By Patty Nicoson
Robert E. Simon was born in New York City on April 10, 1914 into a family that had emigrated from Germany. His father developed a successful real estate management business. Bob graduated from Harvard University and took over the family business at age 21 when his father died suddenly. After several decades of managing Carnegie Hall, Bob sold it in 1961 and invested the proceeds to purchase 6,750 acres of land in Fairfax County not too far from the Washington Dulles International Airport, which was then being planned and was soon to be under construction.
Bob’s father had worked on the planning of Radburn, an early attempt to provide an attractive, open space and pedestrian-oriented community that accommodated the car. This influenced Bob’s lifelong interest in planning and in the creation of community.
Planning for Reston began in the early 1960s. Reston gets its name from Bob’s initials R-E-S ton. In creating Reston, Bob’s major goals were:
That the widest choice of opportunities be made available for the full use of leisure time. A wide range of cultural and recreational facilities were to be made available, as well as an environment of privacy.
That it would be possible for anyone to remain in a single neighborhood throughout his or her life by providing the fullest range of housing styles and prices serving various income levels at the four different stages of a household’s life.
That the importance and dignity of each individual be the focal point for all planning. It was the first open community in Virginia, open to people of all races. The Commonwealth of Virginia had enforced segregation in housing and educational facilities. Today, Reston is a vibrant, multi-cultural community with an annual festival that celebrates this diversity.
That people be able to live and work in the same community.
That beauty — structural and natural — is a necessity of the good life and should be fostered. Natural beauty is a hallmark of the Reston community, as is high quality architecture and urban design.
Two community design review boards and a set of covenants governing the appearance of structures have helped the community maintain an appealing physical environment.
The final of the original goals was that since Reston was being developed for private enterprise, in order to be completed as conceived it must also, of course, be a financial success. It wasn’t for Bob Simon since he was fired by Gulf Reston, but over the decades the concept of mixing uses in a community has come to the fore in planning circles. The mixed-use Reston Town Center is the forerunner of the walkable urban environment that is now desired by employers, employees and developers, as well as residents. The Town Center has proven to be an enormous financial success.
Bob Simon’s vision for Reston emphasizes the dignity of its residents and their quality of life. The community was designed as a place where you could live, work, and play because of the mix of uses being provided: housing, retail, office space and other places of employment, worship, parks and other recreational amenities, and schools.
Simon hired the architectural and planning firm of Conklin + Rossant to do the Master Plan for Reston. In 1962, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the Residential Planned Community (RPC) zoning that made Reston possible by providing the ability to build a mix of uses within an area and the flexibility to respond to market conditions over time.
Construction began on Lake Anne and the Lake Anne Village Center in 1963. In 1964, the first industrial tenant came to Reston and the first residents moved in.
In 1967, Gulf Reston bought Bob Simon’s development interest. In 1973, Reston’s first office building, the International Center on Sunrise Valley Drive, was dedicated and the nearly 1,000,000 square-foot U.S. geological survey headquarters opened. In 1979, the Reston Community Center opened, funded by a special tax district. Also in 1979, Mobil Land bought Reston, which by then had grown to 30,000 residents and 49 community businesses. In 1996, Reston Land sold its holdings to Westerra, which was renamed Westbrook Communities.
In 1990, the first phase of Reston Town Center opened and was hailed for its innovative urban design of retail, hotel, and office uses served by a grid of privately owned streets in contrast to the suburban shopping malls that had been developed around the country. In 1997, Reston Town Center added more shops, office buildings and high rise residential towers.
Today, Reston is a community of 62,000 residents and 68,000 employees. It is possible to live and work in Reston and more than one third of the residents do so. It is also possible to live in Reston without a vehicle. The plan for Reston with its arterial, collector, and local streets facilitates transit services. The Reston Internal Bus System (RIBS) provides transportation within the community, but it now links the recently opened (July 26, 2014) Metrorail station at Wiehle-Reston East to the town center and the commercial buildings along Sunrise Valley and Sunset Hills Roads.
Phase 2 of the Silver line will have two additional stops at the Reston Town Center and Herndon stations.
When Bob Simon returned to live in Reston in 1993, he became very active in the community including serving on the Board of the Reston Association (RA); testifying in support and opposition to development projects; and frequently writing op ed pieces and letters to the editor in the local newspapers. He also worked to ensure the completetion of a number of major community elements. He spurred interest and support for the development of the Nature House in south Reston on the 75-acre nature preserve. The RA had for many years run programs and camp activities on the property, but these had been limited by the lack of an all-weather facility. With his active encouragement, residents began a campaign to raise funds for construction of the Nature House. It has been a great community resource and is used by RA for its many educational programs and community events.
When the Reston Community Center opened in 1979 in the Hunter Mill Village shopping center, Bob Simon recognized that there was a need for an additional facility to serve the north side of Reston. He purchased space in the Lake Anne condominium and rented it to RA. A variety of programs are offered there and its community room is used for activities both public and private.
Bob Simon (and his wife Cheryl) were active participants in the planning process for the redevelopment of the Lake Anne Village Center and were involved in the selection of the development team that won approval to do the redevelopment and expansion of the center.
Fairfax County had amended its Comprehensive Plan in 2001 to reflect the arrival of bus rapid transit and rail in the Dulles corridor. Recognizing that these planning recommendations were out of date in 2009, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins appointed a task force to update the Reston Master Plan. Its recommendations were approved by the Fairfax County Board in February 2014. Bob Simon was an active and effective participant in the four-year process making sure that the plan respected and built on his original principals. Design excellence and environmental sustainability remained key elements, as well as diversity of housing types for all incomes. He made sure that the plan language encouraged plazas, the traditional focal point of communities in the transit station areas and village centers as these areas develop and redevelop.
Bob remained active in many of the planning issues affecting the community until his death in September 2015. He was involved with efforts to secure a performing arts facility, a new recreation facility, and the redevelopment of Reston Town Center north and the Tall Oaks Shopping Center. Over the years, he had the ear of Reston’s Congressmen and state and local officials and was an effective lobbyist for Reston’s plans and projects.
Bob Simon’s Reston has had a worldwide influence on community planning with visitors coming from around the world to see this special community. Bob served as a mentor to countless planners, architects, and the residents and students in Reston. His wisdom, enthusiasm, and dedication to the community of Reston and its people will be sorely missed.
Patty Nicoson serves as President of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association.