Where We Live: Colonial Village

Lea Winerman FTWP/PHOTO BY LEA WINERMAN FTWP - Colonial Village residents trade some modern amenities, like in-unit washer/dryers, for period charm.

When Amy Franklin, 30, bought her one-bedroom condominium in Arlington County’s Colonial Village seven years ago, she found the neighborhood’s pretty 1930s buildings and graceful expanses of lawn pleasingly familiar.

“I was 23, just out of college, and it felt like a college campus,” she says.

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Other Colonial Village residents say the community, with more than 50 acres of red-brick buildings linked by paths that wind among plentiful trees and landscaped lawns, is “parklike,” “serene” and an “oasis” in Arlington’s busy and increasingly high-rise Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

“The location can’t be beat: It’s closer to downtown than parts of Northwest [Washington], and you can walk to two Metros,” says Bob Somers, 54, a government attorney who has lived there since 1992. “But what makes it so nice is the parklike setting. They would never build like that now.”

As it turns out, people have always clamored to live in Colonial Village. The community was built as a rental complex by developer Gustave Ring between 1935 and 1940 to help house the federal workers who descended on Washington under the New Deal. It was the first apartment complex backed by a loan from the new Federal Housing Authority, and with its sturdy buildings, green space and proximity to the District, it was an instant hit. When the first phase was completed in 1935, 10,000 people added their names to the waiting list for one of 276 apartments, according James M. Goode’s book “ Best Addresses ,” a history of Washington apartment buildings.

Mobil Land Development bought the property in 1977 and eventually converted most of the buildings to condominiums. Today, it is split into three condo association areas (118 buildings that make up Colonial Village I, II and III), 10 co-op and 22 rental buildings. Altogether it comprises about 1,000 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units.

Many of the Colonial Village buildings are part of a county historic district, and the county is now considering including the Colonial Village Shopping Center in a historic district as well. The strip shopping center was built at the same time as the apartments and houses the popular Ray’s Hell Burger eatery, a Mexican restaurant, an ABC store and several other businesses.

Eighty years ago, many of the residents of Colonial Village were families. But today the relatively small apartments — none with more than one bathroom — appeal mainly to singles and couples, residents say. On a weekday evening, the grounds do, in fact, feel a bit like a college campus, as 20- and 30-somethings jog, walk their dogs or head out to one of the dozens of bars and restaurants within walking distance in nearby Rosslyn, Courthouse or Clarendon.

“It’s a mixture of older residents who have been here for years and young working professionals,” says Kurt Baumgardner, 30, a government consultant who moved to Colonial Village from just down the road in Virginia Square two months ago. “There aren’t a lot of people in between.”

Baumgardner and his girlfriend moved to Colonial Village because their previous building didn’t allow dogs. Desire for a dog seems to bring many residents to Colonial Village; Bob Somers moved there 20 years ago for the same reason. And, he says, dogs can provide social glue in a community that can be somewhat transient.

“Many of the neighbors I’ve gotten to know best are fellow dog owners,” says Somers. Otherwise, he says, getting to know those around you can be tough, as many residents don’t stay long.

Many of those rotating residents rent. About 45 percent of the residents of Colonial Village II are renters, says Blake Surbey, 34, the president of the condominium association, with the rest owner-occupied. Surbey, in fact, is renting out his condo right now. He bought it about six years ago and lived there for several years, but when he started law school in 2008, he moved across town to be closer to his classes. Now that he has graduated, he and his wife are planning to move back.

“We love the area,” he says. He has also stayed active in the community, helping to bring in a new management company — the first management change, he says, since the condominium conversion more than two decades ago — and working with other board members on recent updates such as redoing the hallways, adding electronic door locks and bringing in FiOS Internet and television service.

Despite the updates, Colonial Village residents do face some inconveniences that come with an 80-year-old neighborhood. The Colonial revival-style buildings have period charm, but they lack modern conveniences such as in-unit washer-dryers and designated parking spaces. Several buildings share each communal laundry room. And though some parts of Colonial Village have parking lots, for many residents the only option is to get a county permit and fight for street spaces.

“The parking is a nightmare,” says Somers. But, he says, the neighborhood’s advantages outweigh its drawbacks.

“I think [the buildings] have personality and character,” he says. “And also very solid construction. There’s a foot of concrete between the floors; you don’t hear noise. They’re relics from the past, but they’re good relics.”

There’s another advantage to doing without a doorman and a washer-dryer: the price tag. Colonial Village one-bedroom condominiums are listed for sale in the high $200,000s, less than many newer units nearby.

“Dollar for dollar, it is the best value in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor,” says Edward Berenbaum, the principal broker at the Century 21 Redwood Realty office next door. “It’s really the best value along the Orange Line in Arlington.”

Lea Winerman is a freelance writer.

 
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