Even as a child, I can recall the family trips down to Florida or South Carolina, witnessing all those high-rise apartment and condo buildings, each one of which had its own balcony. Sometimes two. And I remember noticing how there never seemed to be anyone out using them. Needless to say, I didn’t understand real estate or market capitalization back then, but one thing was certain: I didn’t have a balcony at my house, and I know 100% absolutely positively that if we did have one, I would have used it all the time. Or so I thought.
Fast forward to adulthood, and though I still have never lived in a high-rise with a balcony, I did rent a second floor apartment with one And for the two-and-a-half years that I lived there, I spend no more than six hours total on that balcony. It’s not that it didn’t even occur to me. In fact, it occurred to me frequently, but it never seemed all that appealing in the grand scheme of things. About the only thing balconies would be good for were a sunny space for reading a book, and while I had a reasonably comfy lawn chair, it was rare that the weather offered good enough conditions to justify it: not sunny enough, too humid, or not enough breeze. I also felt exposed and on stage when I was out on that balcony, in part because it was guaranteed that I’d be the only one using it.
Yet we keep seeing balconies. Perhaps the housing typologies of the 21st century have elicited a mild retreat in the fad; certainly among most downtown high-rise apartment and condo buildings, the presence of floor-to-ceiling windows seem like a greater amenity than a balcony, if well-informed empirical evidence is a reasonable guide. But my recent exploration of a brand-new multi-family housing complex in Alexandria, Virginia suggests that many developers continue to perceive them as a marketable feature, even if the placement and design boggles the mind.
This recent development known as Eisenhower Square features townhomes that broke ground sometime in late 2017 or early 2018. The primary arterial, Eisenhower Avenue, has long been densely populated with light industrial and large-scale commercial uses, conditions which I featured in an article a few months ago. Given the high demand for housing in Alexandria (and all of northern Virginia for that matter), this corridor (branded the “Eisenhower Valley”) has morphed into a new hotbed for multi-family developments, no doubt predicated more on its location than aesthetics: wedged between a superhighway (Interstate 95 and parts of I-495, the Capital Beltway) and a rail yard, the Eisenhower Valley wouldn’t pass as the most picturesque part of this often very aesthetic city; most people would effectively describe the area as “no man’s land”. In fact, as recently as the early 2010s, the site of Eisenhower Square was an administrative and construction staging area for the improvements and expansion to the nearby Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a project I explored just a few weeks back. Not exactly top-tier real estate. But the location is convenient, and it’s neither sufficiently ugly nor unsafe to fend off housing developments amidst the low-slung logistics centers, the bland office parks, and self-storage units. Eisenhower Square is one of these developments.
As one would expect from this housing market, the prices remain high along this humdrum ribbon of land in an otherwise desirable city. At the time of these photos (early 2021, when the last phase was finishing construction), the majority of these townhomes are selling for around $1 million, which is up from the high $800,000s in 2018, the year they first came on the market. That said, the townhomes at Eisenhower Square are large by the region’s standards. The majority are four floors and at least 2,400 square feet; the townhome featured in the above link has a cost of $393 per square foot. While this per-square-foot cost is quite high compared national averages, it’s lower than many of Alexandria’s most coveted neighborhoods, such as Old Town and Del Ray. Thus, by Alexandria’s standards, the prices at Eisenhower Square again reinforce the notion that the Eisenhower Valley is a conveniently located area of third-tier real estate—within the broader context. Prospective buyers hear get a lot more home for their dollar; it’s preferable for people seeking more than three bedrooms, such as those with large families.
Even with these sizes, the townhomes at Eisenhower Square manage to tack on a little extra: they have balconies.
But here’s the clincher: are the balconies really even a selling point? Needless to say, these are the back side of the townhomes. The developer of these units is Toll Brothers, a well-established company whose output heavily favors the upper-middle income market in major East Coast metros. It’s the fifth largest homebuilder in the country. The Toll Brothers know what they’re doing. So I’m sure they have a good explanation for the balcony placement at Eisenhower Square, because it’s worse than one might expect.
