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Planned Community Finally Paying Off--Too Late for Founder : Developers of Reston, Va., Didn’t Strike Gold, but Paydirt

Associated Press

When this implausible town was carved out of wilderness two decades ago, there was no gold strike to beckon settlers, no fortuitous junction of rivers or railroads, no mission priest staking his cross in the soil.

There was simply a Virginia family farm up for sale, and a wealthy New York businessman in search of a place to build his dream of an urban community in a rural setting.

And despite the naysayers’ doubts and dismaying financial odds, the “new town” that Robert E. Simon envisioned and then erected here in the countryside 20 miles west of Washington managed not only to survive, but is flourishing today in ways that Simon perhaps dared not hope.

Reston heralded an audacious but short-lived movement in the late 1960s among urban planners and federal housing experts who foresaw new, planned communities as the best alternative to the blight of suburban sprawl.

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As it turned out, Reston is one of only a handful of these costly, high-risk ventures across the United States to succeed. A strictly private enterprise, Reston is one of fewer still to make it without a penny of government assistance.

Boom Town of 1980s

Now, this “new town” of the 1960s is becoming a boom town of the 1980s.

Hundreds of high-tech corporate employees are moving into new office buildings that have sprung up along Reston’s once-vacant business thoroughfares in recent months, promising to transform this residential community into an East Coast rival of California’s Silicon Valley.

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Moreover, construction will start early next year on Reston’s long-awaited “downtown,” a $500-million project that will include a pedestrian square flanked by high-rise offices and apartments, boutiques, restaurants, a cultural center and two towering luxury hotels.

“Reston is finally coming of age,” said Peter McCandless, a spokesman for a subsidiary of Mobil Corp. which is Reston’s current developer.

The recent explosion in Reston’s growth is following almost precisely the grand design that Simon crafted a quarter-century ago.

Simon wanted a place where people of all kinds could enjoy the best of both worlds--the cosmopolitan delights of the city and the beauty of the countryside--without ever leaving.

Live, Work, Play

His goal was to enable people to live, work and play in the same community, for the rest of their lives if they chose. He decreed that “beauty--structural and natural--is a necessity of the good life and should be fostered,” and that recreational opportunities should abound.

Finally, he wanted his town to be a financial success.

Simon’s promise was a long time coming, and urban planners tend to agree that another Reston won’t be built for a very long time, if ever.

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“This is a living museum piece,” said Tom Grubisich, editor of one of Reston’s two weekly newspapers. “There won’t be any more Restons built on this scale in our lifetime.”

The new town concept is as old as Renaissance France and many of today’s major U.S. cities were built, not by happenstance, but according to a detailed master plan.

San Antonio, Tex., was built in 1730 by the Spaniards, whose specifications included the exact dimensions of the city’s main plaza. Colonial Williamsburg was one of the original new towns built in Virginia, under legislation passed in 1699. Others are Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Charleston, S.C.

New towns were government ventures in the earliest days of America, again during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era Administration and for a few years during the Richard M. Nixon Administration until they fell victim to the economic shocks of the 1973-74 oil crisis.

Frustrated by the inconveniences of living with his family on Long Island and working in midtown Manhattan, Simon became intrigued with the idea of transplanting to a rural setting all the amenities of 57th Street, his favorite neighborhood in New York. Among its swank shops, apartments, restaurants, art galleries and concert halls were many of his father’s real estate holdings.

So it was that Simon sold one of his most famous properties, Carnegie Hall, for $5 million to a quasi-public group and used the proceeds in 1961 to pay $800,000 in cash as down payment for Sunset Hills Farm, a 6,750-acre property in western Fairfax County, Va. The farm was the site of the A. Smith Bowman family’s whiskey distillery.

The total purchase price was $12.8 million.

Armed with millions of dollars in loans from New York banks, Simon hired the best architects and urban planners that money could buy and began excavation for Lake Anne village, the crown jewel of his ambitious project.

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But by the fall of 1967, sales of Lake Anne’s daringly designed homes were lagging and Reston was plummeting into financial crisis.

Simon was abruptly fired by his major lender, a subsidiary of Gulf Oil, but not before he had bequeathed his new town a name--using the R.E.S. initials of his own name--and the lasting imprint of his vision.

