A map with a Sept. 4 Real Estate article on the Fairlington and Parkfairfax neighborhoods of Northern Virginia omitted much of North Fairlington. A corrected map appears today on Page F3. (Published 9/11/04)
The hundreds of squat brick buildings sit on acres of rolling land, nestled in tall trees where Arlington meets Alexandria.
They were thrown up quickly during World War II to alleviate a desperate shortage of housing for people flooding into the Washington area to work. As soon as construction was complete, defense workers scurried to occupy the units.
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Nowadays, the thousands of condominiums in the neighboring wartime developments of Fairlington and Parkfairfax are as popular with defense workers -- and others coming to Washington for jobs -- as they were when they were first built as rental housing in the early 1940s.
"I didn't know anything about the area when I moved here," said U.S. Army Maj. Mary Connell, who recently came to the Washington area from Kansas and bought a townhouse in Fairlington. "When I saw Fairlington, though, I knew right away that I liked it. It was the trees and the landscape, and the history."
Although sales have slowed a bit the past couple months, compared with the frenzy of spring, buyers are still snapping up the condos in a matter of days. The rich 60-year history of the developments attracts them, as well as the close-in location -- and the price.
The condos took a while to catch on, though. Five years ago, when real estate prices began soaring elsewhere in the region, the units at Parkfairfax and Fairlington remained stubbornly inexpensive. Two to three years ago, though, prices there took off, too, as defense jobs increased in the area and buyers were priced out of single-family houses close to the District. And although the two neighborhoods are still considered relatively affordable, that may not last much longer.
"It's young professionals working in defense, in Homeland Security, at the Pentagon and in the government who are buying," said John Meyer, an agent with Re/Max Allegiance who specializes in the Parkfairfax development. "Why? Because it's affordable housing close to their jobs."
Parkfairfax, a sprawling condominium development of 1,684 all-brick garden-style units in more than 200 buildings on 132 acres in northwest Alexandria, was built in 1941 and 1942 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. of New York to develop rental housing near the Pentagon.
Fairlington, an adjacent, larger complex of 3,449 all-brick units on 322 acres in the southernmost corner of Arlington County, was built from 1942 to 1944 by the federal government's Defense Homes Corp. to house defense workers and their families. Fairlington was the nation's largest apartment complex when it was built.
Both developments were part of the government's answer to a severe wartime housing crisis in the Washington area. Other smaller garden-style apartment complexes were also built in and around the District, such as McLean Gardens and Naylor Gardens in the District, during the same time for the same reason. Defense Homes also built apartment complexes for war workers in other parts of the country.
Garden apartments, or low-rise, low-density units, gained in popularity in the United States in the Depression years of the 1930s as a response to the severe lack of rental housing for moderate-income families. The style became even more prevalent during World War II as the need to house defense workers grew critical.
Early residents of Fairlington, which is 21/2 miles from the Pentagon, rented one-bedroom units for $58.50 a month. They paid up to $89.50 for the three-bedroom attached duplexes.
The housing crisis was so acute that the lack of schools, streets and trees did not deter tenants from moving in as quickly as the buildings were completed. Both developments filled up almost immediately, with waiting lists of hundreds wanting to get in.
After the war and in the 1950s, the complexes were among the area's most popular rental communities. Former presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford both lived in Parkfairfax as young congressmen. At that time, beyond their borders lay largely undeveloped countryside.
The complexes deteriorated after their heyday as rental communities, however. By the time they were converted into condos in the 1970s, they were badly in need of updating. Both developments were renovated before they were sold as condos.
Now, available units in the two developments get snapped up almost as quickly as they did in the 1940s. Steeply rising real estate prices have pushed many buyers into the condo market; close-in locations such as Arlington and Alexandria have only gained in popularity as traffic congestion has increased regionally.
"Properties stay on the market an average of five to seven days now," said Bonnie Blaszczyk, an agent with Re/Max 100 who specializes in Fairlington. "They're extremely popular." In the spring, when the real estate market was at fever pitch throughout the region, the condos sold even more quickly.
Defense workers and newcomers to the Washington area, such as Tim Abbott, a major in the U.S. Army, are attracted to the wartime complexes today.
Abbott, who recently transferred to Washington from Fayetteville, N.C., bought a two-bedroom 930-square-foot condominium in Parkfairfax in June for $295,000. He was one of several competing bidders for the condo; he had bid on two other homes in Parkfairfax already.
Abbott said the close-in location attracted him to Parkfairfax, along with its rolling landscape and park-like setting. He said the brick complex also had a "military feel about it" that he liked. "It's brick, it's all connected, it feels like a military post."
He was taken aback by the cost, though.
"In Fayetteville, I would get 1,000 acres of land, 3,000 square feet of house, a couple horses and a butler for what I paid here for a two-bedroom condo," he said.
For the Washington area, though, Parkfairfax is still considered affordable and a logical starter home for a first-time buyer such as Abbott, although perhaps not for long.
Prices have skyrocketed in the two condo complexes over the past two to three years of increased defense spending and galloping home price appreciation, figures from the area's multiple listing service showed.
Average sale prices have more than doubled -- and in some cases close to tripled -- in both complexes over the past four years, with most of the increases in the past two years, agents say.
"Two to three years ago, it was really cheap," real estate agent Blaszczyk said. "I used to think, 'Why aren't these houses selling for more?' The demand just wasn't there as much as it is now."
