Robert E. Simon Jr., a real estate investor from New York, took his seat before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors -- again. This July afternoon in 1962 marked at least his 10th visit to the board in the 16 months since he had spent $13 million to buy the 6,750-acre Sunset Hills Farm on the county's western edge.
The slim, tanned businessman was, as usual, flanked by his lawyers, engineer and planners, local men who knew their way around the county's highways, byways and politics. And still, Simon recalls, "we were scared to death."
Simon, then 48, proposed nothing more or less than to build Utopia in the middle of nowhere. He would call it Reston.
Washington's suburbs were exploding. Fairfax County's population had gone from 41,000 in 1940 to 106,000 in 1950; as of 1960, it was 272,000. There was even evidence that the county might expand out in the direction of Sunset Hills Farm. Dulles Airport, five miles west of the farm, would open that November, and a fast new federal highway would lead to it. Not far away, a rural corner known as "Tyson's" already was pegged for a giant shopping center and office towers, because that's where the "Washington Circumferential Highway" would form a powerful triangle with Routes 123 and 7.
All morning, the board of supervisors had churned through the numbing business of a changing county, authorizing a sidewalk easement in Pimmit Hills, rezoning 77 acres near Falls Church and rezoning 85 acres that would become Tysons Corner Center. After lunch, more rezoning -- 72 acres along Braddock Road and some lots on Old Dominion Drive.
Then, finally, at 3:30, it was Simon's turn.
By now, Simon's vision of a "satellite city" on the former cattle farm was well known to the board. Powerful local zoning lawyer Lytton H. Gibson laid out the details: seven European-style villages of 10,000 people each, open to all races, with housing at all income levels, with shops, parks and workplaces. The developer had made new concessions to board members nervous about approving such a huge project -- Simon would donate land for schools and promise to buy water only from the county. The county planning commission recommended approval.
Simon's background had nourished his vision of how Americans could live in vital communities. Scion of a New York real estate family, he and his father before him had owned Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, among other properties. He relished the mix of uses on 57th Street, where people worked and even lived above the shops, keeping the street lively at all hours. His father had even been a minor player in an earlier attempt to remake suburbia, the planned community of Radburn, N.J., partially built but doomed by the Depression.
The town of Reston -- Simon derived the name from his initials -- was the developer's shot at remaking part of the world. But it wouldn't be clear for years whether Reston would become a model that would shame the builders of treeless, grid-bound tract developments or end up simply as a verdant and curvaceous but ultimately flawed attempt at Utopia.
Tinkering with towns has a long and noble history. Simon himself likes to cite the Duke of Milan, who, horrified that his city's population had reached 15,000, called upon Leonardo da Vinci to create a series of ring towns. Reston, of course, was to be built 18 miles from America's best-known planned city, the federal capital.
The federal government had become fascinated with planned suburbia during the Depression, building three communities -- including Greenbelt -- based on a turn-of-the-century English idea of "garden cities," each surrounded by a belt of green, to alleviate urban crowding. But these largely failed to attract the jobs that would make the communities self-sustaining.
A more influential effort was England's post-World War II New Towns Act, which gave birth to 30 of these garden cities. And now here, at least on paper, was Reston, borrowing a bit from the Italians, a bit from the English and a lot from Simon's own steadfast belief that people would buy community over suburban isolation.
Planning a Community
At the hearing, zoning lawyer Gibson offered Simon's most radical proposal: To make Reston possible, Fairfax County's standard one- and two-acre zoning had to be scrapped, to be replaced by a new concept -- zoning by population density. Simon asked for flexibility: As long as he didn't intend to cram more people onto his land, why couldn't the developer cluster the houses as he wished, breaking up the monotonous suburban grid and surrounding houses with woods, parks and pathways that would bring homeowners together?
The six-man, one-woman board voted unanimously to create a new type of zoning called "residential planned community," the first of its kind in the country. No minimum lot size, no minimum setback lines, no maximum percentage of lot coverage. And, totally foreign to suburbia, commercial uses could mix with multifamily dwellings -- in other words, just as in small towns, people could live above the store.
Approval of the Reston plan itself? "Oh, that," the 85-year-old developer recalled recently, sitting in his apartment high above Lake Anne Village, the towers of Tysons Corner hazy in the distance. "That was done 30 seconds later."
And then the powerful Fairfax board, having taken a historic detour from half a century of suburban tract development, moved on to discuss amendments to the county's taxicab ordinance.
