Fairfax County supervisors, in marked contrast to the anti-condominium stances their counterparts in Montgomery County and the District have taken, yesterday gave a polite, even supportative, reception to a developer's plans for his second major condominium conversion in Northern Virginia.
After hearing developer Guiseppe Cecchi detail plans to convert the 979 moderately priced Belle View apartments "with no evictions," Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity led the uniformly favorable reaction.
"I think this will be a sympathetic and compassionate operation," he was impressed, too.
"If there have to be conversions, this appears to be a reasonable one," he said. "If they (Cecchi and his firm, International Developers Inc.) do everything they have pledged to do, it will be a pretty feasible approach."
Even if the supervisors hadn't been happy with Cecchi's plans, they couldn't do much about them. County Attorney F. Lee Ruck has informed them that under Virginia law, Fairfax -- unlike the District and suburban Maryland -- is powerless to halt the conversion of apartments to condominiums. The practice has become widespread in the Washington area as the market for moderately priced conventional housing has dried up. Another major impetus has been the decreasing profitably of rental projects.
The district and montgomery County, responding to mounting tenant complaints that such actions were the only housing they could afford, have temporarily forcing them out of halted condominium conversions.
Cecchi, who built his reputation with Washington's luxury Watergate condominium project and two years ago converted Alexandria's 1,684-unit Parkfairfax project to condominiums, yesterday defended the practice at a press conference.
"This is a sound policy for my company," he said "if all developers were doing what i'm doing, we would not have any moratoriums on conversions, and everybody would be happy."
Based on approximate selling prices he supplied, Cecchi could gross more than $35 million on conversion of the Fairfax project. If he can hold renovation costs down, as he said he intends to, he could clear millions of dollars in profits, based on the $23 million he paid for Belle View earlier this summer.
In an effort to make his current renters -- many of whom are widows and single mothers -- happy, Cecchi said the residents would be given a chance to buy their apartments for $2,000 to $4,000 less than the general public.
Tenants who want to stay as renters, he said would be offered long-term leases of up to five years.
Cecchi said there would be special programs for the elderly and long-term residents, offering either additional $2,000 discounts for buyers or $50-a-month rebates for those who choose to continue renting. The rebates would be on the new rents, which will probably be 10 percent higher the first year of conversion to cover renovation costs, Cecchi said.
All these inducements were offered to the tennants of Parkfairfax, and they helped defuse the initially hostile reaction to that conversion. According to Cecchi, 72 percent of Parkfairfax's tenants chose to stay either as owners of their apartments or renters with long-term leases. "No one was evicted," he said.
Most Belle View apartments, located south of Alexandria, are two-bedroom units that rent for an average of $299 a month. Cecchi said a survey by his firm showed that the prevailing "street rent" for two-bedroom apartments in Fairfax was from $320 to $370.
Cecchi acknowledged that tenants who buy would face monthly payments higher than their present rent, but within four years, he said, their payments would be no more than those of renters -- and they would have already accumulated equity from appreciation of their unit.
That would happen, he said, because the major components of mortgage payments -- interest and principal -- are fixed, while rents will rise from 7 to 9 percent yearly.
Cecchi said a two-bedroom unit would be offered to tenants for a price in the mid-$30,000 range, with financing of up to 95 percent. One-bedroom units would be in the mid-$20,000 range and three-bedroom units would be in the mid-$30,000 range. After the initial offering to tenants, units would go on sale to the general public at higher prices.
The sale of Parkfairfax units was so successful, Cecchi said, that there were once 6,000 prospective buyers on the waiting list. Already, he said, there are 100 nonresidents of Belle View on its waiting list.
To hold, down Belle View's prices, Cecchi said, major renovation would be confined mostly to the exterior, including extensive relandscaping and construction of a larger swimming pool. Renovation of the interiors, which Cecchi said are generally sound, would be up to purchasers. $ the only major interior work, Cecchi said, would be installation of central air londitioning to replace present window units.
Belle View does not have as much open space as Parkfairfax, but it is located in the prestigious Belle Haven area near the Potomoc River. CAPTION: Map, Belle View Apartments, By Richard Furno -- The Washington Post