By Paul Barkley & Hal Lippman
So…here we go again…yet another in the seemingly endless stream of NIMBY-inspired (Not in My Back Yard) opposition to proposed development projects of one stripe or another. While such opposition is understandable — and even inevitable — given our City’s small size and likelihood that one or more neighborhoods will be directly adjacent to any proposed development activity, it is typically ill-founded and proven wrong over time. The latest case is the current opposition that has sprung up against the proposed Railroad Avenue Cottages: a unique “pocket” community located adjacent to the W&OD Trail, comprised of ten, 1.5 story (1,500 square feet) structures and a shared common house, for residents 55 years old and above.
As long-time residents, we think this opposition is reminiscent of that which occurred in connection with a precedent-setting project approved in 1965, more than 50 years ago! At that time, Paul Barkley and his partner, Harold Pierce, proposed one of the first townhouse rezoning projects in our City’s history and, indeed, anywhere in Northern Virginia’s inner suburbs. The project, James Thurber Court, consisting of twenty townhouses on a cul-de-sac off North Maple Avenue, across from the Columbia Baptist Church, prompted a strong and vociferous outcry from neighbors who voiced comments strikingly similar to those being put forward today against the Cottages.
Among other things, those opposed asserted that townhouses being located within a single family neighborhood were completely inappropriate. They proclaimed that there were insufficient parking spaces and spillover would necessarily disrupt the surrounding neighborhood. They also insisted that there would be increased traffic, which would imperil the safety of pedestrians and even pose a threat to the small children participating in the Church’s daycare program. Others postulated that townhouse purchasers would not fit into the City’s active community, and that this type of housing would soon fall into decay.
Of course, none of these concerns proved accurate. When the townhouses went on the market, large numbers of people came to inspect them. Purchasers included single people, young families with children, and seniors (including City residents downsizing from their single family homes). Many purchasers became active in the community, both politically and in enduring service on City boards and commissions. Traffic and parking issues did not precipitate the catastrophic results predicted, and the values of the townhouses have proven sustainable for decades. Most importantly, the townhouses blended seamlessly into the single family neighborhood where they were situated and the project came to serve as a model for others over the years — Wrens Way (North Cherry Street) and Tollgate (off East Broad Street), to name just two.
In addition, there are other benefits that will accrue from the cottage homes redevelopment. Perhaps foremost among these is repair of and improvements to address stormwater runoff — a long-standing issue for our City’s older residential neighborhoods. Along Railroad Avenue, much of this runoff comes from the abutting residential properties. Another benefit provided by the redevelopment is the opportunity to remove invasive and non-native plants and other vegetation and replace them with landscaping that will serve the dual purpose of creating a “sense of place” for the new residences and enhancing the appearance of the neighborhood in general. These improvements, moreover, will likely positively affect the experience of W&OD bicyclists and other Trail users as they pass by, especially insofar as they will be in marked contrast to the unattractive hodgepodge of older industrial and commercial properties on the north side of the Trail.
In sum, in our view the experience with the James Thurber Court townhouses continues to resonate, holding lessons learned that would be well to bear in mind as the debate over the Railroad Avenue cottages unfolds. If long-term, real-world experience is to be our guide, the concerns — parking, traffic, appropriateness — being expressed by those opposed to this thoughtful and well-designed project (as well as others that encountered similar opposition in recent years, such as the Northgate Apartments on East Jefferson and North Washington Streets or the Hilton Garden Inn bordering on Park Avenue) will again be proven unfounded and our Little City will be the better for it.
Paul Barkley is recently retired after running an architectural practice in the City for 50 years. Hal Lippman is a former Falls Church School Board member, Falls Church City Council member and Vice Mayor.