Mid-century Americana: the point when urban housing development really hit a wall.

It’s not hard at all to see how housing has evolved over the last century, especially when we visit the residential areas right next to a city center and compare them to the ones a few miles further out in the suburbs. Far more difficult is the distinction between homes from the 1980s and those under construction today. But it can be done, and sometimes the best way to discern these subtle changes is when multiple generations of housing are lumped all together, like they frequently are in Alexandria, Virginia.

IMG_9144This old and fortuitously well-situated city is best known as part of the expansive northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, right across the Potomac River. But the settlement that eventually became Alexandria predates the nation’s capital by a good 120 years. Even after the establishment and implementation of Pierre l’Enfant’s Plan, across the river and a few miles north (under the supervision of President Washington), Alexandria continued to enjoy moderate growth as a small city on its own right. Today, the historic Old Town of Alexandria is one of the most prestigious and attractive areas within the entire metro, featuring a host of shops and early- to mid-19th century housing in a tightly wrought, walkable grid.  (Most of this article’s focus will center on a single block fronting the arterial Patrick Street on one side, as featured in the photo above, all just a quarter-mile north of Old Town.)

Only in the mid-20th century did Alexandria’s population explode, quintupling since World War II and expanding to meld with the suburban areas in adjacent Fairfax and Arlington counties. Though historically a community of attached and detached single family homes, such is no longer the case: its proximity to the jobs in downtown DC, the Rosslyn and Clarendon districts of Arlington County, as well as its own nodes at various stops along the WMATA metro line—all have elevated Alexandria to a flourishing city of more than 100,000 inhabitants, with numerous multifamily apartment and condominium buildings, especially closer to the river. This surge has largely eschewed the protected Old Town, with the majority of multifamily, midrise structures sprouting up to the north. And since the river and heavily built neighboring communities leave Alexandria hemmed in, the old and new housing have no choice but to stand cheek-by-jowl.

Here’s some of the more traditional stuff, which comprises the vast majority of Alexandria housing in Old Town:IMG_9152But here, on a single block about a half-mile north of King Street (Old Town’s primary commercial corridor) is housing unmistakably from two time periods.1970s walled townhomes next to older bungalowIn the foreground, although not likely antebellum (we’re not in the historic center of Alexandria here), we see a home that may still date from the early years of the 20th century. Wood frame, tightly situated on a narrow lot, and directly fronting onto the sidewalk—just like the other homes on that half of the block.

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Now return to that earlier photo, with the two housing styles. Check the homes in the background with the brown bricks. Let’s zoom in a bit closer.IMG_9149We really can’t see anything from the street level because a heavy wall blocks the view. And it continues that way to very end of the block.IMG_9150The online Alexandria Office of Real Estate Assessments states that the homes were all built in or around 1979—approximately a half-century later than the wood-frame homes right next door.

While the two eras of housing reveal obvious distinctions in height, material and ornamentation, they are nowhere near as interesting as the way the structures occupy their lots. The older homes have a design that treats the city street as a welcome mat; it serves as the primary entrance, for both guests and the inhabitants. These homes feature no curb cuts; if they have garages, they are tucked behind, accessible only through an alley. Their form complies with the conventions we expect from metro D.C.’s older neighborhoods.

Then there are the brick townhomes right next door, which, as we see from this Google Street View at the next corner, offer nothing to look at for the passers-by on Patrick Street, pedestrian or vehicular. The only curb cut is along Pendleton Street, a less traveled local road. Everything else gets the wall.

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The hedge in the foreground is a bit misleading; these three townhomes are plainly accessible by the street, as seen here. But they’re the only ones. The remainder of these townhomes has another entrance: the back alley.IMG_9155In other words, the developers in the 1970s either demolished older housing (like the wood-frame homes) to build a series of fortified townhomes, or they took a vacant, underdeveloped lot and made the next move. Regardless, they determined that the market for housing in Alexandria at that time skewed more toward privacy and enhanced safety, so most residents of these townhomes get a walled-in yard, whereas the wood-frame houses view the sidewalk.

Why such a carceral approach to urbanism in 1979? Unfortunately, it may have to do with the neighbors across the street.IMG_9146IMG_9151These low-slung quads may not look like much, but they carry the telltale architectural indicators of early federally funded housing: spartan aesthetics, generous courtyard space, uniformity. Indeed, they belong to the Arlington Redevelopment & Housing Authority (ARHA). In other words, these structures had long functioned as relief from the generally high housing costs throughout metro D.C, having first accommodated African-American defense workers during World War II, an era in which de jure segregation prevailed. In the 1970s, when the vast majority of home starts in Alexandria were taking place in the more auto-oriented areas to west of Old Town, the perception was that any housing catering to low-income people was riddled with crime. The only way for townhomes across the street from a public housing complex to remain marketable in 1979 was to close them off from the outside world as much as possible. It may have been the only viable way to construct market-rate housing in this older part of town—no doubt a lot less bustling than it is today (since most walkable old neighborhoods were declining in the 1970s). The brick wall served as both a socioeconomic and, I suspect, a racial barrier that remains firmly planted a generation later, though the presence of this wall also leaves this strip of houses as an outlier in a generally human-scaled district of Alexandria.