Agent Meyer of Re/Max Allegiance said of a condo like Abbott's: "Four years ago, a unit like that would've sold for $125,000 on a good day after being on the market for a few months."
Both complexes are in park-like settings with big mature trees, landscaped courtyards, winding roadways, bike paths and walking trails -- built at a time when land was cheap and available. Both have several community pools, tennis courts, volleyball courts, workout rooms and playgrounds.
Residents use a pedestrian walkway to cross busy Interstate 395 to reach restaurants and movie theaters in Shirlington. Fairlington, which includes seven separate homeowners associations, is a loose triangle bounded by Quaker Lane, King Street and I-395 with a little bulge of units on the other side of the interstate. Parkfairfax, across Quaker Lane from Fairlington, is a loose loop bounded by Martha Custis Drive and Gunston Road.
In style, the two complexes are similar, with all-brick housing grouped around pleasant courtyards. In Parkfairfax, every condo has its own outside front door with accompanying stoop or columned entrance, making them seem almost like single-family houses. In Fairlington, most of the condos also have separate outside front doors. Many of the condos in both developments have back patios.
Prices at Parkfairfax are generally lower than in Fairlington for several reasons, agents say. There is no central air conditioning or heating in Parkfairfax, with wall and baseboard units the norm. The Fairlington condos tend to be larger, mainly because many come with basements. Homeowners can fence their back yards in Fairlington, whereas in Parkfairfax only plants can be used as an outside divider. And most Parkfairfax units don't have their own washers and dryers -- there are laundry rooms instead.
These days, no one builds low-rise brick developments like Fairlington and Parkfairfax in close-areas because land is too precious and construction materials too expensive.
Many homeowners say one reason they were attracted to the complexes was the feeling they were well-constructed. The walls are thick plaster rather than drywall; cinder block firewalls are sandwiched between the duplexes in Fairlington.
"The buildings that were recently built around here didn't look as well-built to me," said Tiffani Worsham, a teacher from Baton Rouge, La., who moved here for a job with Fairfax County public schools and bought a two-bedroom condo in Parkfairfax in July for $319,000. "This place has wood floors, crown moldings. It's been here a long time and it has a better feel about it."
The truth is, though, that Parkfairfax and Fairlington, like most wartime housing, were built in a hurry and their construction was hampered by wartime shortages. Many of the Washington area complexes built during the war years, especially those in Southeast, were shoddily constructed, historians say.
"Contractors did the worst possible job in a lot of cases," said Ryan Shepard, collections librarian at the D.C. Historical Society. "A lot of war housing was thrown up in Anacostia during the wartime years. The government threw the money out, but then didn't oversee the projects. There was a lot of corruption and organized crime was involved."
Shephard said, "There was a massive housing crunch at the time. They couldn't dillydally around."
Still, Fairlington and Parkfairfax were built with an attention to detail that would be hard to find today, with features such as all-brick exteriors with some stonework, ornamental chimneys, slate roofs, dormers, columned entrances and arched windows.
And it's precisely those old details that attract many buyers.
"I love the look of the brick buildings, and the layout of the development," said Cristina Stensvaag, who bought a 1,600-square-foot one-bedroom condo with a basement in Fairlington in 2000 for $175,500. "The buildings have so much personality. I love that it's on the historic register, too." Both Fairlington and Parkfairfax were put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Not everything about the developments is attractive, though -- many residents could do without the harvest gold and avocado green appliances that date from the condo conversion days.
So homeowners such as David Beckerman are busy upgrading the interiors of their condos, ripping out the old, dated kitchens, bathrooms and windows.
Beckerman, who bought a two-bedroom condo in Parkfairfax last year for $203,000, overhauled his kitchen soon after he bought the unit.
"The kitchen looked like it was stuck in the 1960s," Beckerman said. So he installed a new sink, new appliances, new cabinets and new granite countertops. He put in a terra cotta tile floor, lowered the kitchen ceiling and put in spotlights. He also installed a washer and dryer.
"There's so much renovation going on now," Meyer of Re/Max Allegiance said, "people are re-doing their kitchens, their bathrooms, tearing down walls, replacing the old windows, putting in washer-dryers."
Tom Mayhew redid his bathroom, and put in new floors and windows throughout the two-bedroom unit he bought in Parkfairfax two years ago for $182,000. He plans to soon put his condo on the market to trade up to a single-family house.
Mayhew is so confident that the unit will sell quickly -- he is thinking of pricing it at $320,000 -- that he is looking for a place to buy before he sells. "I know my condo will sell in less than a week," he said. "And I could get a bidding war going, too."
If prices go up much more, Parkfairfax and Fairlington may soon be out of reach for their traditional residents -- members of the military, defense workers and first-time homeowners.
Abbott from the Army said many of his military colleagues, for example, are now opting to live farther from the Pentagon in less expensive areas.
"I don't know how many more military people will be able to afford it," Abbott said. "I'm single and so I have a little bit more money. People with kids and families are moving way south, out to Fredericksburg."
Agent Peggy Parker from Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.'s office in Fairlington agrees.
"Fairlington attracts Pentagon people, that's for sure," Parker said. "But the young people who work there can't afford to live here anymore. The military doesn't pay them enough to be able to buy. With a condo in the $400,000 range, you often need two incomes to qualify."
Parker said, "Historically, this was a neighborhood for first-time buyers. But now, it's becoming a neighborhood for move-up buyers."