Reston is an interesting place. I never know whether to praise it or revile it. Its got it’s ups and downs, like most places, they're just kind of extreme here. We've got our greenery and tasteful commercial areas, but then we've also got our totalitarian communist regime
and our airborne hemorrhagic fevers
. I guess I'll let you decide...
Reston is located in Fairfax County in northern Virginia, about 20 miles west of Washington D.C. Its immediate neighbors are the towns of Herndon and Vienna. It lies not a few miles from the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Washington Dulles International Airport lies about 8 miles to the west. In fact, the Dulles Access Road plows right through Reston, a long-time impediment to the town's construction, but I'm getting a head of myself.
Reston began life as a thought worming its way around in the mind of one Dr. Carl Adolph Max Wiehle in 1896. Wiehle had come into the possession of some 'uge tracts o' land, 7,000 acres or so, bought from the previous owners for a song. Wiehle had got it into his head to build a town, probably the most common yearning for people with land to spare and no particular interest in farming. So Carl set about laying down roads, digging lakes and constructing some buildings, then he ran into a major obstacle: he died.
Wiehle’s land was bought by a dentist from the next town over with ambitions that were somewhat less grand. He sold off the building materials to the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, which ran through the property. Reston’s only denizens for the next 30 years or so were cows, chickens and dairy farmers. In 1927, a goodly chunk of the land was purchased by A. Smith Bowman, an enterprising fellow who saw the in the 21st Amendment a tremendous business opportunity and elected to build a distillery there in 1934. Until the end of World War II, Bownman’s Sunset Hills Farm churned out Virginia Gentleman Bourbon by the truckload, at which point the troops came home en masse and 7,200 acres of suburban land became a veritable goldmine.
The Bowmans adopted Wiehle’s original plan for building a town after learning of the impending construction of the Capital Beltway, a large shopping center and Dulles Airport, all within the 10 miles of their land. However, building a town is apparently not as easy as it sounds, and the Bowmans’ plans foundered. The chief impediments were the lack of an adequate sewer system and the county’s reluctance to improve upon it, as well as the aforementioned Dulles Access Road. The property changed hands a couple times in the next year, and wound up in the hands of one Robert E. Simon, the owner and CEO of the Hercer Corporation, a prestigious, New York-based company that owned Carnegie Hall, among other prominent and profitable real estate ventures.
Simon envisioned a place where one could live comfortably, have easy access to commercial areas and parks and not have to drive for miles and miles to get to work: a New York cum Yellowstone National Park cum Levittown sort of idea. Thus, in 1962, was born the first planned community of its kind, though many would follow. (cue ominous music)
Reston has since become a bustling, self-contained, little universe. Simon was forced to sell in 1967 due to financial troubles, but the town has remained true to his original vision. Its ownership has passed from Gulf Oil to its current owner, Mobil, in the intervening years. The town is now home to around 65,000 and has a thriving commercial sector. It is home to Oracle Corp., the United States Geological Survey, the Internet Engineering Task Force secretariat and the Internet Society, and onetime home of AOL. Siebel, Accenture, Apple and the CIA all have major facilities there. In 1989, Reston had a strain of Ebola named after it. Why, do you ask? The same reason every other strain of Ebola got named: the first outbreak was there. (Don’t worry, though. Yes, it’s airborne, but it doesn’t kill humans, just monkeys). Read Ebola Reston or Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone for more about that story. That brings us just about up to present day, but you may still be asking what the big deal about Reston was. Well then, this next section is just what you’re looking for.
The Big Idea
Reston is, as I mentioned before, a planned community. It’s amazing that they were able to get away with this during the 1960s. Reston is, in essence, a little piece of communism within a stone’s throw of the American capital. Everyone living in Reston must be a part of the Reston Homeowner’s Association and pay HOA dues and every home in Reston must adhere to a strict Covenant. This is to ensure that the rest of the houses in your neighborhood won’t drive your property values down. That sounds nice enough, but in practice it’s really quite fiendish. What this means is your door must be the same color as your shutters, no flamingos in your front yard and no “little pink houses for you and me”. All fixtures on your house must be in one of the earth-tone colors on the Association’s list. This includes basketball hoops affixed to your garage. In essence, no self expression, and you’ve gotta mow your lawn.
My girlfriend worked for the Covenants Office for one summer and I heard some interesting stories. My personal favorite was when the kindly, middle-aged ladies of the Reston Gestapo were sent out to inform a Reston denizen that they were in violation of the Covenant because they had painted their house with the wrong brand of Apache White paint. I’ll grant them one thing, however, the property values are very, VERY high.
Reston’s other main tenet is the inclusion of greenery. Viewed from above, Reston is barely visible for the trees. There are myriad walking paths that wind their ways through the town’s picturesque woods. Reston is spotted with small artificial lakes named after the likes of Thoreau and Audubon, which make the town all the more picturesque and drive real estate values through the roof. When Reston was founded, Simon made a deal with the county stating that 10 acres of parkland would be maintained for every thousand residents. That makes about 650 acres, nowadays, but I’d be willing to bet there’s more than that.
First and foremost in most people’s minds is Reston Town Center. This is the commercial center of the town and, I must confess, they did a beautiful job with it. There is a main drag that is usually closed to traffic, lined with movie theaters, clothing stores, cafes, upscale restaurants and specialty stores. The tastefully done central plaza features a beautiful fountain and a small open area which is used for public performances and, in the winter, is converted to an ice-skating rink. It’s easy to while away an evening wandering about, seeing a movie, or grabbing a bite to eat. The nearby Spectrum Shopping Center also provides larger shopping chains, like Best Buy, Harris Teeter, Barnes & Noble and Office Depot.
One of the other hallmarks of Reston is the famed McTacoHut. This quaint little spot lies along the old railroad tracks and boasts, you guessed it, a McDonalds, a Taco Bell and a Pizza Hut all on the same grounds! Heaven on earth, huh? I’d also recommend stopping by Philadelphia Mike’s, McCormick and Shmick’s, or Simply Grill if you’re looking for good eats.
Reston is sprinkled with elementary schools named after astronauts, all of which filter into Langston Hughes Middle School and South Lakes High School. Terraset Elementary School was fairly renowned when it was built, reliant as it was on solar technology as well as being architecturally innovative. Reston’s public schools are really not up to the standards of most of Fairfax County’s, but this still places it within the top 1% of schools in the country. One thing that Reston’s schools offer which is markedly absent in most of the county is cultural diversity. Reston is a very multiethnic community and is a far better place for it. You have most likely heard of at least one person to graduate from South Lakes: Grant Hill, supposed to be the next Michael Jordan until he became plagued by injury-problems, was a Restonian. The other famous sports star from Reston is Alan Webb, holder of the high school record for the fastest mile run. The only other South Lakes graduate you may have heard of is Eddie Timanus, the blind Jeopardy! Champion.
The Reston Community Center offers numerous classes and programs which are available to residents. They also host plays presented regularly by the Reston Community Players. Also available to dues-paying citizens are the community tennis courts and swimming pools. If this all seems like good, old-fashioned middle-aged fun, you’re right. There’s not too much for young folk to do. More often than not, teenagers wind up hanging around parking lots chatting until they’re chased away by rent-a-cops.
The Final Word
All in all, Reston isn’t too bad. It feels much less commercial than most of the rest of northern Virginia. You feel like you’re not a part of the sprawl. It is, however, quite boring at times. Robert E. Simon’s vision is alive and well. Reston is everything he had hoped it would be. If you’ve got the money, you can get everything you could possibly need or want after a short drive and the place is undeniably beautiful. So, unless you desperately want pink flamingos in your front yard, it’s a good place to live.