Planned Micro Units in Falls Church Add Urban Flavor to Housing Scene

AN EXAMPLE of micro unit and the features they offer that can be seen around the country include The Harriet in San Francisco, which has been open for a few years and melds elements of its kitchen into the common area. (Photo: — Panoramic Interests via Urban Land Institute

The massive new mixed-use development planned for the City of Falls Church’s west end, recently dubbed the “Little City Commons,” will feature a living space favored by big cities throughout the country when it introduces micro units upon completion in 2022.

A micro unit complex makes up just one of the new structures that EYA, PN Hoffman and Regency — the Falls Church Gateway Partners behind the nearly 10 acre development project — are building, but the new living option may represent the City’s boldest move to date in diversifying its housing stock to accommodate a younger, cash-strapped clientele.

“We wanted to find a way to bring some young energy to the City with the right housing type, but also not produce something that will encourage housing units with children,” EYA’s Evan Goldman said, whose company has experience constructing micro units with a project on Rockville Pike in Maryland. “The City’s focus on affordable housing and how to achieve that, plus wanting the kids and grandkids of City residents to move back to Falls Church instead of settling in Arlington or Fairfax County is where the micro units came into play.”

Goldman clarified that, by Federal Housing Authority standards, properties can’t discriminate against potential tenants that may not fit young-urban-professional profile the developers have in mind during their current design phase. However, there’s no doubt that micro units are geared toward those who don’t mind a more pared-down lifestyle.

The size of a micro unit, per Goldman, ranges anywhere from 300-500 square feet, or typically about 20 percent less than a one-bedroom apartment (usually within the 500-600 sq. ft. range) or a studio apartment (more often in the 400-500 sq. ft. range). The amenities per unit aren’t established so far in the design phase either, but Goldman mentioned the developers will consider features that open the space up — including high ceilings, as found in the micro units being planned for the Wharf in Washington, D.C., a built-in furniture piece or closet, or even the lack of a bedroom wall.

A reduction in space outside of the unit itself is also being considered. Goldman noted that micro units are being constructed for residents who prize public transportation and alternative modes of transportation over driving. As a result, the micro unit structure will feature dedicated parking, but not every unit in the building is planned to receive its own parking space.

THE WEWORK building in Crystal City is the only other micro unit structure currently planned for Northern Virginia. (Photo: News-Press)

Price-wise, Goldman estimated the micro units are about 20 percent less than the typical one-bedroom or studio apartment as well. Although, he couldn’t put an exact range on what the price would be at this time since, again, the Gateway Partners are still in the design phase. Using as a reference, the average apartment rent in the City of Falls Church is $2,027, making the estimated 20 percent reduction for a micro unit hover around an average of $1,622.

Sorting out the final details doesn’t deter from the fact that few other neighboring municipalities have taken a stab at these urban living arrangements. A spokesman for Fairfax County informed the News-Press that it doesn’t have any hard plans to construct micro units at this time, though, as long as it meets statewide standards, the county doesn’t have any zoning restrictions against doing so either.

Arlington County, on the other hand, does have micro units planned for the near future. Per Arlington County’s housing director David Cristeal, the WeWork building in Crystal City intends to make 252 apartments, many of which are 360 sq. ft. or less, and add them to the building under its brand, WeLive.

“We’re certainly interested, through the Housing Arlington effort, in seeing a wider range of housing types being offered,” Cristeal said. “That could be micro units, depending on location, that could be stack flats instead of townhouses. We’re just trying to expand the housing types that are offered and meet the needs of a population that’s changing in family structure.”

The City’s deputy director of housing and human services, Dana Lewis, is in favor of micro units coming to Falls Church. As Cristeal mentioned, she approves of the City being able to create a varied housing portfolio to attract new potential residents to the City while also addressing its mission to bring more “workforce housing” within its limits.

There is a slight amount of risk in undertaking micro units since the housing type is relatively new and more at home in denser urban areas. Though research indicates that the smaller apartments have legs, even if for a short period of time.

METHODS THAT DEVELOPERS use to trim down the spacial profile of furniture mainstays in the units are substitutes such as Murphy beds, which can collapse into a wall or designated space and free up room in the apartment. (Photo: Urbaneer via Urban Land Institute)

A 2015 Urban Land Institute study of micro units nationwide found the smaller living spaces held a higher occupancy rate than slightly larger substitutes (such as studio apartments). It caused researchers to conclude that micro units “appear underrepresented in the inventory relative to demand potential.” However, researchers also cautioned that it’s hard to extrapolate a preference trend from this data since units under 600 sq. ft. made up less than eight percent of apartments built in the studied time frame (2012-2013) with micro units making up less than three percent of apartments constructed.

A survey included in the study seemed to indicate that micro units were better for first-time renters, but had a low renewal rate. When conventional apartment residents were asked to consider a micro unit, most (58 percent) were not interested in the idea of the smaller unit. Respondents did find the cheaper cost compared to a studio, along with the proximity to groceries, restaurants and bars to be enticing, as long as they had in-unit washers and dryers and ample storage space. This bodes well for the Little City Commons project that will bring a grocery store, eateries and nightlife by way of a music venue within walking distance of the structure and intends to create a vibe akin to Clarendon, per Goldman.

Current micro unit residents who were surveyed prioritized the location (first), price (second), proximity to neighborhood amenities (fourth) and public transportation (sixth) when making their decision, with other areas such as assigned parking (10th) further down the list. The lack of storage space were current residents’ biggest concern, with the lower rent their favorite aspect. Maybe most concerning is that current micro unit residents were less likely to renew (41 percent) versus conventional apartment residents (57 percent).

Still, Goldman is confident that interest in micro units will only continue to strengthen by the time they hit the market. He notes the suburban trend that started in the 1950s is beginning to wind down in favor of smaller and more condensed lifestyles where people are comfortable sharing common spaces.