Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Cottage Housing in the Falls Church Community

By Theresa Sullivan Twiford

Falls Church is among the most desirable communities in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. With our small size and highly educated and involved citizenry, we are in a position to lead the region with progressive housing options, make our city’s tax base more diverse and add to the rich fabric of our community.

As a real estate professional, I meet many residents with evolving housing needs. Some have raised their children here, taking advantage of our highly respected school system, but then find their single-family homes too large and too expensive to maintain. When their search begins for more modest and low-maintenance housing, many find little from which to choose. On a similar note, there is a national growing trend toward single person households. Due to the lack of more manageable housing options in Falls Church, too many are forced to look elsewhere. If there were housing options that would allow a wider spectrum of residents to remain in our city, we would all benefit.

Currently we are dealing with the aftermath of mid-century zoning, which divides people and separates land uses. With the recent rise of mixed-use developments, once again there is the possibility that areas within our city can host a beautiful tapestry of shops, restaurants, community services, shared spaces and private living spaces. Mixed-use projects go a long way toward filling some of the housing voids compartmentalized zoning has imposed on us. However, we may find it beneficial to allow for more flexibility and creativity when thinking about how we use our land and how we house residents of all economic levels and needs.

As seen all around us, new construction in Falls Church City is typically either single-family homes selling for well over one million dollars or mixed–use, multiple story buildings. There are few choices in-between. While we may appreciate the mixed-use buildings and the amenities they bring, they should not be our sole antidote to skyrocketing land prices. Winter Hill and other townhome developments like the one in which I live on Park Avenue are the extent of our “middle” housing options. The only way other missing middle housing options can become reality is to allow higher density in residential zoning districts. Higher density could come in the form of backyard cottages, semi-detached homes or in the form of cottage communities.

Cottage housing is not a new concept. Between the 1920s and the 1930s, groupings of small homes referred to as bungalow courts were the most common form of multi-family housing in Southern California. Several Hollywood movie studios built nearby cottage communities so their workers had an affordable place to live within walking distance of work. One that remains today is St. Andrew’s Bungalow Court, which was built in 1919 and is just off of Sunset Blvd. St. Andrew’s Bungalow Court is an example of the enduring beauty and design of these small communities.

Seattle architect Ross Chapin further developed the cottage community concept by coining the term “pocket neighborhood” and writing a book of the same name. He has been involved with the design and development of dozens of these small neighborhoods, primarily on the West Coast. These quality homes are beautifully built with every square foot put to good use. The footprint is small and the floor plans are disciplined. The charm can easily be lost if made too large.

Hallmarks of these communities are large, livable front porches, main floor master bedrooms, common courtyards and parking areas that are kept off to the side to allow for pedestrian friendly common areas and neighborly encounters. Other common elements in pocket neighborhoods are community gardens, lush landscaping and gathering spaces for everything from large holiday celebrations to casual Friday afternoon get-togethers. While the individual lots are small, cottage homeowners do not have to sacrifice access to outdoor space and natural surroundings.

Many living in condos and micro apartments have already discovered the joys of living with a smaller footprint. A community of cottages here in Falls Church would provide a housing option for residents wanting a simpler and socially interactive lifestyle, while maintaining a little dirt under their feet and four walls of windows surrounding them.

The exciting reality is that Falls Church City is the ideal place to progressively lead the region by making smart, sustainable, community-focused housing options a reality for our citizens. The discipline to live small can free our minds as well as our time and money. Whether they are called pocket neighborhoods, cottage communities or bungalow courts, they have the potential to lead to the same place… smaller house, bigger life.