The project’s mix of townhouse types and floor plans is targeted at such a wide range of buyers, the eventual residents will form an unusually diverse community of older couples downsizing, younger couples upsizing to start a family, single professionals, single-parent households and childless couples. This was a savvy business move because the broader the market appeal, the faster a development will sell out, but sales pace is not what drove this decision.
For many prospective buyers, Potomac Crest’s most distinctive feature initially will be the prices, which range from $291,900 for the smallest, 1,360-square-foot unit to $341,900 for the largest, which has about 50 percent more usable space. Compared with fee-simple townhouses of similar size in this area, these prices are significantly lower.
The prices and design that make this community a standout are the unexpected consequence of a need to meet a density requirement with townhouse sizes that would fit into the footprints of “shadow buildings” that made it through the planning approval process but were never built.
The story starts with Diane Cox Basheer, a think-outside-the-box developer who saw townhouse potential in an overlooked seven-acre parcel in Occoquan that was zoned for multi-family garden-style apartments. A 76-unit project had been approved for the parcel in 1972, but that deal fell through, and the property sat vacant for nearly four decades — “off the beaten path and behind a commercial area,” as Basheer described it — until her firm bought it in 2010.
The purchase included some unusual cost-saving provisions. When the earlier project was approved, Prince William did not levy impact fees on new housing projects. As long as Basheer’s townhouses stayed within the physical parameters of that project, the “no impact fee status” of the property would be retained. This required her to maintain the same density — she had to have 76 units — and the units had to fit into the same volume (length, depth and height) that the originally proposed garden-style apartment buildings would have occupied. Though it was a huge design challenge, sticking to the original playbook lowered the cost of each unit by $35,000 to $40,000, Basheer said.
Fitting the requisite number of townhouse units into the volumes of the earlier project had no obvious solution, Basheer said. Fourteen-foot-wide townhouses would produce the correct unit count, but this width precluded a garage, a non-starter in this market. A 16-foot width could accommodate a garage, but the number of units would be 10 short. Basheer’s directive to her architect, Smita Anand of KTGY Group in Vienna, was simple but succinct: “Be creative.”
Such an open-ended commission from a builder client is rare, Anand said. But as this project demonstrates, when you give your architect free rein, you will get unusual results.
In the D.C. area market, townhouse developments typically offer several plans that are similar in size and price. Anand designed two quite different townhouse types that substantially differ in these respects. Each group of eight units is a mix with four larger side-by-side townhouses in the middle and two smaller back-to-back townhouses at each end. Three of the four plans are shown as furnished models.
Of the three, I found the smallest 1,360-square-foot, $291,900-base priced Asbury the most appealing because it does not feel like a townhouse. The front-facing unit of the back-to-back pair, the Asbury sits over the single-car garages that belong to these units and overlooks the street. Its living/dining area is well proportioned at 21 feet wide by 12 feet deep, about the size of a family room in a typical four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot house in the D.C. area.
Two unusually big (nearly floor-to-ceiling) 6-feet-wide-by-8-feet-high window openings on the long front wall flood the space with natural light. The layout of the kitchen is efficient in that it is open to the adjacent living/dining area so that diners, cooks and kibitzers can easily converse. The master suite will accommodate a king-size bed; it also has a generously sized walk-in closet.
The nearly identically sized, 1,370-square-foot, $311,900 based-priced Bromley is the other back-to-back unit. I did not find the living/dining area as compelling — it is not as big, the windows are smaller and the kitchen projects into it — but there are many pluses. The main living area is on the ground level and opens onto a small back yard. The garage opens directly into the kitchen, so you don’t have to lug groceries up a flight of stairs every time you come home from the market. Both of these features are extremely unusual in a townhouse. The entire second floor is given over to a master suite with two good-size walk-in closets, and the third floor has two reasonably sized secondary bedrooms.
The other furnished model is the 2,040-square-foot, $341,900 Danforth. I found the spaces redundant. But a few modifications would add flexibility that could serve a family’s needs throughout the trajectory of their child-raising years and beyond.
The 17-foot-wide-by-40-foot-long second floor, which is completely open, would be more useful if a wall and French doors were installed between the family room area at one end and the living/dining and kitchen areas on the rest of the floor. When the kids are young and toys are everywhere in the living/dining/kitchen area, the back room can be a “quiet area” for the parents to decompress. When the kids are older and want help with homework, the back room can become a “study area” within earshot of the parent who’s in the kitchen fixing dinner. When the kids eventually leave the nest, the backroom can be used as a home office or a separate room for watching television.
The secondary bedrooms are small and awkwardly shaped. They would be more useful as one large bedroom for two kids, especially because most children want to share a bedroom when they are small. Eventually, as they grow older, one will want more privacy and could move to the ground floor if the “clubroom” in the model were enclosed. When the kids are young and rambunctious, this space could be a rec room, and it’s big enough that older teenagers in a larger family could share it.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com.