"Architecture by committee" is generally a term of derision, but Whittier Park in Falls Church is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Many cooks, in this case, made for a much better brew.
The 7.6-acre project, which will eventually have 62 town houses and 13 detached houses, was subjected to an unusual amount of community input and review even for Falls Church, a community well known for the active and vocal participation of its citizenry. The 2 1/2 years of debate to reach consensus was at times tedious and contentious, but in the end, all those involved would agree, the intense public scrutiny produced a better project.
Not only were the concerns of every party addressed, but the design was improved. For example, two of the nicest features in Whittier Park--its large central green and the extended rows of houses facing a major city street on one edge of the site--were suggested by the Falls Church Architectural Advisory Board.
This happy ending began with an unusual jurisdictional pas de deux. When Falls Church incorporated itself in 1948, Fairfax County retained title to the old Whittier High School and its surrounding acreage. The county deeded this parcel to the city of Falls Church in 1995. In return, Falls Church leased several acres it owned in the county to the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech to build a graduate center.
The city didn't need another school and demolished Whittier. But deciding what to do with the property proved a contentious issue. The city would get the most money if the land was rezoned for commercial use. A commercial venture on the site would also generate tax revenue without adding to the school population.
A commercial venture proved to be unfeasible because the location was too far from established commercial areas to interest top-tier commercial developers--the next-best option was selling the land to a residential developer, who would put houses on it.
The question was, how many? The higher the number, the more the land was worth and the more the city would net. More houses would also add properties to the tax rolls. But maxing out the number of houses also would add to Falls Church's school-age population, and even a small increase could adversely affect the city's small 1,450-student school system.
Although as many as 135 town houses could have been built on the 7.6-acre site, the city finally approved a plan with slightly fewer than half that number, plus 13 detached houses facing an older community of detached houses across the street.
In reducing the number of houses to be built, the city reduced the value of the land by about $2 million, Holladay Property Services Vice President Rita Bamberger said. Her firm was selected to develop the property and build the houses, after proposals from five area developers were reviewed.
As part of the compromise on density, the city elected to sell two acres at the south end of the site to Marriott for the 127-unit Towne Place Suites. All the parties agreed to this move because the completed hotel has "a residential look but generates commercial revenues," said Gary Fuller, principal planner for the city of Falls Church.
Expressing the sentiments of the many neighborhood groups that participated in the discussions over the fate of the Whittier parcel, Perry Gurin, president of Wren's Way, a neighboring citizens association, said: "We wanted Whittier Park and the rest of the neighborhood to blend. . . . Ideally this would have meant 20 detached houses, but it wasn't a realistic option. The density had to be a certain amount to be viable economically for both the buyers [of the land] and for the city.
"The density that resulted was a compromise between straight greed and altruistic motives at other end of the scale," Gurin said. "Whittier Park is far more dense than the activists wanted, but not as dense as the builder wanted. If nobody is completely satisfied, it probably means it's a good compromise."
During the protracted debate over the Whittier parcel, it also helped that Alan Brangman, who was mayor at the time, was both an architect and a savvy developer himself. Part of the final sales agreement he worked out with Holladay Corp. included the provision that the city share in the profits of houses that sell above $285,000.
Both the detached and town houses were designed and priced for empty-nester homeowners who wanted a smaller house and a minimal yard. There is no furnished model of the detached houses, but buyers can ask the sales agent to show them one under construction. These $425,000-base-priced, 2,546-square-foot houses have a first-floor master suite and an unusual outdoor central courtyard.
There are two furnished town house models to visit. The floor plans here are unusual, as is the price--$351,000 to $360,000 for 2,610 square feet of finished space.
The Regent and the Greenwich have detached garages entered from a rear alley. With the garage moved out of the house, the main living areas can be on the ground floor. Not only does this arrangement make these town houses feel more like detached houses, but the convenience of having the garage on the same level as the kitchen will be appreciated every time the groceries are taken inside.
Though some pundits assert that move-down buyers are ready to jettison rarely used formal living and dining rooms, these occupy more than half of the main living area here, and buyers are flocking--more than two-thirds of the 62 units have been sold. Observed Mark Anderson, a Whittier Park homeowner who spent 20 years in the military, much of it living in base housing, "this is the first time in our lives we have formal rooms and no teenagers. We don't plan to spend time there, but we like it."
The rear of the town houses has a generous kitchen, with enough cabinets for a downsizing household to store a lifetime's accumulation of pots and pans, and a cozy family room. A $17,000 breakfast room/laundry extension connecting the house to the garage is now standard.
When the breakfast room/laundry extension is added, the tiny back yard approaches postage-stamp proportions, but two owners I spoke with saw that as a plus. After years of maintaining a house on 30 acres, Pamela Kurstadt even bricked over her remaining yard area, leaving only a few planters to tend. When asked why the builder didn't eliminate the yard altogether, Sami Kirkdil, the designing architect from Torti Gallas and Partners-CHK in Silver Spring, responded, "We weren't that gutsy."
Both the Regent and the Greenwich have enormous master bedrooms on the second floor, but the rest of the upper two levels are different in each model. The Greenwich has a small second-floor study and two very sizable bedrooms on the top floor. The Regent has a two-story entry foyer instead of the second-floor study, and a third floor with two smaller bedrooms and a "bonus room" that could be either a study or a fourth bedroom.
For a household with frequent guests, or teenagers "who would rather live in their own Zip code," as one parent put it, this is a perfect arrangement.
A third town house is offered, but as with the detached houses there is no model to see. The $324,000-base-priced, 2,141-square-foot Kensington units have "front-load" garages at ground level and a more circuitous route to living quarters above. Taking in the groceries here will, frankly, be a pain.
The main living area on the second level has formal spaces on the front and an informal eat-in kitchen/family room at the rear. The third floor has a master suite and two smaller bedrooms.
Few buyers will note the wider stairs or the straight shot from the front door to the master bedroom in the Regent, but movers will love these houses. The juxtaposition of narrow, sometimes U-shaped stairs and king-size beds and oversize entertainment centers has made many newer town houses into a mover's nightmare. In the past, architect Kirkdil said, "we had a hell of a time and had to move furniture in with a crane through a second- or third-story window."
By contrast, Kirkdil said, the stair runs here were designed with movers in mind. With town-house design, however, the need to move in furniture always conflicts with the understandable desire to maximize usable space, Kirkdil said: "With a narrower town house only 18 feet wide, you want to make the stair take as minimal a space as possible. If you make the stairs too generous, nothing is left in the floor plan. But, if you make the stairs too tight, you have problems with moving in furniture."
Directions: From the intersection of Route 27 (Broad Street) and U.S. 29 (Washington Street), head east. Turn right onto South Cherry Street, then right onto Hillwood Avenue to models and sales center. Call 703-538-5100.