To enter Opera Alley, an inconspicuous nook in the heart of Old Town Manassas, is to enter a world that seems outside Virginia. The small courtyard, lined with brick pathways and dotted with splashes of greenery, recalls instead the narrow warrens of Boston or a village in Europe.
"I love it. The reason I haven't moved into Alexandria or even D.C. is that I can't find anything like this," said Rich Hostelley, 42, an architect whose two-bedroom apartment overlooks the courtyard at Opera Alley, located along Center Street next to the Opera House building.
A decade ago, the alley was merely a void between two forgotten commercial buildings, but as Old Town revitalized, the alley became home to apartments that never stay vacant long.
"We put a sign out in front of them for rent, and then they're gone," said Lino Laudiero, who bought the apartments in 2000. "We never had one vacancy."
Housing in the historic districts of the metro area's outer suburbs has become increasingly popular as cities and developers have poured money into refurbishing old buildings. Manassas City Manager Lawrence Hughes said he has heard of some apartments with waiting lists. Landlords say the places go in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. Most of Manassas's 90 or so apartment units are taken.
"That's where the market is really at right now," said Anne-Marie Walsh, executive director of the Partnership for Warrenton Foundation, a group supporting Warrenton's historic main street.
"Our biggest challenge right now is finding housing for the people who want to live here above the stores," she said. Of that town's roughly 25 apartments, no vacancies exist, and ads for renting apartments typically draw dozens of applicants.
Across Virginia, towns are encountering a trend, especially among young professionals and empty nesters, toward a more compact, more urban environment, according to urban planners and Virginia Main Streets, a collection of 20 towns that get support from the state to revitalize their historic districts.
For that reason, Leesburg, whose revitalized downtown has very few upper-floor apartments, is seeking to build more. For now, the town is simply trying to handle the demand for more commercial space, as new stores eat up its second-story real estate. But some of the new developments in and around the historic district will undoubtedly include residential, said the city's downtown coordinator Lisa Capraro.
"This is just such an active area; the market can certainly support that," Capraro said.
What draws residents to Old Town Manassas is its proximity to shops and public transportation, as well as the relatively inexpensive rents, which are often one-half or one-third the prices in the District and Alexandria.
Gary Belt, owner of several Old Town buildings along Battle and Center streets in Old Town Manassas, said his one- to three-bedroom apartment units rent from $750 a month to $1,100 a month. Belt said some of the units have modern interiors, while others are more "historic." Laudiero said most of his apartments rent for less than $1,000 a month.
For some people, lack of space can be a drawback. There often is no front or back yard, so people with children balk at living there. Lack of street parking also is a problem, although parking is available a few blocks away on the perimeter of Old Town. Often, tenants tend to be young and childless or older and retired.
"You might not be able to park right outside your apartment," Belt said, but "it's a trade-off for people to make to be exposed to the character of Old Town as well the unique shops and restaurants."
Hostelley, the architect, moved into Old Town in 1998 and hasn't left. He said his apartment, a roughly 1,000-square-foot, two-floor, two-bedroom, suits his needs perfectly. Hostelley works from home, and the place gives him a central location in which he can meet with clients. Inside, he has painted the walls in bold colors such as purple, lime green and red to add depth to his limited space.
Living in Old Town, where neighbors are seconds away, has helped Hostelley create a sense of community. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he and his friends held a charity concert in the alley's courtyard. The community raised $20,000, with just five days' notice.
"We all like to have fun, so we have picnics out here," Hostelley said. "One of the reasons I haven't moved is I know the shoppers, and they know me. And I support the community by buying from the community. This is where I do my shopping for Christmas.
"The main draw is the fact that everything I need to live is located here," he said, adding that he regularly goes to the local farmers markets and likes to dine out.
Shops and restaurants are part of what's fueling interest in Old Town, local officials and landlords said. Successful downtowns often have a variety of retailers and eateries. Warrenton has seen decorating and furnishing stores move in since its revitalization.
People who live in historic districts help fuel the economic successes of downtown. Residents spend as much as four times more money at main street businesses than do occasional shoppers, said Walsh, of the Partnership for Warrenton Foundation.