Reston at Fifty: Walkable, Sociable and Expensive

Nov 24, 2015

Yesterday, we shared with you the story of Tysons Corner – a fast-growing suburb in Northern Virginia, grappling with traffic, noise and sidewalks that don’t always connect.  Ironically, it’s evolving next to one of the nation’s first planned communities – a place designed to avoid those very problems and to offer instant community. 

Reston is the subject of a new documentary which had its debut at the Virginia Film Festival.  Sandy Hausman reports on why Reston was once a revolutionary place, and why it’s now a model for other suburbs.  

The village at Lake Anne
Credit Sandy Hausman

At rush hour, most suburbs in Northern Virginia sound like -- well -- rush hour as cars and buses make their way from home to office and office to home.

In Reston, Virginia, there’s a whole different vibe. Birds sing and neighbors stroll to nearby cafes or restaurants, savoring views of the autumn leaves, the water and wildlife.  Lake Anne is one of seven connected villages that comprise Reston -- villages planned by a visionary real estate man named Robert E. Simon.  His initials – R.E.S.—were the basis for the name Reston, where filmmaker Rebekah Wingert-Jabi grew up.

“I had friends throughout my neighborhood.  I knew all of my neighbors," she recalls. " I could step out and be in nature, right outside of my house.  I could walk to the village center, and meet people along the pathway walking down there, so it was a really good childhood.”

When she turned 13, her family moved from their Reston townhouse to a single family home in another suburb.  It was the American dream, but from then on, Wingert-Jabi was a woman in search of community.

“I traveled around the world.  I spent time in Jerusalem, in Beijing and Shanghai.  Even thought I was in these great, vibrant urban centers, I still felt something missing.  I still felt a pull back to Reston."

And no wonder.  Bob Simon, was a man in love with both nature and people.

“At one extreme, you have the hermit, and he gets his kicks out of solitude," Simon explains in the documentary called Another Way of Living.  "I’m anti-hermit.  I get my kicks out of people.  Children, relatives, neighbors.  That’s where you get happiness.”

In 1964, on land between Washington, D.C. and the new Dulles Airport, he created an alternative to suburban sprawl, building houses close together, while saving 1/7th of the land for walking trails, woods and water.  Inspired by post-college travels in Europe, he turned his back on traditional zoning that separated homes, shops and offices.

“The Italian hill towns were my great inspiration – very dense little villages surrounding a plaza," Simon explains.  "That’s the way you do it when you want to bring people closer together.”

Lake Anne is one of seven villages that make up Reston, Virginia.
Credit Sandy Hausman

He also decreed that his new villages would welcome people of all colors and faiths.  At a time when segregation was still the norm in Virginia, no bank would lend money for such a project, so Simon persuaded Gulf Oil, which had plenty of cash, to invest. 

Some people loved the concept.  The film features three African-Americans who were among the first to pack their bags and move to Reston.

“Everybody I knew said, ‘Why are you moving to Virginia?’  Aren’t you far enough south in D.C.," recalls one.

"Growing up in D.C. as I did, I never went across the bridge.  It wasn’t a good idea.  You could get hurt," says another.

"Reston felt different.  It was that bucolic, safe, wonderful place, and it was totally integrated," says a third.

A Caucasian woman says she gave up a house for an apartment in Reston.  "We moved, I unpacked and I could walk down to Lake Anne, and the kids would play," she says.  "There was a place to go and meet other people.  It was a wonderful spirit.”

Others were drawn to Reston’s swimming pool, golf course, community center, tennis courts and cultural activities.  

“There was always something happening on the plaza, the choral group, the players, the dancers.  I didn’t sleep a lot when I first moved here, because I might miss seeing something,” confesses one of the first to be part of this new community.

In short, Reston combined the best of city and country life.  What’s more, it was a fertile place for  feminism to take root .  Jane Wilhelm, former director of community relations in Reston, says Bob Simon  insisted on a new choice in childcare.

“He said, ‘Something needs to be done about the woman problem!’ and I said, ‘What is that?’  He said, 'Women have to do too much at home.  They need to be freer,' and so I want a full system of daycare.  His dream of Reston was fully realized the day that opened .”

But not everyone shared Simon’s vision.  Chuck Veatch,  a salesman for Reston, recalled:  

“We were making social breakthroughs and we were talking about a new way of living, and those were things that appealed only to people that got it."

"We got liberal, European-oriented people, but the locals didn’t walk into the place," says William Conklin, Reston's chief architect and planner.  "They thought it was crazy.”

Which meant that sales, at first, were sluggish, and in 1968 Gulf demanded full control of the property.  Bob Simon was fired.  Early residents  were shocked.

“When the community found out about it, all hell broke loose," recalls  Joe Stowers. "I thought, ‘How can they fire him?  He is Reston,'" says Beverly Koshom.

The new managers kept Simon’s basic concept in place, but built lots of town homes and apartments, offering special deals to newcomers, and they advertised.

In 1969, the developer exceeded its goal, bringing in over a thousand new families. Today, the community is thriving.  Money Magazine ranked it number seven on a list of the Best Places to Live in America, but documentary maker Rebekah Wingert-Jabi says its future is in some doubt.

“Reston is 50 years old now.  There’s a lot that is being redeveloped.  It’s a very attractive place to live.  We also have the Metro rail that came into Reston in 20014, so what we’re seeing with that is an increase in housing prices.”

Still, residents remain committed to a multi-cultural community where wealthy people can live side-by-side with working-class families.  Bob Simon, who moved away after he was sacked, returned 20 years later to live out his life in Reston.  He died there this year at the age of 101.