David Potter had fumed through one traffic jam too many on his morning commute from Duke Street to the Navy Annex near the Pentagon. After one particularly frustrating morning drive about five years ago, he looked at the three-story brick townhouse that backed up to the annex on Oak Street in Arlington and decided that was the house he wanted to buy.
"Not a week later, it went on the market," he said, still laughing with disbelief. His real estate agent tried unsuccessfully to talk him out of the $115,000 purchase, because in the late 1990s, the three-street neighborhood known as Foxcroft Heights was a bit run-down. Years of rentals, the absence of an citizens association to plan for neighborhood conservation and a location wedged in among the Navy Annex, Arlington National Cemetery, the Sheraton National Hotel and Columbia Pike had tired out the 65-year-old neighborhood.
But Foxcroft Heights' placement was also an advantage. Residents on the east side of Oak Street have views of the Washington Monument, the Capitol dome and the Jefferson Memorial. The Interstate 395 entrance ramp is just a few blocks away.
The 95-house community (there are also 32 apartments) was built from 1938 to 1940. It consists of two- and three-bedroom brick single-family houses, duplexes, townhouses and two 16-unit apartment buildings. Most of the homes have original hardwood flooring and some type of porch, balcony or patio; some have different types of small additions.
The neighborhood park, at the north end of Oak Street, overlooks Arlington National Cemetery and is a good place to listen to the 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. bugle melodies, as well as occasional bagpipe music.
But convenience comes with headaches.
Two of the main gates for the U.S. Marine Corps headquarters at Henderson Hall are on the neighborhood's north boundary, Southgate Road. The three north-south roads of Foxcroft Heights provide an easy way to Columbia Pike or I-395. That is just one of the reasons John Swope decided to resurrect the citizens association.
Another reason was to build and maintain property value. Swope lives on Orme Street, across from the Sheraton National Hotel in a well-kept brick home. Just a few doors down, a block of townhouses sags in disrepair. Swope thinks property values on his block have been hurt by the appearance of those homes, most of which are rentals.
"I'd never started a civic association before, but I knew with a little blood, sweat and tears we could turn this neighborhood into something special," he said.
While no one seemed to want a restrictive homeowners group, a citizens association that could help keep the neighborhood in the best condition seemed a reasonable solution to the severely run-down properties.
Foxcroft Heights needed what Arlington County calls a Neighborhood Conservation plan.
While such a plan can't force people to take care of their properties, Arlington's 40-year-old Neighborhood Conservation program gives citizens associations control over how they want to spend county bond money to spruce up common areas.
The paperwork to form the association, even without the conservation plan, is formidable. Swope went knocking on doors. Six months later, the association has 17 paid members, with 40 people participating in some aspect of neighborhood meetings.
The plan that Foxcroft Heights is developing will entitle it to a share of the $9 million, two-year Neighborhood Conservation budget (a part of the Community Conservation bond) that county residents set aside in November 2002.
This fall, county residents will again vote on the amount set aside for neighborhood conservation over the next two years. Over the lifetime of the Neighborhood Conservation program, Arlington residents have approved bond sales of nearly $20 million.
"Arlington's program is definitely unique," said Adam Denton, county neighborhood planner. "Counties across the country come to us to find out how ours works and try to model theirs after ours."
The problem most counties face is converting popular support into the votes for the bond at election time.
Denton noted that while Foxcroft Heights is just beginning to assemble its plan, its residents' level of enthusiasm and competence is comparable to that of other communities. "I often find myself working with citizens who know more about it than I do," joked Denton, who has spent many evenings serving as adviser at organizational meetings.
Foxcroft Heights residents say they would like to preserve the diversity of the neighborhood while sprucing it up. "This neighborhood is blue-collar, white-collar, purple-collar. . . . We've got everything," Potter said. Many residents say they like the diversity and the freedom to maintain their property as they see fit.
For example, after the installation of a new Navy Annex fence that some residents of Oak Street think impinges several feet onto their property, Potter began building a big concrete enclosure around his yard and alley entranceway. His plan, which required no approval from the citizens association, includes a large deck and patio -- a vantage point for viewing Fourth of July fireworks without the crowds, said Sara Hebel and Lisa McAvoy, Potter's neighbors and his guests for fireworks viewing last summer.
Hebel and McAvoy decided to get involved in the citizens association when Swope knocked on their door and asked.
Hebel and McAvoy bought their three-level townhouse a year ago for $252,000. "The neighbors thought we were crazy" to pay that much, said McAvoy. However, just a year later, a home with the same floor plan one street away was listed at $349,900. Like many who have recently bought in the neighborhood, McAvoy and Hebel, who lived for years in the Clarendon area, didn't know the neighborhood existed until their real estate agent showed them the house.
Now, McAvoy says, she loves it. "It's an eccentric little community . . . a wacky neighborhood. It's like a small town where everyone knows each other and acknowledges everyone's quirks."
From the day they moved in, McAvoy and Hebel say, they have seldom been outside when they didn't wind up talking with or at least waving to a neighbor.
An example of the casual friendliness of the neighborhood occurred as Hurricane Isabel approached last fall. Hebel recalls that Potter, across the street, was concerned that his nearly ripe tomatoes would fly off the vines and damage neighbors' windows. So he picked and began distributing them to people as they hurried around their yards tying things down.
One industrious recipient starting frying the still-green tomatoes and delivering them to hungry takers. Hebel liked the treat so much that the neighbor invited her in to teach her how to cook them.
"It was surreal. . . . Here was this hurricane about to blow through, and I was across the street learning how to make fried green tomatoes."
The current dwellings of Foxcroft Heights were not the first on that hill. In 1863, the federal government established Freedman's Village there, to alleviate overcrowding as freed slaves moved to the capital to start new lives.
The hastily built village with about 1,000 residents included more than 50 two-story duplex homes, two churches, a school, a meeting hall, a hospital and a home for the elderly.
The village was always intended to serve as a temporary residence for job training and education and to assist with the transition from slavery to freedom. It closed in 1898 after most residents had moved to other areas.
Forty years later, Foxcroft Heights was built. The neighborhood has undergone a transition typical of older communities during the last few years. Many investor owners have sold to occupant owners, and the number of houses undergoing major renovations has climbed.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Daniel Gashaw and his wife, Ruth Ambaye, sat down to an Ethiopian ritual coffee ceremony. The couple moved to the neighborhood with their two young children about three years ago. They have added central air conditioning and new windows and doors, and completely renovated the kitchen.
The commute is easy for both Gashaw, a federal contractor who works downtown, and his wife, who works in Arlington. Although they know of no other Ethiopians in the neighborhood, the Dama Ethiopian cafe and grocery is just a block away, at Oak Street and Columbia Pike.
Dama is sometimes so busy that traffic complaints from Foxcroft Heights residents have come up at citizens association meetings. All three north-south streets -- Oak, Ode and Orme -- are one-way, and finding an alternate route presents a challenge when one is blocked.
Dama has started using a traffic director at high-traffic times to help customers park.
Ambaye can attest to the reason for the traffic: Dama's coffee and pastries. "I go there almost every day," she said.
It may be one of the reasons Ambaye and her husband have decided the neighborhood feels like home. "We plan to be here a long time," she said.