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N.Va. Neighbors Hoping To Raze, Rebuild, Profit

70 Homeowners Near Vienna Metro See Riches in 1,000-Unit Replacement

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2004; Page A01

Poplar Terrace, a Vienna area enclave of 70 houses with big yards and towering trees, looks like a pleasant place to live. But to Pete Young and most of his neighbors, there is much more to this subdivision they call home:

The potential for millions in profits.

"Like it or not, this is the way the free market system works," says Pete Young, 62, a leader in the neighborhood association. "It's about progress." (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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In a reflection of Washington's surging home prices and the allure of cashing in, Young and nearly all his neighbors have banded together to form a real estate collective that proposes to raze their 40-acre community and realize above-market profits from its redevelopment as a cluster of more than 1,000 condominiums and townhouses.

Other small suburban neighborhoods across the Washington area have been similarly demolished by developers and rebuilt with more homes, particularly as housing demand has soared. But what distinguishes the Poplar Terrace "assemblage," as such amassing of lots is known, is that it is relatively large and that the deal originated not with real estate brokers or developers, but with keen-eyed owners.

"Like it or not, this is the way the free-market system works," said Young, 62, who has pursued the deal as a leader in the neighborhood association. "It's about progress."

The homeowners group, meeting in a church, has initiated and struck a deal with builder Centex Homes. Under terms of the agreement, the home builder will buy the individual properties at relatively high prices, provided that Fairfax County can be persuaded to permit more homes in the neighborhood.

Though some surrounding neighborhoods are poised to protest, Fairfax planners have called for more development near Metro stops, and Poplar Terrace sits about a half-mile west of the Vienna station.

If all goes as planned, Centex would buy a typical home in the neighborhood -- individually valued at about $400,000 -- for $760,000 or more, neighbors said. Under the agreement, the more homes that are approved for the site, the more money the neighbors will receive for their individual properties.

"I was planning to stay here in this house forever," said Dennis Miller, 56, a Washington Gas Light Co. worker and homeowner, who is now planning to move to Albemarle County, Va. "But then this popped up. Hey, I'm not stupid."

"I've been here for a long time, and I've seen the growth coming," Young said. "First, we had [Interstate] 66 come by, and then the Metro line. It's become a very logical place to build new homes."

The pending planning proposal submitted by Centex and supported by the homeowners requests the right to replace the 70 existing houses with 1,326 units, creating a density about 15 times greater than permitted.

Given the projected demand for housing in the Washington area, this kind of neighborhood transformation -- from suburban to urban densities -- "is in the cards for Fairfax and Arlington neighborhoods for the foreseeable future," said Mark Anstine, senior vice president of Fraser Forbes, the real estate brokerage hired by the neighborhood.

"Given where we are in our real estate cycle -- we have the best residential market in the country right now for new construction -- then older, large-lot neighborhoods are going to turn over," Anstine said.

Environmentalists and "smart growth" advocates applaud such transformations in downtown areas or near Metro stops because they take the development pressures off of pristine lands at the region's fringe.

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