Robert E. Simon: Advocate for smart growth 50 years before its time


Robert E. Simon, the 98-year-old founder of Reston, talks with admirers by Lake Anne, the oldest of the villages he planned for Reston. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

When Robert E. Simon bought 6,750 acres in Northern Virginia in 1961 (using money from his family’s sale of Carnegie Hall in New York), it was decades before the term “smart growth” was born. But Simon knew he wanted densely-built community plazas that would preserve surrounding open space.

Simon’s land became Reston, named using his initials. Although Reston today is an urban exception in Fairfax County, Simon, who turns 98 on April 10, didn’t get everything he wanted; many of his plans for urban nodes were ditched after he lost his land holdings to his lender, Gulf Oil.

Tell me about first buying land in the area.

A broker by the name of Jimmy Salkert had bought 6,750 acres from the Bowmans, and when Roger Stevens, later to be head of the Kennedy Center, didn’t want it, Salkert managed to find his way to my office ... He told two big whoppers [which failed to materialize]. One is that there was to be an outer-circumferential highway and that it would intersect with the Dulles road. And the other was that he had somebody ready to pay for a small part of this property [which would give me] the cash required to buy it.  It was for sale for $12.8 million, $800,000 in cash and the rest in the mortgage.

What stake do you and your family still have?

I own the land, or the property, that is the community center in Lake Anne. The county is my tenant.

Did your holdings in Reston make you a wealthy man?

Gulf Oil [loan] officers released me from all of the [mortgages] that I had signed … So we weren’t paid anything, but we weren’t responsible for all that money that we had signed for.

How do you feel about how Reston has grown?

My idea was that we should have plazas because they build communities. And my successors decided that they would rather have strip centers. And they thought that it was necessary, for it to be successful from a retail perspective, for cars to park in front of stores ... The good is that the Lake Anne community center was built in Hunters Woods in the ’80s and it’s a wonderful little theater … The other good is that the pathway system was continued and we now have over 50 miles of pathways.

What do you think the effect of Metro will be?

The effect won’t be here until 2014. If there’s not a major bus improvement to get people to the stations, I wonder how much it will do. I don’t think it’s going to revolutionize Reston at all … I hope that what it will lead to is that they will tear down the [strip] village centers and replace them with real village centers with high-rise residential.

What do you make of the new high-rises planned for the area?

Tall buildings are good because they preserve open space. If you take a tall building and take it all down to two, three or four stories, you use up all the grass and use up all the open space. So if you have a tall building, you are helping the community.

What do you hope happens with Reston over the next 50 years?

We had originally planned for 75,000 residential people. We don’t have quite 60 [thousand] yet. The other thing is when we were planning back in the ’60s, there was no “Silicon Valley East.” We’re now in the center of “Silicon Valley East.” So what I see for the future is a lot more employment and a lot more residential and I see the population going over 100,000. And it should go in the town center and in the village centers.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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