Henry Rogers, a State Department employee, was one of Reston’s earliest pioneers. He still lives here with his wife, Julia. The Rogerses were the second family to settle in Reston, taking up residence in a home facing Lake Anne just before Christmas, 1964.

‘It Was Quiet’

There were no grocery stores, no shops, no schools, no trash pickups. The roads were muddy. “It was quiet,” said their son, Richard.

But idealistic new residents, scarcely more than a few dozen at the start, banded together in a lively, all-for-one community spirit that survives today. They held sailing regattas on Lake Anne. They toasted the hookup of Reston’s sewer main at a cocktail party held inside the huge underground pipe.

Rogers remembers those early years with a chuckle.

“Something was going on every week at the meeting hall at Lake Anne plaza--lectures, art shows, a classical film series--and in 1966 the Reston players presented an original musical comedy in the horse stable. Every human being in town was busy building sets or performing or sitting in the audience. Everybody was into practically everything, and you felt honor-bound to show up.”

Today, 46,500 people live in clusters of homes around Reston’s five villages, ranging from low-income garden apartments to lakefront mansions, from townhouses to condominiums, in styles ranging from neo-Victorian to California modern. Prices range from $44,800 to $895,000; some of the housing here is lower in price than in most parts of the Washington metropolitan area.

Reston boasts one of the nation’s earliest subsidized cooperative apartment buildings and an innovative elementary school, below ground and warmed by solar heat. There are two apartment buildings and a large new condominium for the elderly within walking distance of shops.

Sharing this community with the corporate likes of General Electric, Sperry, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and Piedmont Airlines is the headquarters of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an inmate rehabilitation program founded by Watergate-figure Charles W. Colson.

Some of the town’s 20-year-old architecture still seems surprisingly new. Lake Anne plaza is a stylistic jewel inspired by the Italian coastal village of Portofino. It has won numerous design awards and attracts admiring architects and urban planners from around the world.

When the Rev. Embry Rucker arrived in early 1969, he stood on the dock at Lake Anne and surveyed the place he had been summoned to serve as an Episcopal priest.

He saw architect Chloethiel Smith’s lakeside townhouses with their tin roofs and pastel colors, the high-rise apartments of 15-story Heron House, the curve of shops with homes on the floors above, the wooden bridge framed by dogwood and weeping cherry trees, and the towering midlake fountain that sprayed frolicking young swimmers and quacking geese.

‘When’s the Operetta?’

“I looked around and thought, ‘When does the operetta start?”’ Rucker said.

Simon made good on his promise of providing, from the very start, a wide variety of recreational facilities close to every home.

Sailing, fishing and ice skating are available on Reston’s four man-made lakes. The community’s 7,350 acres include 850 acres of natural open space, 19 neighborhood swimming pools and 40 tennis courts, 50 miles of pathways for jogging, biking or strolling, two golf courses, an 18-stop exercise trail and athletic fields for Reston’s football and baseball enthusiasts and its 2,000 registered soccer players.

And then there are the trees. “What dazzles people when they come out here are the trees, trees, trees,” said editor Grubisich. “Where else can you walk out of your high-rise office building and find a deep forest that won’t ever change?”

Car-Pooled to Washington

In the early days, according to McCandless, three-fourths of all working Restonians, most of them government employees, took buses or car pools to their jobs in Washington. Simon’s goal was one job in Reston for every three households.

Today, with the town’s emergence as a major employment center in northern Virginia, nearly 40% of Reston residents work where they live. That’s about 1.5 jobs per household.

“The proportion of people who work near where they live is extraordinarily high in Reston,” said Joseph R. Stowers, a 20-year resident. “Reston is rather rare in this regard.”

Stowers, a private transportation consultant, recently moved his office from downtown Washington to space above the bank at Lake Anne plaza. He is happy that work is a three-minute stroll from home and that he can keep in shape by stepping out of his home to swim the length of Lake Anne early every morning.

Won the Triathlon

“This is one of the most active jock communities in America,” said Stowers, who also enjoys jogging, tennis and soccer. He won the 50-and-over trophy in Reston’s annual triathlon competition last year.

Stowers also welcomes Reston’s commitment from the beginning to be a “community open to all people.”