But with government approval, Reston's problems were just beginning. As it took shape in 1964, Lake Anne Village -- with restaurants and shops on a brick plaza and apartments above, all at the edge of a man-made lake -- may have looked to Simon like the Italian fishing village of Portofino (in fact, it does), but it did not look like the typical suburban bedroom community. Moreover, the town houses on Lake Anne were contemporary in style, a hard sell in the Washington area. And Reston's prices turned out to be higher than those in other local developments, reflecting the cost of infrastructure and amenities.
Focusing on a Vision
Simon was learning as he went, driven not by experience -- his previous developments were shopping centers, not housing -- but by a vision. Architecturally, Reston was a triumph. Financially, though, even the detached houses in Reston's Hunters Woods Village had to struggle to find their market.
Like other developers before and since, Simon turned to deeper pockets -- in his case Gulf Oil. And in 1967, Simon lost control of his project, his dream. Gulf Reston basically honored the spirit of the master plan but built more popularly styled houses. Simon returned to New York, to other projects, coming back to Reston for occasional celebrations to play the role of founding father.
In 1980, with Reston on firm financial footing, Gulf sold the remaining undeveloped land to Mobil, which began developing the new town's long-awaited urban core, Reston Town Center. Three years ago, Mobil sold the remaining land to Terrabrook, a real estate investment fund. Only the last town houses and condominiums are yet to be built.
What Robert Simon had thought would be a 15-year job had taken 37 years, with still more work ahead in the urban center.
In its scope and vision, Reston was a first among postwar suburban planned Utopias. But soon, Simon wasn't alone. At the time Reston won its zoning, Baltimore mortgage banker James W. Rouse was already quietly assembling land. Rouse's plan: a new city, Columbia, on 15,000 acres halfway between Baltimore and Washington. Rouse announced Columbia in November 1964. A few years later came Lake Ridge in Prince William County, but the scale was smaller -- 3,800 acres -- and the infrastructure not as extensive.
The federal government also tried again. President Lyndon B. Johnson had been trying since late 1963 to legislate "new towns," alternatives to big cities that would combine home, work and green space. In 1969, one of the most successful of them was launched -- St. Charles, in Charles County, Md., which to this day is filling up its 9,000 acres with housing, retail establishments and jobs.
And then? And then nothing -- at least nothing but standard-issue developments by market-driven home builders who knew that lot size and price per square foot were what counted with the great majority of new-home buyers. In fairness to the builders -- and the people who bought their tract houses -- Reston did not yet look like something to emulate: It was only partially built, and, until the U.S. Geological Survey and then high-tech firms moved in, seemed a far commute from people's work.
The next chapter in the evolution of suburban utopias emerged in the late 1980s. Developers -- with smaller parcels, to be sure -- began using Simonesque language, talking about shopping areas accessible by foot, not car; houses that nestled more closely to one another, where neighbors could chat from porch to porch, where garages were hidden back in alleys -- alleys!
Cozy Grids and PUDs
Whereas Simon carved out cul-de-sacs for children to play in safely, the new planned developments blamed those cul-de-sacs for suburban isolation and for funneling traffic onto a small number of already crowded roads. The most famous proponents of the New Urbanism, Miami-based planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, brought back the grid, but now it was the cozier grid of small-town America.
It became the era of PUDs -- planned unit developments -- and neotraditional development. In 1987, Kingstowne sprouted on 1,200 acres in Fairfax. Then Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Cascades in Loudoun County and South Riding near Dulles. And now a proposed "maritime village" on the Occoquan at Belmont Bay in Prince William County.
Such ambitious schemes have been costly, bankrupting several of their developers. But local governments liked the cohesion the new developments could bring. They began changing zoning to encourage small, compact town centers. And they wanted mixed-use development -- like Simon's -- so the centers would be more than just shopping malls.
There has been a lot of development since Reston, and a lot of traffic. Back in 1972, Chester McGuire, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development, called Reston and Columbia "a nice ideal" but "irrelevant" to the phenomenal waves of development pushing out from Washington.
Twenty-seven years later, McGuire, now a Bay Area consultant, maintains that Reston and Columbia were "just too small" to make a difference.
"Places like Rockville, that accommodate growth -- they're the real new towns," he said recently. Planned developments like Reston are, in the end, "just better suburbs."
Tell that to Robert Simon. Six and a half years ago, he moved back to his beloved Reston from New York, settling into the high-rise on Lake Anne. There, through a chance encounter in the elevator, he met his new lady friend. "I asked her if she was taking a walk, and so we did." The developer's eyes lighted up. "I'm telling you," he barked, "we've got community!"
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