F.C.’s Novel ‘Railroad Cottages’ Project Wins Regional Award

POSING WITH A POSTER displaying their winning Railroad Cottages project in Falls Church at the ULI annual awards conference Tuesday were (left to right) Jack Wilbern, architect, Theresa Sullivan Twiford, project originator, Bob Young, developer, and Joe Wetzel, project coordinator. (Photo: News-Press)

As the conversation about housing supply amid a striking regional shortage is heating up throughout the region, as well as in Falls Church, a solid blow was struck for pressing ahead with creative alternatives to the traditional single family home Tuesday. Falls Church’s own once-controversial Railroad Cottages senior housing project won the award from the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute for “2019 Excellence in Housing” at its fifth annual Metropolitan Washington Real Estate Trends Conference Awards Program.

Falls Church City Council member Phil Duncan, in a conversation with the News-Press earlier this week, said that while the Railroad Cottages project does not qualify as “affordable housing,” it does represent one of a large array of viable alternatives to the trend for large single family homes that he hopes his colleagues on the Falls Church City Council will look for creative ways to incentivize over the next period.

An “Excellence in Affordable Housing” award was given to the Columbia Hills Apartments in Falls Church’s neighbor Arlington County at the ULI event Tuesday. With all the regional focus on the extraordinary and splashy developments at the District Wharf, the Falls Church and Arlington awards set a tone for actually addressing the growing and pressing shortage of housing in the area especially to meet the needs of low and middle income households.

The ULI awards were presented, according to a ULI statement, to highlight “innovative projects, policies and initiatives that contribute to the enhancement of vibrant neighborhoods, exemplify creative problem solving and celebrate visionary thinking.”

Falls Church’s Railroad Cottages, a project of local developer Bob Young, are a group of 10 age-restricted homes, a “pocket community” with a shared common house that was designed to appeal to 55+ seniors seeking an alternative to condominium living, who wish to downsize to a low-maintenance lifestyle without compromising amenities of single family living. The homes were developed for “aging in place” with no stairs to the main living area and master suite, and located in close proximity to the City’s “main street,” West Broad, and the Washington and Old Dominion trail and park.

Each of the 10 homes have 1,490 square feet and the common house “provides an opportunity for residents to gather with each other on a regular basis and to accommodate guests or larger family or community events,” and a lighted broadwalk takes residents from the covered parking area onto their porches.

The award-winning Railroad Cottages community “allows for one to reap the valuable benefits of city living while enjoying the comfort and relaxation of a summer vacation cottage,” according to the project’s application for the award.

The Falls Church City Council was also on the receiving end of credit for providing the zoning changes needed to permit the Railroad Cottages to be built. Young credited the City Council for passing a “cottage zoning ordinance” that allows double the by-right density on the site through a special exception process.

A CLOSER LOOK at the Railroad Cottages finalist board that helped convince judges at the Urban Land Institute to select the age-restricted cluster as its winner. (Photo: News-Press)

The homes, he said, “create a pocket neighborhood designed to create opportunities for interaction and connectedness with welcoming front porches, community mailboxes and the Common House.”

Another side of the issue involved the improvement to the land on which the project was built. The moribund Railroad Avenue was a blight on the City with abandoned and rundown homes until Young took advantage of an opportunity to buy them.

No small amount of controversy surrounded the advance of his visionary cottages concept, mostly coming from neighbors to the site.

But according to the City’s Director of Community Planning and Economic Development Services, Jim Snyder, it was extensive cooperation between the City and the developer that enabled the project to be successful.

“It was a team effort, and that had a lot to do with its success,” Snyder told the News-Press. He added there were a lot of important developer interests present at the awards ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Building in D.C. Tuesday who were seeing an innovative project of this type, a “replicable project,” he said, for the first time.

Young, in comments to the News-Press, credited the “combination of innovative zoning, with the help of the City staff, along with the sustainability features, the use of solar and geothermal and storm water management, and its feature of permitting ‘aging in place’ for residents, which were contributing factors for winning the award.

“It involved taking something that was essentially a junkyard, with abandoned cars and an eyesore and problem to the city yielding no tax revenue, and turning it into an asset to the city, with a lot of tax revenue as a result,” Young said.