D.C. real estate charms: A too-tiny balcony of one’s own


Brandi Dunnegan outside her condo near the convention center in the District. “I had to have a balcony,” she said. “Even if it was small.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Now is the summer of our discontent, now is the long holiday weekend of our tiny balconies.

Put a grill on one. Or don’t. Washington won’t let you, anyway, because of the D.C. Fire Prevention Code Outdoor Grill Safety Amendment Act of 1990: No open-flame cooking devices within 3,048 millimeters of a building.

Put out a cafe table and two folding chairs, the kind that intermittently pinch the skin on the back of your thigh, like an off-brand torture device. Put a . . . put an electric tiki torch? Put a swing on it! Put a tiny dog on that tiny balcony and then spend the rest of the party worrying it’s going to fall through the slats.

Nothing fits on a tiny balcony, not even the dreams you had for it: Breezy breakfasts, endless summer entertaining, homemade iced lattes, HGTV “after” photos. The dream is holding a cocktail while claiming one’s humble 28-square-foot piece of fresh air.

In a land of $3,000-a-month rents poured into new luxury-loaded complexes, the tiny balcony is all that city-living Americans have to plant flags on.

* * *

“Okay.”

Zach Drouin takes a yellow tape measure, latches it to the iron rungs of his tiny balcony, and pulls it to the door. “It’s 52 inches deep. And a half.” That’s more than four feet, which actually doesn’t seem all that petite.

“But,” explains Zach, “here is the problem.” The problem is the double-doors that connect the tiny balcony with the one-bedroom apartment. The problem is that both of these doors swing out, onto the tiny balcony, and the clearance that they leave is — Zach engages the tape measure — “only 21 inches.”

This means that he could get a cafe table out onto the tiny balcony, but then couldn’t close the doors, ever again. Or he could forgo the furniture and close the doors, but then his guests would just be standing on empty cement.

“I like the idea of three people being able to sit comfortably,” offers his wife, Elle. She is a financial adviser. He works in IT and Web development. They moved into this shiny apartment complex, the Yale West, last year when their rental in Logan Circle got too expensive. Now they are near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and the new Safeway, where they could buy lots of food to serve on their balcony, if their balcony weren’t so ridonculously small.

“I keep looking for the well­designed table that folds down,” Zach says, maybe something that attaches directly to the railing. “The Murphy bed of patio furniture.”

He pulls out his iPad and searches for such a table. There is nothing, at least nothing nice: just a few clip-on trays that look like they belong in airplanes or nursing homes.

“If I could just have a place to sit,” Elle says. “Just to sit and read a book or a magazine.”

Entire compounds of tiny balconies have sprung up around Washington: the new developments in Columbia Heights, and in NoMa, and down by the ballpark, nothing but bicycles and dying basil and deflating exercise balls left outside of apartments that don’t have enough storage space. According to a research report from real estate investment service Marcus & Millichap, some 11,500 apartments are expected to be completed in the region this year. It seems as though each of them, in addition to STAINLESS STEEL APPLIANCES!!!, also advertise balconies, which are inevitably little.

* * *

“Wait, are you talking about a real balcony, or a Juliet balcony?” asks Tom Spier, a broker with GreenLine Real Estate in the District. The Juliet faux balconies are those narrow landing strips in front of windows, 10 or 12 inches wide, just enough space to wherefore-art-thou, or maybe to Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. “The Juliet ones are sometimes a teaser to the point of being a disappointment,” Spier says. “All you can do with it is open the door and not fall out.”

With a proper balcony, however, he says, “if it’s big enough to put a cafe table with a glass of wine on it, it’s as important as granite countertops.” Aspirational indoor/outdoor living.

“We’re a town that just likes to go outside,” says Julie Smith, the president of Bozzuto Management, which runs 140 buildings, mostly in the Washington area. “The rooftop restaurant decks, the open patios — they’re always jammed.”

Entire industries have sprung up around the tiny balcony, by the same people who tout an endless array of nesting products (bowls, cups, tables) for tiny apartments. Watch designer Isabelle LaRue’s YouTube series “Engineer Your Space” as she decorates and redecorates her itsy kingdom.

“I’m going to transform it into an outdoor oasis complete with a lounge area and a garden,” she confidently tells the camera in Episode 4, and it seems completely reasonable until her instructions start incorporating words like “miter box.” Lady. I have a tiny balcony. Do you think I have a wood shop?

The tiny balcony is a metaphor for things not working out quite as you had hoped they would. Or for not being quite grown up yet. Or for making do. The tiny balcony is thus a perfect place to celebrate America, on this Independence Day weekend. Light a sparkler, which is not allowed on your tiny balcony, and ignore the cigarette smoke wafting up from the downstairs neighbors.

* * *

“I had to have a balcony,” Brandi Dunnegan says. “Even if it was small.”

She, too, lives a few blocks from the convention center, in a condo that she bought this fall after deciding to forego space in Silver Spring for convenience downtown. Now it is decorated — a loose term, she insists — with lanterns and an upscale beanbag, the kind that you’d buy at World Market or T.J. Maxx.

Tiny balconies (like this one) always seem to have a Buddha statue sitting on them. This is why: “The Buddha stops all of the bad energy,” explains Dunnegan, who owns a boutique marketing agency, and who also owns a tiny Buddha. She waves her hand toward the distant traffic of New York Avenue. That bad energy.

“The other day I was out here and I was thinking, ‘What do I want from this balcony?’ ” Dunnegan muses. She went to Ikea and thought about purchasing one of those mosquito nets, for privacy, but she didn’t want to be the lady with the mosquito net hanging from her balcony.

It remains a work in progress. She hasn’t done much entertaining on it yet. But maybe she could. With the right decor. Maybe she needs to go back to T.J. Maxx. But it could work. It could. “We would just have to take turns,” she says. “Three people at a time.”

Oh say, can you see?

Yes. Yes, we can see. The view up here is divine. It’s the square footage that’s the issue.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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