Euphoria engulfs Ford's Landing. Freedom! No yard work! No standing in line at Home Depot, stocking up for never-ending weekend maintenance projects. Ford's Landing, on the watery edge of Old Town Alexandria, is a place where many have shed the suburbs for the convenience of city living. And it's a new community rapidly bouncing from infancy to toddlerhood, charging forth, with occasional bumps and bruises.
Most of the 151 luxury town houses on 10 acres of waterfront have seen occupancy only in the past 18 months. Their energetic owners are busy learning how to create a cohesive neighborhood from scratch. Crisp fall mornings find them on the concrete boardwalk, coffee cups in one hand, dog leashes in the other. In the evenings, coffee cups are replaced by wine glasses.
Dogs outnumber children four to one in Ford's Landing. And it's Pooh, Baxter, Willow and Mocha--the friendly canines--who seem to be expediting the creation of community.
Issues arise more out of newness than out of personality conflict. What constitutes "timely removal" of trash cans from curbside? Should the landscaping in front of houses be uniform or left to individual taste? And of course--because this is Old Town--there's always the "parking problem."
"It will all get sorted out" is the common refrain.
Residents are aware they're sitting on the remnants of 215 years of history that mirror Alexandria's economic and industrial past.
Underneath the luxury Victorian-, Georgian- and Colonial-style town houses lies the original wharf's bulkhead--and parts of a late-1800s marine railway, an early 1900s shipyard building slip and fragments of nine boats and barges.
The 1980s plan for residential development here was to create a "Venice on the Potomac" canal system, and convert the site's 1932 Ford Motor Co. auto assembly plant into a cluster of luxury condominiums. Those who purchased the initial 15 houses in the 700 block of Union Street bought into a vision that never materialized.
The city's and the architect's desire to preserve Albert Kahn's historic Ford plant was thwarted by an unfavorable economy in the late 1980s, and by the fact that the wood pilings supporting the Ford plant were never meant to last 60-plus years. The cost of shoring up the building was deemed economically impractical.
Then there was the cacophony of voices, heard whenever there is a development project proposed in Old Town, that killed plans for a working marina on the site. The disappointment of the early buyers was tempered somewhat by their delight with architect Arthur Cotton Moore's designs for those early houses.
Original resident Georgina Parks, publisher of a language pathology journal, raved about the exquisite woodwork, the soundproofing (12-inch-thick concrete walls) and the spacious layout in each of the first 15 houses.
"They took their time building them, paying tremendous attention to detail," said Parks.
The economic timing was better when developers Eakin/Youngentob Associates Inc. took over, but the challenges were just as monumental. After a lengthy study, they agreed with the city that using the existing Ford structure was unfeasible. Eakin/Youngentob's solution: a new design creating a visual extension of Old Town. Ninety-foot concrete pilings pounded into bedrock, topped by a four-foot-thick concrete slab, then covered with dirt, allowed houses to be built above the flood plain (flood level is 11 feet above mean sea level--garages at Ford's Landing are at 11 1/2 feet).
The waterfront houses capture the industrial style of 18th- and 19th-century warehouses, and the Ford plant's flagpole and bollards have a permanent home on the boardwalk.
There are hidden treasures in Ford's Landing, such as "Henry's Patch," a rectangular grassy courtyard, accessible only from the 14 "Henry" models that surround it. Named by resident Linda Hester, the patch, overlooked by 14 balconies, is a perfect play area for children or dogs.
The proposed docks off the boardwalk have been nixed. Dredging is impossible, says Al Cox, an urban planner for the city, because the pilings from the Ford plant, cut off at the mud line, remain.
In November, the decaying pilings in the adjacent deserted marina will be removed. As funds become available, the concrete boardwalk will be extended, linking the waterfront park system from Ford's Landing to King Street.
Matthew Freedman, who taught his wife how to drive on the old Ford property, just moved his family from their 1752 farmhouse in Warrenton to Ford's Landing, an easy four-block walk from his office. "I have time to play with the kids and walk the dogs now!" he said.
Paula and Don Fix, who purchased a house cater-corner from their sons, praise Eakin/Youngentob for taking one more chance on the difficult site. "It's a well-thought-out project, and not many would have wanted to deal with the monumental tasks involved," said Paula Fix.
Iris Straus, former principal of Pinecrest Elementary in Annandale, sees a smooth path ahead. "The city has been so responsible in working with us," she said.
For this fledgling community, adolescence is just around the corner.
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BOUNDARIES: Potomac River to the east, Union Street to the west, Jones Point Park to the south and Windmill Park (formerly Pomander and Lee Street parks) to the north.
NUMBER OF PROPERTIES: 156 town houses.
PROPERTY SALES: According to Min O'Burns of Long & Foster, 12 town houses have sold in the past 12 months, for $450,000 to $1.06 million. Five houses are now on the market, from $490,000 to $835,000.
SCHOOLS: Lyles Crouch and St. Mary's Elementary, George Washington Middle School and T.C. Williams High School.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: King Street restaurants and shops, the Torpedo Factory art center, Jones Point Park, Mount Vernon bike trail.
10 to 15 MINUTES AWAY: Ronald Reagan National Airport, the Pentagon, Pentagon City shops, the Smithsonian museums.
FOR HISTORY BUFFS: Read the 389-page history of Ford's Landing, "Maritime Archeology at Keith's Wharf and Battery Cove," at the Alexandria Archeological Museum in the Torpedo Factory, or at the Lloyd House (220 N. Washington St.). For a briefer history lesson, markers along the waterfront, at the foot of Franklin Street, tell the story from the earliest inhabitants to the present.