s Day.
Reston is a widely studied “planned community” and much has been written over the years. But with Simon’s help, here are a number of things you may not have known about Reston and its founder, and a number of opinions you may not have wanted to hear. But it’s his town, and his day, so you’re gonna hear ‘em.
• Reston could have unfolded on Staten Island, N.Y., instead of some hills way outside Washington, D.C. Simon said he bought an abandoned airport and surrounding land in the heart of Staten Island and began drawing up plans for ”Downtown Staten Island” there, but eventually dropped those and focused on his Virginia project.
• Simon’s family owned Carnegie Hall for 35 years, and Simon himself ran it for 25 years until it fell on hard times in the late 1950s. When no one stepped up to buy it, the threat of the wrecking ball emerged until violinist Isaac Stern led an effort that resulted in New York City’s buying the famed venue in 1960.
I had read somewhere that perhaps he had gotten some bad press around that time, and asked Simon if the papers had misrepresented him. ”No,” he said unhesitatingly, “but Stern did. That son of a ....”
Simon also said that the city had “destroyed one of the most beautiful places” in Carnegie Hall by tearing out the studios that were built above the concert hall, where artists such as Marlon Brando once lived and productions such as “Oklahoma” once rehearsed.
Told you he was opinionated.
• So, flush with more than $12 million from the sale of Carnegie Hall, Simon bought the land in Fairfax County. It was the single fastest-growing county in America and the Washington suburbs were the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. But he was neither an architect nor an urban planner, so he brought in dozens of consultants in all manner of areas — transportation, schools, development, and others.
“I hadn’t done anything on this scale before,” Simon said.
But he had ideas for how an idyllic town should look, feel and function. They weren’t necessarily original concepts, but rather ideas he had gathered from his travels both far and near. From Europe, he plucked the concept that plazas were a central gathering place, a focal point of the community. Places with fountains, or lakes, shops and restaurants.
In Finland, he saw a distinctive office high-rise building that had nothing around it. But by putting residents in high-rises, you had both the density to sustain nearby business, and also the green space to run around in, instead of spread-out single family homes. On Long Island, where he raised his family, widely spaced communities meant long drives from home to the pool to the tennis courts. Why not keep them all together?
From San Francisco, he lifted the concept of residents living directly above the businesses, in apartments or townhouses. And from Central Park, he added the idea of green space in the middle of a city, which he always had growing up in Manhattan.
• The term “mixed use,” as in allowing commercial and residential property in the same area, was frowned upon in 1960s America. But Simon convinced the Fairfax Board of Supervisors to let him try it in Reston, and “today, you can’t go into a hamlet without seeing mixed use. All of our cities are mixed use.”
He said density was not a bad thing. “Density is good,” Simon said. ”It makes open space possible,” when you use apartments or high-rises to create density vertically. “High-rises are not anti-community,” he said, and he noted that the Stratford apartment complex near Reston Town Center has a community of engaged residents that is “really fabulous.”
• Simon is not optimistic about the arrival of the Metro in Reston, saying the high cost of “heavy rail” is “not going to be viable.” He has always wanted light rail for Reston and beyond. He also said the bus service around Reston needs to improve to and from the stations.
• Simon brought in Gulf Oil to help finance Reston in the 1960s, and they booted him out in 1967 and began to abandon some key ideas of his plan. Among those ideas was building multiple high-rises around the village centers, to provide the necessary density. But merchants wanted parking lots and driving access, so strip malls were built instead. He would still like to see some earlier developments near village centers demolished and replaced by high-rises, as is happening on one site near the Reston Town Center.
• He said Reston made “two major mistakes” in the evolution of its Reston Association, which manages the parks and facilities for the unincorporated town. Though his New York consultants had studied homeowners associations, they assessed flat fees per home, rather than based on the value of each home, and they did not require non-residential buildings to pay fees. In addition, he said the Reston Town Center was allowed to divorce itself from the Reston Association when it was being developed, so its residents do not pay the fees. “Good-bye millions of dollars,” Simon said.
• Reston still needs three things, Simon said: A university, a 600-seat arts auditorium, and indoor tennis. Simon was an avid tennis player, and the Simon Cup tournament has been contested in Reston for 46 years. Little Tommy Jackman competed in a few of those.
And then, Simon was out the door, off to his next appointment, still trying to make things happen in his “New Town.”