Fast-forward another generation, and the urban form has softened somewhat. On that same block as the brick wall, fronting the corner of Pendleton Street and North Henry Street, we encounter a new cluster of townhomes under construction.IMG_9156Unlike the 70s incarnations, these feature a stoop-like set of stairs right on the sidewalk, affording the residents less privacy from pedestrians.IMG_9158But perhaps that’s the whole point. These new structures still have garages in the back…IMG_9161…but the fundamental orientation is toward the city street. Another set of townhomes went up in 2017 and largely duplicates this arrangement, visible as we turn a corner.IMG_9160Meanwhile, across the street, some slightly more mature multifamily housing reveals the escalating cultural acceptance for high-density and mixed-use in an area that used to be dominated by single-family homes, like the one in the foreground.IMG_9157The five-story structure in the background likely would have ruffled feathers in 1979, if there had even been a legitimate clientele for such a housing type. These days, housing demand in Alexandria is so great and land values so high that developers have no choice but to build upward at a higher FAR to achieve a return on their investment. The encroachment of high-density housing is visible all around our block in question. Just look at Patrick Street, immediately to the north of our walled townhomes:IMG_9165As is typical of the newer construction, we see no brick wall and plenty of windows right along the street? And what stands directly opposite this four-story structure?IMG_9166More affordable housing from a half-century ago. As attitudes toward low-income housing have relaxed, the barriers have come down. Quite a contrast from the streetscape that has served as the focus of this article.

I’m not faulting the builders or occupants of the 1979 townhomes. The approach surely seemed like the only viable method to sell real estate at that point in time. But, since very little new housing places so much emphasis on defensible space (or, at the very least, it finds subtler methods of achieving it), one can question if the 1979 approach is actually less marketable by today’s standards. No doubt some people appreciate the privacy of small front yards. In a nation as suburbanized as the US, the general demand, outside the Northeast, for homes with zero lot lines is quite low. But the absence of a discrete façade—where the only real entry is immediately next to a garage door—means the residents (and their visitors) have little other option but to approach their homes through an alley. And the public housing across the street has grown increasingly innocuous.IMG_9162If you can’t already tell, these aging, mustard structures are sitting in a mothballed state. Here’s the sign out front.IMG_9163Plans are to demolish the Ramsey Homes and, according to a Post article (now a bit on the old side), eventually they’ll get turned into more multi-family housing: a 52-unit structure, again adding considerable density for a part of town that clearly supports it. And a sizable portion will remain affordable, since the City of Alexandria requires a unit-for-unit replacement, when an affordable development gets torn down.

The continued metamorphosis of this city is making the brick townhomes from 1979 increasingly seem like a relic. I’ll concede that most municipalities can’t claim Alexandria’s convenient location, wedged between some of the nation’s wealthiest counties and the beneficiary of a slew of lucrative jobs tied to Department of Defense contracts. Elsewhere, the sort of high-density infill that has engulfed Alexandria in the last 20 years would face zoning challenges, rampant NIMBYism, and, eventually, a real estate bubble. But metro DC generally dodged the bubble (and the bullet) that choked the rest of the nation back during the Great Recession, and there’s no evidence, even during an administration committed to “draining the swamp”, that the demand for one- and two-bedroom residential units is going to abate. Job growth is still plentiful. Therefore, Alexandria affords us a rare privilege: the ability to explore nearly 150 years of housing typologies over the course a five-minute walk. And most of it is charming to look. With a few exceptions.

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8 thoughts on “Mid-century Americana: the point when urban housing development really hit a wall.

  1. Alex Pline

    I sure am glad to see new construction not turning its back on the street. As you point out this is certainly the predominant way today. However, old attitudes die hard and many of my generation (Late Boomer/X hybrids) who are the only people who can afford new urban development in many places still have not fully embraced that development pattern. I see this in Annapolis where, despite an increasingly intense urban form, there are subtle clues that a more protected pattern like the 1979 development in your article is still more desirable than a pattern that properly fronts the street. There is a town home development on West Street just outside the downtown built in 2013 that has two rows separated by a narrow alley that hides utilities and garages – all good so far. But in looking at several units (we are in the market), when you normalize prices with size and finishes, there is a premium for the units that are internal facing as they front a small common grassy area, which I think is a suburbanite’s view of the city living rather than an urbanite’s view which would favor a unit that is engaged with street life (what I want). What’s kind of amusing to me in this context is regardless of unit I suspect 99% of the ingress/egress is most likely through the alley as people drive in and out and the most predominant use of the front doors, especially on the inward facing side is when they take their dogs out to relieve themselves in the grassy courtyard.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Yeah Alex, I’d say our cities have tons of that type of urban form, and while it’s not getting constructed as often now as it was then (as you noted), it may have more to do with improved safety in urban centers than a widespread resurgence in fondness for old housing typologies. After all, the market for the conventional “front stoop” approach is at least partially getting fulfilled by people who just want to buy the house from the 1920s…quite a bit of the new development in Alexandria, for example, is multifamily with a common entrance, so everyone’s doors open out to a hallway.

