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Where We Live

Dropping Anchor in Old Town

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 28, 2003; Page G01

Harborside. The term conjures up images of sailboats, sunrises and the serenity of waterside living. In Old Town Alexandria's Harborside, a 64-unit condominium townhouse community on the Potomac River, that image is just part of the package.

Early one morning an impeccably dressed woman glided into a waiting limo, off to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. Nearby, a casually clad father escorted a tricycle-riding preschooler to the neighborhood playground. Along the waterfront, two women discussed where to get good haircuts and nail trims . . . for their dogs.



HARBORSIDE

BOUNDARIES: Potomac River to the east; Union Street to the west; Wilkes Street to the south and Wolfe Street to the north.

SCHOOLS: Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, George Washington Middle and T.C. Williams High schools.

HOME SALES: In the past 12 months, 13 homes have sold at prices ranging from $425,000 to $2.8 million, Lydia Odle of Lydia Odle Realtor said. Three homes are on the market, at $669,000 to $1.6 million.

WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Small private marina, Mount Vernon bike path, bus service to King Street and Braddock Road Metro stations, Old Town Alexandria

WITHIN 15 MINUTES BY CAR: Reagan National Airport, libraries, Potomac Yard, Pentagon, Eisenhower Avenue corridor



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Contrasts abound. Trucks and cargo ships come and go from the newsprint distribution plant next door as more-picturesque pleasure boats ply the river. While ducks and geese are a common sight, residents report that the occasional odd object, such as a refrigerator riddled with bullet holes, will sometimes drift past.

Harborside residents say they quickly learned to tune out the constant background hum of traffic from the Wilson Bridge a few blocks away, as well as the frequent rumble of airplanes flying in and out of nearby Reagan National Airport. Instead, ears seem to naturally concentrate on the rhythmic lapping of water against boats tied up at the community's small private marina.

Sissy Zimmerman, a real estate agent who never thought she would like living in a new house, left a 1720 home to become one of Harborside's original owners in 1993, because "you can walk out your door and see the river."

Joan Huffer, a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, said: "Half the joy of this is being able to walk everywhere -- to the farmer's market, the grocery, shops and restaurants."

Residents praise the high level of detail built into the Federal and Georgian-style townhouses, which were designed by Michael & Michael Architects and developed by Abramson Properties, both Alexandria firms. A generous use of molded brick, cast stone, copper and slate throughout; hinged wooden shutters held in place by iron shutter dogs; and Colonial-style courtyards heavy with the aroma of boxwood all blend together to give the 10-year-old community a solid, established look.

But the residents also say they appreciate what they do not see. The usual exterior clutter that plagues many townhouse communities -- cars, air-conditioning units, trash receptacles and most mailboxes -- is tucked out of view in above-ground garages beneath the residences. Even the Virginia Power substation at the northwest corner of the community has been camouflaged with a brick facade.

Harborside homes range from two to five stories, with 1,200 to 5,000 square feet of living space. Some have elevators. Residents without that luxury jokingly refer to their houses as "life-extending homes."

In Robert and Lydia Odle's house, the staircases are laid out in a way that breaks up what Robert describes as "the usual railroad-car feeling in many townhouses" and provide two large bedroom wings upstairs, one for them and one for their 11-year-old son, J.P.

The Odles lived on nearby Lee Street for more than 30 years before moving to Harborside when J.P. was in preschool. When former neighbors asked if it was hard not having a yard, Robert, surveying the more than four acres of parkland around Harborside, said, "But we do have a yard."

And, he added in jest, "You pay for it and we don't have to cut the grass."

Windsor Demaine, a native Alexandrian who used to run his family's funeral home business, sold a waterfront house in Mount Vernon and moved to Harborside two years ago to become re-immersed in city life. Now president of the local Kiwanis, Demaine, an artist, has converted his fifth floor into a studio with a river view.

Harborside fronts on what was once Hunter's Shipyard, which was established in 1783 and flourished for more than 100 years. The narrow strip of land between the houses and the water, now called Shipyard Park, is popular with joggers and dog walkers. Harborside's condo association, referred to as "condo light" by some residents because of its low-key nature, maintains the park's well-manicured grounds.

Judy Buzzell, who works with Military Historical Tours in Alexandria, has what she described as the "best stoop in Old Town, because it's facing the right direction," offering a broad view of lawn and water. Nothing fancy -- just your basic brick stoop, large enough for two folding chairs and just the right size for relaxing with her husband, catching up on news, sipping a glass of wine and watching the osprey and eagles.

Harborside's waterside location has been a magnet for squabbles over land ownership and use. Before the community was built, Katie Lang, an eccentric squatter, held court there in a ramshackle hut while running a marina, then a riverside parking lot. She fought with city officials for more than 20 years in an often-feisty dispute over property rights, until a federal judge decided against her.

The 3.4-acre Windmill Hill Park, which flanks the south and west of Harborside, was recently the focus of a two-year-long battle over the city's land-use priorities. Many Harborside residents joined with the surrounding neighborhood in favoring a "no building" policy to help preserve the open space. Others in Alexandria favored more-intense recreational use.

In April, the city council approved some changes, including the future addition of a kayak launch and an extended boardwalk. Beyond that, the park will stay as is, complete with its waterside, unleashed-dog park.

Lydia Odle said of Harborside's role in the park debate, "There were some diverse opinions, but it's all worked out to meet most interests."


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