Reston was the first community in sprawling Fairfax County to welcome minority residents, Rucker said. According to the 1980 census, nonwhites account for 14% of Reston’s population, compared to 11% in all of Fairfax County.

Reston is not immune from the same racial tensions that persist in other communities, however. A group of black parents complained this spring of discrimination at Reston’s only high school. County investigators found isolated incidents of racist slurs and graffiti but no evidence of a widespread pattern.

‘Protect Your Dream’

Voters recently rejected a slate of candidates for the board of the Reston Home Owners Assn. that had campaigned under a “protect your dream” banner that was widely interpreted as an appeal to block subsidized-rental apartments for people with moderate incomes in the new North Point Village now under construction.

Residents also are struggling anew with the old issue of self-governance, debating whether to seek status as an incorporated town and set their own civic priorities or to continue relying on Fairfax County for essential services.

Grubisich, the editor, said the debate has wider implications about the future of Reston and its atmosphere.

“The early Restonians were very idealistic and zealous about their community,” he said. “Now they are wondering about where the new generation is coming from, why they’re coming here, what they believe in, what they will signify for the community that the pioneers built. It’s still an open question.”

Last of Kind

There is little question, however, that Reston and the comparably sized, privately developed planned community of Columbia, Md., north of Washington, may be the last of their kind. That’s the view of Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and other experts on new towns.

“Living or working in planned new communities like Reston or Columbia is a privilege that most Americans will never enjoy,” Downs said at a symposium last year marking Reston’s 20th anniversary.

The reason is simple, said Downs. A private investor who builds a new town must be willing to buy large tracts of land for exorbitant sums of money, spend many millions more for planning and development and then wait 10 or 15 years for a return on his investment.

“Investing in the creation of such communities is not economically feasible,” he said. “Although a few such communities have proved profitable, the particular combination of circumstances that made them so is too improbable for investors to bet on.”

Seconds Viewpoint

His view is seconded by William Nicoson of Reston, who directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ill-fated new communities program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Nicoson said he resigned when it became apparent that the Nixon Administration lacked the will to make the substantial financial commitment necessary to guarantee long-term loans to new-town developers.

The deathblow came from the 1973-74 energy crisis, which plunged the real estate industry into a depression. “Starting a new town (after that) was like trying to fly the first airplane into a hurricane,” Nicoson said.

Judged Failures

Of the 13 new towns that HUD supported with loan guarantees in the late 1960s and early 1970s, all but one defaulted within the first few years and were judged to be financial failures. The lone exception was The Woodlands, 30 miles north of Houston, which succeeded largely because of the long-term financial endurance of its developer, who had extensive natural gas holdings.

Nicoson, a former urban affairs adviser to Nelson A. Rockefeller, said Reston is a “great achievement” among new towns for its high quality of land planning and architectural design, the imaginative mixed-use zoning that permitted the Heron House “skyscraper in the wilderness,” and the magnificent stand of trees that distinguishes Reston from other communities bulldozed out of pastures or sun-bleached plains.

Downs said the initial private investor in a new town project inevitably is a “sacrificial lamb” and that only his successors are likely to hit pay dirt.

In Reston, for example, Simon gave way to Gulf Oil, which concluded that it ultimately just about broke even. Gulf sold out to Mobil Oil, which according to Simon is “making oceans of money” two decades after it all began.

Recouped Investment

Mobil won’t give figures, but acknowledges that in 1985 it recouped its original investment of $30.6 million, seven years after it bought 3,700 undeveloped acres from Gulf Reston.

“We’re very happy with the profits at Reston,” said one Mobil source at the firm’s New York headquarters, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.

In a telephone interview from his home in Glen Head, Long Island, N.Y., Simon said he learned the hard way that “if the initial developer doesn’t have access to an infinite amount of money, I mean billions of dollars, he is going to be vulnerable.”

‘I’m Project-Oriented’

Simon acknowledges that he might have stumbled because “I’m project-oriented and not sufficiently finance-oriented,” although new-town financing was difficult in the early 1960s because many banks and insurance companies had not yet come to view real estate as an attractive investment.

Nonetheless, Simon declared that he was pleased about how his dream is taking shape.

“Quite a few things are unusual and work very, very well,” he said, citing the popularity of Reston’s leisure activities and success in reaching his “unprecedented goal” of building a community where people can come and stay.


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