      A suburban counterpart would be the cul-de-sac subdivision. As recently as the 1980s, most of these subdivisions would built their internal road network, often with only one point of ingress/egress, but the houses on the perimeter would still face a busy arterial or collector road. These days, they’ve discovered people don’t like having front yards on busy streets, and they’d much rather have those homes on the perimeter front the internal roads, so that the back yards are up against the busy collector road–separated often by a swale or a wall.

      I just think the market for the conventional zero setback urban form is still not all that big. Leafy green suburbs left an indelible imprint on the collective American homebuying psyche.

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        For sure, your last comment is right on the mark. In a new suburban context the topology you mention, despite the 10,000 foot issues that it causes, is a very rational design. I certainly have my issues with it from a Strong Towns point of view (it’s a fiscal loser), but I realize that is what a large portion of the country actually wants, or thinks they want until the negatives significantly overcome the positives anyway. But I get very frustrated when suburban attitudes are brought to urban contexts. Everything is a tradeoff and if you are going to live in an urban context you can’t necessarily expect the same set of “amenities” as a suburban context, the most notable being copious parking. I sit on the Annapolis Transportation Board, and we get people complaining about not being able to park 4 cars in this context (meaning for free) when there is a city parking garage next door that will be happy to rent you as many monthly spaces as you want. I mentioned to one person in a hearing “you realize you live in a city, right?”.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          It’s a problem nationwide, and no doubt has to do with deep-seated, largely unconscious ideations from people who want to hybridize the conveniences of suburbia by shoehorning its most incompatible aspects within a finely wrought urban context. In more simpler terms, it’s cultural “lag time”.

          I know it’s not all that helpful to speculate, but I have a hard time believing that our 1979 brick-wall townhomes could get built in Alexandria today. Not only would design guidelines draw negative attention to such a proposal, but neighbors would probably complain about incompatability with the character (and this time they’d have a very strong case). Furthermore, no developer would build it because there’s no evidence of a widespread market demand for that type of thing. I think.

          Reply
  2. Ralph L

    “the perception was that any housing catering to low-income people was riddled with crime. ”
    Not a perception, a reality, and the crack epidemic in the 80’s made things worse in the 4+ public housing areas on the north side of King. Old Town did not begin reviving until the late 60’s (that’s why there’s so much ante-bellum left, downtown was moribund for a century), and it took a long time to gentrify west of Washington Street. There was one upscale restaurant in the entire city in the early 60’s–before liquor could be sold in restaurants. South Arlington was a dump, too, up to Crystal City.

    The City didn’t shut down the massage parlors (whorehouses) on the west end of King St until the early 70’s. I’m surprised there was ANY new construction that far north of King in the 70’s. It was an outpost where white people weren’t welcome.

    Low-income white families were largely priced out of the area when the big private wartime low-rise apartment complexes further west were renovated and (usually) went condo in the 70’s. The People’s Republic’s politicians needed the reliable black votes, so the public complexes stayed (and looked much worse than in your photos–no grass, no shutters, little paint). Public school enrollment dropped in half in the decade, but of course the number of employees stayed the same.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Interesting. I have to admit I never knew that Alexandria was once perceived as rough, or at least that parts of it were. I figured it was a leafy suburban retreat, even during DC’s nadir in the 1980s. And while it sounds like it had slightly recovered by that point, its aging housing stock couldn’t compete against early suburbanization, so Old Town probably was pretty disinvested during the time period you describe (1950s and early 60s), then gentrified so much that it’s hard to imagine what it looked like 50 years ago.

      In other words, a lot like Georgetown…

      Reply
      1. Ralph L

        Georgetown never declined as far as downtown Alexandria, though its century out of fashion also preserved its old buildings. I read somewhere that it was early on the favored locale in DC for rich Jews, who weren’t welcome in Kalorama before WWII. JFK and Jackie moved there in 1953, about the time my mother and 4 young friends rented a diplomat’s townhouse (so it was fashionable but not yet sky-high). A lower, laxer drinking age attracted Virginia’s teenagers and other miscreants and weirdos to M Street. The street hookers were blocks away on 14th, so I heard, and any drug dealing was done discretely.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          It’s fortunate for Georgetown and Alexandria (and us) that the century of being out of fashion preserved the buildings, rather than destroying them. Far too many old districts went into even just an 50-year-long period of neglect and the result was widespread abandonment, decay, and demolition. I suspect that, when Georgetown and Alexandria bottomed out, it left poor households trapped in some of the cheapest real estate in the region, which is far more likely to happen in an expensive city than a cheap one. And, since the recovery of these areas took place in tandem with the real emergence of the historic preservation movement, the redevelopment capitalized on keeping the old stuff looking old, rather than completely gussying over it with a tacky renovation, or a tear-down and rebuild.

          But never in a million years would it have occurred to me that parts of south Arlington were economically troubled. Is this the area closer to Arlandria and Nauck? Because it’s hard for me to imagine a time when Aurora Hills or Arlington Ridge was ever anything but top dollar…

          Reply

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