Proprietary Communities

Robert E. Simon, Jr., RIP

Reston's founder dies at age 101.


Robert E. Simon, Jr., a major figure in the "new towns" movement of the 1960s and '70s, passed away this week at age 101. The new towns were an unlikely-sounding marriage of '60s utopianism and profit-seeking suburban development, and Simon was the man who in 1964 founded one of the most resilient communities to emerge from the movement: the Virginia town of Reston, named for his initials.

I published a piece in Reason about the new towns back in 2003, with a focus on Reston and Columbia, Maryland. Reston, I wrote,

Reston peace
Reston Museum

is a private community, not unlike a condominium—except it has a population of 60,000. It is divided into villages, which are in turn divided into cluster associations (and contain condos, apartment buildings, and noncluster houses as well). Between them, these constitute a system of government that is part homeowners association and part community land trust. Residents whose property does not meet local standards can be penalized: The Reston Association has the legal authority, by voluntary covenant, to tow away cars, cut lawns, or otherwise compel errant homeowners to conform, and then to charge them for the work it has done. The same body is responsible for maintaining Reston's 1,000-plus acres of open space, which include lakes, parks, and nature trails….

[The town] was built with liberal social ideals in mind. Its founder, after all, is a lifelong Democrat whose parents voted for the Socialist stalwart Norman Thomas. That said, Simon says he doesn't understand why such a fuss was made over his project. "I looked at what we were doing as logical and with ample precedent rather than as social change," he told me in an interview last year. "I was really astonished at all the attention it got." Some of the local real estate brokers warned potential buyers away from Reston on the grounds that it was "communist," Simon reports. "It was the black thing, of course—the integration," he says. [Reston was unsegregated from the start, while Jim Crow ruled the rest of Virginia.] "And the townhouses. There were no townhouses in the boonies until Reston."…

General Electric briefly planned to build 20 such towns around the country, and it seriously considered acquiring Reston as part of the project. It changed its corporate mind when one executive blackballed the purchase on the grounds that Reston was integrated. This scuttled the whole project, since G.E. wasn't about to embark on the P.R. disaster of building 20 exclusively white communities.

In 1967, as Reston was struggling with some serious financial problems, Gulf Oil took it over. (Now you know the answer to the trivia question, "What idealistic '60s community was bought up by a big oil company?") Smith was squeezed out not long after that, and the new owners modified his vision in a variety of ways. That didn't destroy Simon's interest in the new towns, but his next project would be mired in bureaucracy:

With the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1970, the government began underwriting new towns as well. These were built by private entrepreneurs, but the feds offered financing, and with money, naturally, came strings. Simon, fired from Reston in 1968, was briefly associated with one of those projects, a New York community called Riverton. "The relationship with the government was really hideous," he recalls, "because the people administering it were constantly dreaming up things that they thought would be fun." An example: The feds decided that every new town would have to present a budget for the next five years, with the first year broken down into monthly budgets. If any of the items in the budget deviated from the projection by more than 15 percent, the entire forecast had to be done again. The practical result, Simon reports, was that "every developer had to do a five-year projection every month."

Simon continued to work in real estate after the Riverton flop, and in the '90s he returned to Reston; when I interviewed him there he lived in a high-rise overlooking an artificial lake. When he died he still made his home in the town he founded.

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  1. OT, but did I miss the post about the newest worst person in the world according to the internet, Martin Shkreli and Turing Pharmaceuticals AG?

    Holy balls people are losing their minds over this guy.

    1. I believe Ron is working on a post about Shkreli. In the meantime, I found this item interesting.

      1. Looking forward to it. There is WAY too much noise with this story, and I’m afraid the noise is obscuring the absolutely essential and life-saving work done by for-profit pharmaceuticals (yes, I know Turing really isn’t inventing anything, but instead are working the market to maximize profit on obscure and older generic drugs).

        1. I don’t know, it seems pretty clear-cut: Shkreli is an opportunist exploiting the current regulatory environment to make a profit. I doubt it is more nuanced than that.

        2. I’m having a hard time coming up with a justification for that kind of price increase. My philosophy doesn’t typically allow morality to be part of the equation when discussing prices (I usually take the stance of whatever the market will bear), but the move by Turing is pretty jacked up and will affect many people’s lives and health.

        3. Working the market, or working a government loophole to rip off insurance companies? What Turing is doing looks like rent-seeking to me.

        4. Really? Cuz it looks more like he uses bullshit IP laws to fuck sick people over.

      2. Dayam. Looks like a poster child against government favors and good intentions.

      3. The second sentence of the article makes me doubt the writer’s knowledge of anything related to markets, pricing, business, or anything else not covered in his English lit classes:

        Shkreli, you may recall, was the founder of Retrophin, a company whose business model was to buy up obscure orphan generic drugs (such as Thiola) and immediately raise their price by, say, twenty-fold.

        How was this accomplished? Did he drive trucks up to every maker of his targeted generic drugs, fill them up and store them in his hoarder lair? Was is more like “11 Harrowhouse” with pills instead of diamonds? Did he send commandos out to any plant that dared to make his generic targeted drugs?

    2. I’m holding off on judgment until some of the shit stops hitting the fans and I can see more clearly the logic behind his decision. Often odd things happen in business that don’t necessarily fit the absurdly Leftist scripts of Gawker and Twitter.

      1. A large part of the logic is: the FDA allows certain very old drugs to be grandfathered; everyone knows that they’re safe and effective, but they didn’t follow the modern approval process. If a company shepherds one of these grandfathered drugs through the approval process, then they get a period of exclusivity as though it were a newly patented drug. So that’s one strategy.

        Another one is making it difficult for other generics manufacturers to get a sufficient supply of the drug in order to demonstrate that their copy is substantially similar, which the FDA requires.

        A handful of the others have to do with drugs that are just very low volume so it may not be worth the trouble for other generics makers to step in and copy it. For the most part, though, it’s about finding ways to use the FDA process to lock out competitors even though the drug is far past its patented lifespan.

        1. “…For the most part, though, it’s about finding ways to use the FDA process to lock out competitors even though the drug is far past its patented lifespan.”

          So the Elon Musk method of business success; read the regs and game ’em!

          1. Or, all the billionaires.

        2. I appreciate the feedback, cousin.

    3. I made up my mind after I saw his dude-brah pose in a link someone posted this morning.

    4. As I posted in the other place, Shkreli sounds like an asshole, but ultimately this is much ado about nothing. A bunch of people on the internet who have never done jack for sick people are complaining about someone who is doing something and making money off it. In the end, someone will start making generics, and people will buy those instead. This could even be the impetus for the FDA to improve the rules, like making it easier for people to make generics. (From a purely libertarian POV, I will point out that if Turing was leaving money on the table, then this act actually improves market efficiency, but I’m aware I won’t make too many friends anywhere else by saying that.)

  2. the Riverton flop

    I was always interested in architecture and planning stuff from when I was a kid and it’s saying something that I had never heard of this project despite growing up in the city where it is located until my later high school years.

  3. Interesting, I used to work in Reston.

    1. A Mr. Flanders working in a Reston brims with plausibility.

  4. Very interesting, it sounds like quite an accomplishment. Thanks for the notice, Jesse; I’m bookmarking that 2003 article for later.

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  6. I grew up in the next town over from Reston. I’ve always known it was a planned community, but until now, I had no idea where it had gotten its name..

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