Two pioneering towns face growth milestone

Planned areas try to age with grace

July 09, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

RESTON, Va. - Niceties in this planned community in suburban Washington make it something of a parallel world to Columbia, Md.: Paved pathways loop through preserved open space, and residents collect their mail at communal boxes.

Less utopian aspects of life compare as well: Fast-paced growth has in part overtaken the founder's original vision, and the absence of real government has contributed to a vacuum of leadership.

"We sometimes spend a lot of time wagging our tongues," says Tom Grubisich, chairman of a committee looking at the long-term future of Reston, which was founded in 1964, three years before Columbia. "But how much do we actually get done, and does this lack of real power and responsibility breed a kind of government by talk rather than government by action?"

The challenges facing Reston are, in many ways, the challenges facing Columbia. At issue is how a polished community once on the cutting edge can grow old gracefully and avoid becoming just another burb.

Vicky Wingert, who retired last month as the top official at the Reston Association, the homeowners group that is a counterpart to the Columbia Association, calls the two planned communities "barometers of the future."

"Columbia and Reston are going to be going through the throes of this before anyone else because we're the older communities of this type," she says.

An estimated 42 million Americans live in more than 200,000 community associations, according to the Community Associations Institute. Reston, which has 62,000 residents, and Columbia, which has grown to 87,000, are two of the largest homeowners groups in country.

Reston - which took its name from the initials of founder Robert E. Simon Jr. and an abbreviated version of "town" - began as 6,750-acre Sunset Hills Farm. Simon bought it with his family's share of the proceeds of the sale of Carnegie Hall. A consultant suggested the name "Simon City," but he hated it, so his wife and mother came up with Reston.

In a twist whose significance he didn't understand until later, Simon met with James W. Rouse, Columbia's founder, in his search for financing. Rouse was head of a mortgage company at the time.

"He was horrified," says Simon, 86, a member of the Reston Association's governing board. "In retrospect, I realize why his color changed from flesh tone to green, because he was in the business of collecting land for Columbia and thought he would be first on the mark."

Like Rouse, Simon had a vision for a socially, economically and racially diverse community with a commitment to open space and a distaste for urban sprawl. Simon continues to have flashes of that distaste, even when he drives through certain developments in the town he created.

"This has no dignity," he says of one such development in Reston Town Center, which, with its vast parking lots and big-box chain stores, isn't anything like he envisioned it. Town Center was supposed to be like Georgetown, with street blocks lined with residences and a few neighborhood stores. It was also to have a "dense" urban core with mixed-use buildings.

Down the hill behind the Best Buy and the Macaroni Grille - which could easily have been transplanted from Columbia - he points to one town home in particular: "That, I think, is an abortion, that gray against the brick!"

Manhattan and back

Simon, who can talk about Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura as easily as he can European architecture, left Reston in 1967 after being fired as president of the development division of Gulf Oil Corp. that served as the financial "godfather" of the project. Gulf installed a president, and Simon moved to Manhattan.

In 1993, 26 years and two developers later, he came back and eventually won a seat on the Reston Association board of directors. He has come to be known for speaking up - obstinately and passionately - about just about anything.

"There are those who think he's like the father that abandoned the family and then came back in his old age to have the family embrace him," Wingert says. "And there are those that truly really honor him and feel very indebted to him for the vision that he had and what he created here."

Now that Reston and Columbia are more than 30 years old, their emphasis has shifted from new development to sustainability and revitalization. Simon lives on the 13th floor of a high-rise in Lake Anne, one of the oldest parts of Reston, which is named after his former wife. The Reston Association has focused much of its renewal effort at improving the village's aging housing stock, though officials say more work and cooperation are needed.

Compared to the other village centers in Reston - and some of the recently remodeled shopping plazas in Columbia - Lake Anne is intimate. The pharmacy doubles as a post office, so customers buying stamps stand in line in an aisle displaying hair care and skin products.

One of the things that Simon admires most about the way Rouse developed Columbia is the community centers that anchor every village.

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