In the mid-1990s, Hallcrest Heights in McLean appeared to be heading downhill.
Annual meetings at the 158-unit townhouse community were sparsely attended, leaning more toward gripe sessions than productive events. The houses and grounds were looking dreary. Semi-annual walk-throughs by the architectural board were christened "the parade of the picky people." The newcomers' welcome kit was an impersonal list of community rules.
At right, Heidi Deger and her friend Meghan Blaul, both 6, enjoy an early spring day outside at Hallcrest Heights in McLean.
(Photos Ann Cameron Siegal For The Washington Post)
BOUNDARIES: Dolley Madison Boulevard to the north, Old Chain Bridge Road to the south, Dulles Access Road to the west and Great Falls Street to the east.
SCHOOLS: Kent Gardens Elementary, Longfellow Middle and McLean High schools.
HOME SALES: Four houses have sold in the past 12 months at prices from $475,000 to $569,000, said Evan Lacopo of Laughlin Miller Realtors. Four houses are under contract; there are no houses actively on the market.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: McLean High School, Lewinsville Park athletic fields and community center, McLean government center.
WITHIN 15 MINUTES BY CAR: George Washington Parkway, Capital Beltway, Interstate 66, Tysons Corner, Vienna, Falls Church.
And relationships between the board of directors and residents weren't so hot. "The old board spent $11,000 on lawyer's fees," said Clark Tyler, association president. "As soon as members had a problem, they'd call a lawyer."
Today, Hallcrest Heights has blossomed into a lively, attractive community where annual meetings draw more than 100 enthusiastic residents, architectural board walk-throughs are known for the kudos received, and newcomers receive a personal welcome along with a well-designed, informative packet of information.
The homeowners association could serve as a model, and residents credit Tyler, who assumed office in 1999, with much of the turnaround. His secret: Focus on the big picture and let the petty things go.
"We don't get into neighbor-to-neighbor problems," said Tyler, who added that he is always amazed at how much contention he finds in other homeowners associations. "If you get folks focused on something else, little problems will go away."
The "something else," or "biggies," as Tyler calls them, included beefing up a worn-out landscape, sharing ideas on ways to enhance 35-year-old townhouses, and building relationships with local businesses and community leaders.
Community spirit has soared, and Hallcrest Heights' all-volunteer board is praised for its sound fiscal policies and good public relations skills. "This community has exceeded all my expectations," said Lisa Pittman, a Capitol Hill staffer who moved in six years ago.
Quarterly dues of $270 cover front-yard mowing and mulching, maintenance for seven acres of common ground, trash collection, community lighting, road maintenance and capital improvements. Efficient long-range planning keeps the community within budget. "There are no special assessments," said Tyler, who often taps the expertise and advice of residents as well as local professionals.
Local designers were called on for remodeling workshops. A local arborist analyzed the trees and shrubbery on the property and gave advice on making the most of the tiny private spaces at the rear of the houses. Group discounts for services were sought and procured by the board.
In the past five years, more than 60 percent of residents have done major landscaping around their homes, Tyler said. Many have turned what were once concrete patios into cozy personal spaces with fountains, sculptures and benches. "You can do many things with a small yard," said Rosette White, whose husband, Bill, created a garden that is a visual extension of the house.
The Whites, who each owned a home in Hallcrest Heights before marrying nine years ago, started annual home tours in the community to allow residents to show off their upgrades. Rosette, a decorator in her native Belgium, and now a retired real estate agent, said: "I wanted to show people what could be done."
The addition of crown molding, built-in shelving, recessed lighting and French doors, all in keeping with the character of the house, are among the improvements that have turned the Whites' 2,400 square feet of living space into a showplace.
During the home tours, which feature 10 houses each year, residents provide one-page handouts with details such as who did the remodeling, the quality of the work, efficiency of the workers and what special materials were used. "They give real advice on real projects," Tyler said.