Gene and Norma Byron didn't want to praise their home at Southern Towers in Alexandria too highly. They said they were afraid that if they did, their apartment complex might become overcrowded with people who want what they have -- affordability, convenience and security.
Southern Towers, however, is nobody's little secret. Five colossal high-rises housing 2,370 units are hard to keep hidden.
Norma, 47, a warhead developer, and Gene, a photographer who says only that he is older than his wife, moved to their penthouse after they married 25 years ago. Gene Byron's mother had an apartment in the same building. Even after she died, the couple could not find a reason to move out.
"If you check around, which we've done, you can't beat the price," he said. Their rent is less than the $1,500 a new tenant is likely to pay.
"This place is very well run," his wife said. "There is someone around 24 hours for maintenance."
The huge complex, one of Northern Virginia's largest, is run by Virginia Management Inc. and was built in the 1960s. The largest building, the Monticello, is on the northern edge of the complex and is the only rectangular structure. The other four are Y-shaped. The lobbies feature piped-in music, chandeliers, guard desks and a glass-walled entryway from which guests can call so residents can buzz them in. There are 13 different apartment layouts.
With a location on Seminary Road just off I-395, it might appear that highway noise would be a problem. Not so, the Byrons said. Helicopters make more noise. "Two or three weeks ago, I saw a helicopter that was lower than my balcony. I waved and he waved back," Gene Byron said. The helicopters are generally military and following I-395 to the Pentagon, Norma Byron said.
Southern Towers is almost a self-contained neighborhood. The five buildings -- named after Virginia estates, Stratford, Ashlawn, Sherwood, Berkeley and Monticello -- house an array of businesses as well as people. Within the complex, there are exercise rooms, doctors' offices, a day-care center, a hair salon, a State Farm insurance office, a First Virginia bank and a 7-Eleven. Between the buildings are woods, playground equipment, tennis courts, two pools and a sand volleyball court. A Metro bus stops near the parking lot entrance.
According to Brandon Edwards, who lives in a $695-a-month bachelor efficiency in the Monticello, the 7-Eleven is probably the best amenity in the complex.
The convenience store is the largest in the immediate area, according to Camtu Nguyen, a shift manager there. It serves not only residents of Southern Towers, but also guests at the Hilton hotel across the street. "Customers here are very friendly," she said. "We have a lot who come in every day."
Edwards, 28, a TV salesman and installer, has spent a chunk of his life at Southern Towers. His family moved into a two-bedroom in the Sherwood when he was in high school and stayed for three years. He and his parents separately returned to the complex last year within a month of each other. His parents now live in the Ashlawn.
"Most of the friends I have today, I met at Southern Towers. Even when I didn't live there, I was there hanging out with friends, so it feels like I've lived there 20 years," Edwards said.
From his 12th-floor apartment, Edwards has an unobstructed view of Washington. "I can see pretty much everything that needs to be seen . . . the Capitol, monuments and the fireworks on the Fourth of July."
There have been some changes over the years, he said. For instance, he misses the car wash that was removed from the premises because of crime.
Some tenants said security issues are generally dealt with quickly. After a rash of car break-ins, parking-lot patrols became more frequent and the problem stopped. When drug dealers started using the pay phones in lobbies, the phones were removed.
In the past two years, key access to each building has been restricted to people who live and work there, rather than residents of the entire complex. The bank and 7-Eleven are free-standing, but the doctors' offices and other businesses must buzz in clients.
Not all tenants are happy with the arrangement. "I would like to see something where if you live in Southern Towers, you have access to the other buildings. . . . It's a hassle, but I can see it's necessary," Chuck Roberts said.
Roberts, a 34-year-old fundraiser, bartender and drummer, shares a top-floor two-bedroom apartment in the Berkeley with his friend Jason Mitton. They pay $1,210 a month and have a southern view from their balcony of the Hilton hotel, which looks like a dollar sign.
Roberts, who does not drive, likes being able to take the bus to the Pentagon, where he catches the subway to his day job in the District.
He said that the visitor parking situation can be a hassle. Hosts and visitors must sign in together for visitor parking passes and the cars must be parked in assigned visitor spaces. There aren't a lot of such spaces despite the size of the parking lot surrounding the complex. Passes are good from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m.
"I've had friends get towed," Roberts said.
But that hasn't been enough to keep him away from the complex. Like Edwards, Roberts is a second-time tenant. He lived in Southern Towers for two years in the mid-1990s. He returned when he moved out of another living situation and his friend offered him a room.
"It was a good price and a convenient location," he said.