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McLean Gardens:
Suburb in the City

By Joel Glenn Brenner
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 18, 1993

If the residents of McLean Gardens in Northwest have anything in common, it's that they all love suburban life, and they all hate the suburbs.

For them, the perfect compromise to an otherwise difficult dilemma is the 43-acre housing development on Wisconsin Avenue NW—with its spacious lawns, garden apartments, meticulous landscaping and campus-like atmosphere.

At McLean Gardens, children still can meet each other on the playground, gardens can be planted in flower beds, dogs can romp on the sloping hills and yet the restaurants and shops and excitement of the city lie less than a block away.

"It's the suburban life in a city setting," said Tina Macaya, sales manager for the McLean Gardens condominiums and a former resident.

"You'd expect to find this set-up in Fairfax or Arlington, but not in downtown Washington," said Joseph Lopez, president of the McLean Gardens Condominium Association. "That's what makes it so special."

But the sense of community extends beyond the layout of the development to the residents themselves. Many of the homeowners participate in association activities. Over the years, they've organized everything from bridge clubs and tennis tournaments to dog-walking groups and lawn sales. Last weekend's annual Christmas party at the clubhouse attracted more than 200 residents, all gathered to wish each other season's greetings and catch up on neighborhood gossip.

"This is a place where neighbors know their neighbors," said Philip Mendelson, who has lived in the development since 1974. "There is definitely a sense of belonging to a community."

Located just four blocks north of the Washington Cathedral, McLean Gardens is actually two housing developments in one. The first dates back to 1942 when the federal government razed the famous Friendship country estate owned by newspaper publisher John R. McLean to make way for wartime housing.

Under the direction of the Defense Homes Corp., the government built 31 garden apartment buildings and nine dormitories to house military personnel and their families. The simple, three-story red brick buildings were spread out among lawns and trees to give it the look and feel of a suburban neighborhood.

When World War II ended, the buildings were converted into moderately priced private rental units, and soon a community of more than 700 residents was calling McLean Gardens home. But their serene lifestyle came to an end in the 1970s when the owners made plans to evict the tenants and tear down the complex.

After a bitter battle that helped spur new laws on city rent control and condominium conversion, the tenants were permitted to purchase the complex in 1979. The garden apartments were renovated and sold as condominiums, while the dorms were destroyed. Mendelson, who helped lead the fight for ownership, still remembers the turmoil and frustration of those early days.

"It was very difficult for the community," he said. "There had been a real sense of togetherness and of community spirit and that was damaged to some degree during the conversion."

Mendelson said fewer than 100 families of the original 700 tenants stayed on and became homeowners, purchasing studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, duplex or loft units. But they have since been joined by hundreds of others and today only 13 of the original units remain to be sold, according to Macaya. The average price of condos is $160,000, she said, with studios going for about $100,000 and large three- and four-bedroom duplexes selling for more than $200,000.

Meanwhile, a new McLean Gardens development has been built along Wisconsin Avenue in front of the condominium complex. The newer development is for renters only and includes a seven-story luxury apartment building at Wisconsin and Idaho avenues, known as the Towers, and a new set of garden-style apartments, called the Village at McLean Gardens.

The new complex has a total of 574 units, about 130 units smaller than the original development, and its management and operations are completely separate from the condos. Rents in the Tower range from $900 for a one-bedroom unit to more than $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment. In the Gardens, where parking is included in the rent, efficiencies start at $735 a month and two-bedroom units go for $1,275.

None of these apartments compares with the character and charm of the older condominiums, which are laid out in 40 different floor plans. However, they offer such modern conveniences as microwaves, washers and dryers and wall-to-wall carpeting.

Marsha Stampson, who moved into the Village in September, said she was attracted by the greenery, the swimming pools (one for renters and one for owners) and the general "convenience of life" at the complex.

"It's like living in Gaithersburg without the hour-long commute," said Stampson, who pays $950 rent for a one-bedroom garden apartment. "I've got friends in the suburbs who don't have half the amenities we have here, and they think I've got it rough because I live downtown. If they only knew."

But not all of the renters are as enamored of the place as Stampson. Interviews with more than a dozen tenants of the Village revealed frustration and anger with the management company over safety issues and living conditions.

Kelly McDevitt, who moved into a ground floor studio in September, said she complained for months about a broken window in her apartment to no avail. It took a phone call from her father in New York to get the Holladay Corp. to fix it, she said.

Other tenants complained of similar maintenance problems, including flooding in their apartments, broken locks and broken windows.

"You get the feeling [management] just doesn't care," said Stuart Margel, who moved into the complex last summer. "You ask them to fix something and they act like it's your problem, not theirs."

Noel Merriman, director of maintenance for the property, said work requests are handled in the order they are received and that the management company does all it can to ensure residents' complaints are addressed promptly.

But the biggest complaint of all is about crime in the development. In the past four months, there have been seven cars stolen from the parking lots, at least two apartment break-ins and dozens of thefts from automobiles, according to residents and police.

Mark Argall, a law student at American University, had his brand-new Honda Prelude SI stolen on Oct. 30, just three months after he bought it.

"This place is perfect for a thief," Argall said. "You've got all these nice cars lined up in the parking lots, there's no one policing them and they're out of the way, off the street. It's a buffet for criminals."

Argall and other tenants who have been affected by crime are pushing the management company to hire security guards, improve the outdoor lighting and replace bolts in their front doors, after an apartment door was kicked in last month by a burglar. But so far, they said, management hasn't responded to their demands.

Jill Donahue, director of property management for the Holladay Corp., said her company has provided adequate lighting and is sure to notify residents by memo every time there is an incident around the area. She said she believes the complex is "as safe as anywhere else in the District" and that crime is not a major issue.

Joseph Lopez of the condominium association said that crime rates for the homeowners are "among the lowest in the city, but it's a different story for the renters."

"They're right off Wisconsin Avenue and much more visible than we are," he said. "I hear regularly of thefts and break-ins over there."

Police officials said residents of McLean Gardens have not been the target of any serious crimes, such as murder or rape, and the rate of thefts and break-ins is below that of the surrounding neighborhood. However, the statistics are of little comfort to residents.

"I've lived in the city for years and never had a problem until now," said Argall, adding, "I don't think I'll renew my lease when the time comes."

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