All of the townhomes at Eisenhower Square have a back alley with two-car garages, and perched above each garage is a balcony. I cannot imagine who would find such a view appealing: not only do the homeowners look out unto the back sides of their neighbors, but the proximity of neighbors across this narrow street means that one household could easily peer in from the sliding balcony door to the next house, or carry on a conversation from above the alley—one balcony to another. Would any reasonable household want to use this? Or does it simply end up becoming outdoor closet space? About the only arguments I can see is that homeowners who enjoy outdoor grilling now have a space where they can do so. And, as more property managers completely prohibit smoking within units, the balcony creates a permissible space to light up a fill-in-the-blank without running afoul of regulations.
In fact, that may be the biggest selling point to balconies as a whole. While the fabled balconies of south Florida high-rises undoubtedly can capitalize on breathtaking oceanfront views, in the cases of most multi-family buildings, no such view exists. While I suppose a reasonable number of views can be spectacular if the living unit is sufficiently elevated from the ground—a view is a view—it’s hard to imagine any second-floor balcony achieving that result. Perhaps most ironically, the Eisenhower Square development also features a residential tower called Denizen.
There it is, in the background. While a few of the units include balconies, the vast majority do not. In fact, the lowest levels of Denizen (concealed by the foreground townhomes) feature still more townhomes with unique, personalized entrances. But no balconies.
This time, the units are affixed to the tower structure, which is visible as part of the protruding white wall in the background of this photo below, where the sidewalk accessing the townhomes comes to an end.
As far as I can tell, that means these townhomes at Denizen share their parking with the residents of the high-rise, all in a recessed garage. So no balconies for the townhomes…but some of the units in the tower get them What’s the underlying strategy? The best I can surmise is that the Toll Brothers took an a la carte approach, with various combinations of amenities—discrete versus shared garages, personalized entrances versus a shared foyer and concierge, balconies or none—all of which calibrate to a broader array of price points. And it wouldn’t surprise me if they can count balconies as part of the total square footage within a unit. I’m sure the interiors of the various units also offer varying perks.
But the question remains: what is the selling point of balconies? What’s their appeal? I’ve offered the explanations I can surmise. And neither Denizen nor the townhomes at Eisenhower Square offer much of an additional answer. I fully recognize that I’ve chosen a particularly weak example to prove my point, which the pro-balcony contingent would impugn as a “low blow”. It’s not hard to find better examples where the balconies can justify themselves: they fit more with the surroundings, they’re bigger, they offer unequivocally magnificent views. And it’s reasonable to conclude that, at the very least, balconies allow a homeowner or tenant in a multi-family setting to lay claim to a tiny slice of outdoors. Since they have no individual territorial claims to a yard—the more appropriate term would be “grounds” or “common area” (which they would have to pay to maintain through various monthly fees)—a balcony is at least something they can call all their own, views be danged. And balconies might have earned more cachet in previous decades, particularly the 1960s through 1980s, when apartment towers were more likely to preside over an urban landscape that was either disproportionately automobile-oriented or riddled with crime, rendering the prospect of walking around outside less desirable. With crime levels not (quite) at the levels of the 70s and 80s and the urban amenities much greater, the 2021 balcony offers a reprieve from stifling interior air. Might as well just walk around. Even in the no-man’s-land of Eisenhower Square, a commercial node known as Carlisle is within a 10-minute walk away, featuring restaurants, a movie theater, and access to the WMATA metro system.
Balconies in 2021 seem more like a stalemate: they aren’t often a deal-breaker in terms of adding value to a development, but, depending on the construction materials used for the shell, it may be comparatively easy and inexpensive to include one on the primary windows associated with a unit’s bedrooms or living room. Thus, they likely do still yield a return on investment. So we continue to witness new construction with balconies…even though we virtually never see anyone lounging out on them. Their entire purpose may very well be for that beloved charcoal or kerosene grill, which depends on open air to operate; most people with room temperature IQ know that running a grill in an enclosed space is basically a death wish. It certainly isn’t usually because of the views. After all, just a quarter mile away from Eisenhower Square, in the aforementioned dense mixed-use community of Carlisle, a new high-rise building is nearing completion with plenty of balconies. And here’s the glorious view they’re going to enjoy.