At Villages at Parklands, A Community Reborn

By Sarah Abruzzese
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 25, 2006

Michael Thomas, 35, was homeless before he found his one-bedroom apartment at Manor Village in Southeast Washington. That was almost six years ago; today his life has changed completely.

"My apartment turned out to be wonderful," he said. It's the "ultimate bachelor's crib." He said he quickly got a job that he can commute to via Metro and slowly saved up money to buy furniture. "I slept on the floor for a good year," he said.

Manor Village had some rough few years, too. The complex was plagued by crime, buildings were boarded up and tenants moved out as quickly as possible. But like Thomas, the community got a second chance.

The complex, built in the 1950s, is now part of the sprawling Villages at Parklands, which spreads over 54 acres and includes 1,100 renovated apartment units owned by William C. Smith & Co., a District real estate firm. The big development is made up of Manor Village and four other renovated garden apartment complexes. There are two more recently acquired complexes that will be renovated as housing within the federal Section 8 rental subsidy program, providing 400 more units. And there's also a group of recently constructed townhouses that are owned, not rented.

In 1991, Smith began to acquire parts of the complex, which had been split among various owners over the years. The company renovated apartments, partnered with surrounding schools and the public library, purchased the adjacent strip mall and built a community.

Donald Ford, 68, has lived for 43 years in his apartment in Ridgecrest Village, another one of the renovated portions of the Villages at Parklands. Ford, who drives a shuttle bus for the complex, remembers the days when he was surrounded by blight.

"It was kind of rough," he said, adding that people were murdered and gunshots were common. Today, he said, "kids are racing around here like it's Sesame Street."

The developer also built a water park to attract tenants and provide recreational activity for children. "The only palm trees in Southeast," George Pollard, a Smith vice president, said of the water park, which is open to Villages at Parklands residents and has a snack stand.

But services go beyond fun. The company also put in new playgrounds throughout the complex, and now there is a YMCA where many children go after school, as well as a day-care center located in the complex.

The Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Center (THEARC) is a multimillion-dollar recreation center that opened in May and houses programs of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington with its large indoor basketball court, the Children's Health Project of D.C., the Corcoran School of Art, Covenant House Washington, the Levine School of Music, Parklands Community Center, the Washington Ballet, Washington Middle School for Girls and Trinity University.

Paula Alston, 32, who has lived in her one-bedroom apartment for 2 1/2 years, enjoys the community aspect and THEARC. "I like the way they did it," she said of the building, which has facilities for events such as art shows and plays.

And it isn't just an array of services that residents can enjoy. Pollard said the community has changed over the years. When Smith first began renovating the units, workers would return in the morning to find the wrought-iron fencing that had been put up the day before gone. Now the complex is a hive of activity, with maintenance workers, many of them also tenants, active on the complex. Courtesy officers, some of whom live in the complex, patrol the grounds. And every year the company plants thousands of tulip bulbs, making spring a beautiful time with lots of flowers and beautiful old trees, residents say.

Smith also hosts numerous events for residents. Thomas said his building is a tight-knit community where he feels safe, even though the surrounding neighborhood can sometimes be dangerous. "My building is quiet, lots of older people in the building," he said.

Alston said the area seems safe to her. "I have no problems around here," she said.

Shopping is within walking distance, she said. In March, plans call for ground to be broken on a new Giant Foods store adjacent to the property at the empty old Camp Simms National Guard site. That project that has been in the offing for years, as residents of the city's poorest ward have pushed for more services and stores.

Alston, who grew up in Washington, said she loves her apartment -- "the size of it and the way it's made" -- calling it well laid-out and quiet. Alston also prizes her wood floors; some other apartments are carpeted.

Clara Harrison, 67, has lived at Manor Village for about 24 years. She said the complex has changed a lot but is nice and well kept up. Her apartment is big enough for her, now that she lives alone. "I don't do too much cooking anymore since my husband passed," Harrison said, but the "kitchen is just big enough for me."

If she ever has any complaints, the issue is taken care of, she said. "When I complain, she fixes it," Harrison said of her apartment manager. Other residents agreed.

Some of the buildings, which housed 400 vacant units, were torn down when Smith first bought the property. New townhouses were built in their place. Many of those houses were sold to residents. Thomas said that one day he hopes to be able to afford to buy a place, and wouldn't hesitate to purchase from his current landlord.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company