By Jim Brocker
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 17, 2010; F01
Take a seat on a front porch in Colmar Manor, and it's easy to watch the world go by. You'll see residents tending to gardens, working on home projects or walking their dogs. And because many of the cottage-style homes are stacked like rowhouses, residents say, you can't help but get to know your neighbors.
That's one of the advantages of living in this snug Prince George's County community, hidden behind fast-food restaurants and shopping centers. "Neighbors are very friendly. The kids come out and play, and the neighbors look out for them," said Christopher Jones, 38, a contractor who lives with his wife and 3-year-old son, Yavin, in a refurbished home more than 100 years old.
Colmar Manor packs a lot into about half a square mile. More than 400 houses and about 1,200 people make up the town, bordered by Bladensburg Road, Fort Lincoln Cemetery and the Anacostia River. There are several parks, churches, an American Legion Post and a private school. A long-awaited community center is scheduled to be completed in September.
Ball fields and a bike trail line the river, and residents can cross a footbridge to attend events at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park. A supermarket, stores and restaurants are within walking distance from nearly every house in town, and Metrorail is a short bus ride away.
That convenience was a draw for Alison Pages, 47, who has been renting a home with her husband, Sylvian, 47, since September. The couple, who had lived in Potomac, wanted to downsize after their children moved away, and they went from more than 3,000 square feet of living space to less than 1,000. But Colmar Manor has provided them easy access to work and leisure activities, and the couple enjoy walking around town. "We've made a lot of friends," said Alison Pages, a real estate agent. "They welcome you. I feel good about living here."
Ellis Barnes, 57, moved to Colmar Manor 15 years ago from the District. He spent a recent Saturday morning relaxing on the front steps of his spacious porch as several cats frolicked in his small front yard. "I'm from the South. I need my front porch," said Barnes, a North Carolina native.
The newly elected mayor, Michael Hale, said Colmar Manor's small, relatively inexpensive houses have always attracted new homeowners. "It's nice to have a back yard where the kids can play," said Hale, 62, a retired algebra teacher and longtime City Council member who raised his children in the town. Many Colmar Manor homes feature upgrades and additions; Hale added a bedroom and a rec room. "I have all the room I need," he said.
Hale, a 33-year resident, has become an unabashed promoter of life in Colmar Manor. He spent a recent Saturday morning in his convertible waving to residents as he drove along the streets. "Most of the town is blue-collar people doing the best they can," he said.
He pointed with pride to the unfinished community center, as workers on scaffolds moved to complete the building's exterior. The center will house town offices, a recreation facility with a full-size gym, and health and wellness programs for senior citizens. Funding for the center, which cost nearly $5 million, came from a combination of federal and state grants and town money.
Taxes have increased to pay for the community center, a code enforcement officer and a police force, the town's first since the 1970s, noted former mayor Diana Fennell, 42. Hale said the town has "pockets" of trouble spots, and police monitor problem areas. After the recent retirement of the police chief and a promotion from within, the town is looking for another officer to fill out the staff of four.
Colmar Manor's history dates from the 1700s, when Bladensburg was an active shipping port. Disputes were regularly settled with firearms at the Dueling Grounds, near the present-day cemetery. British troops skirmished with American forces in the area during the War of 1812.
Colmar Manor was incorporated in 1927, the "Colmar" name a combination of Columbia (as in "District of") and Maryland. Flooding plagued areas near the river in the town's early years before the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a levee and installed pumping stations.
Still, Ed Mutchler, 85, recalls when water would fill the lowest-lying streets. Mutchler grew up in the immediate area, and after he got married in 1949 he bought a cottage in Colmar Manor for $8,950, with a house payment of $49.50 a month. He and his wife, Mary, 81, raised their four children in the house and still live there. A former mayor, Mutchler said he used to "walk and talk" to residents. "I knew just about everybody in this town."
Mutchler is concerned about his taxes -- he said he pays about $2,900 a year for his small property -- and says some homes have fallen into disrepair. "Properties are unkempt, not like it was in the '70s, '80s," he said. In addition, a fire in December destroyed a favorite gathering spot, the International House of Pancakes in the Colmar Manor Shopping Center, and the structure remains an eyesore. Hale said the shopping center's owner recently received clearance to begin rebuilding.
Colmar Manor has been hit hard by foreclosures and short sales, which have pushed prices lower, according to David Maplesden, an agent with Long & Foster. But the town's smaller homes, coupled with the downturn in the real estate market, remain an affordable option for buyers. A few properties within the town limits were listed recently for under $100,000, though Maplesden said that as inventory declines, prices could rise.
Many buyers these days are looking for smaller properties, so Colmar Manor has appeal, said Hale. "If you live in a mansion, you spend all your time in three rooms -- kitchen, bathroom, bedroom," he said. In Colmar Manor, "people have everything they need close to where they live."