Full of Character

Boutique condo buildings are popping up all over Washington. Many are conversions—a row of historic townhouses, an old firehouse, a former church.

The Residences at St. Monica's is a new nine-unit condo building in what was an Episcopal church on Capitol Hill. The developer is salvaging many of the original architechtural features such as 100-year-old stained-glass windows, brick archways, and an altar. The building will be completed in May. Photograph by Yassine El Mansouri.

“You have to have a buyer who’s willing to live in a church,” architect Grant Epstein says during a tour of the Residences at St. Monica’s, a nine-unit condo building that his development company carved out of what was once an Episcopal church near Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. “Not everyone wants stained-glass windows.” And not everyone wants a former altar as a kitchen island.

As unusual as they are, the Residences at St. Monica’s are typical of the boutique condo projects popping up all over Washington. Some are conversions—a row of historic townhouses, a former police station, an old firehouse—and some are “infill,” new construction that’s slipped in between existing buildings in fully developed areas.

Small condo buildings are nothing new. During the real-estate boom of recent years, when demand for condos was hot, many developers focused on big projects. Some of those are still not sold out, and developers say that makes money hard to find for new large projects.

So for many developers, the sweet spot right now is a project of 50 units or fewer. “Smaller projects are easier for the developer to finance,” says William Rich of Delta Associates, a real-estate research and consulting firm in Alexandria. “Developers were getting burned when projects with 300 to 400 units were taking years to sell.” A small building or conversion can often be built and sold out in less than a year.

And because many of these conversions are taking place in beautiful old buildings, the condos are full of character. When completed in May, each of the Residences at St. Monica’s will have outdoor space, and most will be directly accessible from the street. Prices in the building (1340 Massachusetts Ave., SE; 202-580-6020; stmonicasdc.com) range from $399,000 to $1.2 million for a three-bedroom, 3½-bath unit on three levels.

Interiors include original architectural features such as exposed timbers and brickwork and 100-year-old stained-glass windows. One has the kitchen island that recycles the former altar; in others, ceilings are as high as 24 feet. Many of the private terraces look out onto the picturesque rowhouses that line the streets of Capitol Hill. Says Epstein: “You don’t often get this in the city.”

Developer Paul Robertson says one of the advantages of developing small buildings is that they offer more opportunities for creativity: “There’s a greater ability to customize and create more unique units of higher quality than is reasonably achievable in really big buildings.” His company, Robertson Development, has done projects as small as the conversion of a rowhouse into four units and as large as the Harrison (5201 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-580-6017; theharrisondc.com), a new 49-unit building near the Friendship Heights Metro station.

Rachel Kaul, who in January was among the first buyers to move into the Harrison, says it had the amenity she wanted most: “I was looking for access to the outside.” For six years, she had lived in a 580-square-foot fourth-floor walkup condo in Adams Morgan—not ideal for someone with two dogs, a beagle/Lab mix and a Havanese. At the Harrison, her 800-square-foot, one-bedroom unit has its own yard, the building’s largest private outdoor space. There’s also a shared courtyard with a fountain, a fire pit, and bamboo plantings. Remaining condos range from $409,900 to $799,900.

Stephanie Bredahl of the real-estate sales and marketing firm Urban Pace is sales director for the Harrison—and a buyer there herself. She says boutique buildings such as the Harrison draw a diverse group: single women, young professionals, empty-nesters who are downsizing, and people looking for a pied-à-terre in the city. Proximity to shopping and restaurants as well as easy access to public transportation are often at the top of their wish list.

Developing boutique buildings can present challenges. “Smaller projects are difficult because they require the same development process that you use when working on a large project in terms of feasibility, financing, and permits,” says Gilberto Cárdenas, whose firm, Argos Group, recently converted a firehouse and a police station into condos. “The cost per unit is substantially higher.”

For many developers, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Smaller buildings mean that fewer units have to be sold to meet the presale requirements many condo buyers face when trying to get financing. There are also more sites available for development, especially in up-and-coming neighborhoods such as DC’s Mount Vernon Square or along the city’s burgeoning H Street, Northeast, corridor. Such areas are likely to have vacant lots ideal for infill construction as well as old but sound buildings—rowhouses, former public buildings, and industrial lofts—that can be given new life as condos.

A few blocks from H Street, the Station (525 Ninth St., NE; 202-580-6009; thestationdc.com) features five condos within the shell of an old police station. Two are offered in the city’s affordable-homes program at discounts to eligible buyers; the other three are at market prices. The two largest units, which face the street, have 13-foot ceilings, three bedrooms, 3½ baths, exposed brick, and three levels in more than 2,000 square feet. Prices for those start at $869,000.

Nearby you’ll find the Engine House (1341 Maryland Ave., NE; 202-580-6009; enginehousedc.com), an old firehouse converted into two affordable units and two market-rate units with private patios. Prices for market-rate units start at $799,900. Both buildings, developed by the Argos Group, feature brickwork and timber trusses from the original buildings.

At the N-th (907 N St., NW; 202-299-9223; urbanlandcompany.com), a new infill project on a formerly vacant lot near Mount Vernon Square, each of the four units has its own private space on the roof. The condos, all on two levels and with two bedrooms, range from $465,000 to $535,000. A common stairway leads to the roof, where each unit has a 12-by-20-foot fenced deck with views of the convention center, the Capitol, and other landmarks.

One drawback of boutique buildings from a buyer’s perspective is that the per-square-foot cost is usually higher than in buildings with 100 or more units. But a lot of condo shoppers are more interested in a home’s design and layout than its size. “Some buyers won’t even consider the larger projects because they lack the style and ambience that small buildings offer,” says Gerard DiRuggiero, broker and managing member of the real-estate firm UrbanLand Company. “They don’t like the cookie-cutter units that many larger buildings have.”

But bigger buildings often do appeal to buyers looking for security and hotel-like amenities. “Many travel a lot and feel better leaving the condo for extended periods of time,” says DiRuggiero. Most new large luxury buildings have concierges, security, and other full-time staff. But those amenities come with a cost: higher condo fees. Without pools, gyms, and other maintenance-intensive features, small buildings often hire contractors to take care of maintenance as needed, which means lower monthly fees.

Another draw of small buildings is private outdoor space. Whereas a large building may have a shared rooftop deck or balconies on some units, small buildings can be configured to give almost all residents a private place to sit outside with their morning coffee. At 1841 16th Street (301-873-3596; wfp.com), a century-old Dupont Circle mansion has been turned into three large condos, two of which are still available. One, priced around $1.15 million, has two bedrooms, two baths, and a private rooftop terrace. The other has three bedrooms, 2½ baths, a private patio, and a price of $1.35 million. Both have original features such as wraparound windows with curved glass.

The Harvard Loft (1466 Harvard St., NW; 202-596-1466; harvardloft.com) is a 12-unit building in DC’s Columbia Heights that was completed in 2009. Some units in the Modernist-style building have small private balconies; a shared courtyard offers more fresh air. Prices range from $300,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath unit to $875,000 for the most expensive two-level unit with two bedrooms and two baths.

Although the bulk of new boutique buildings are popping up in the District, Maryland and Virginia can also claim a few. The Takoma Condominiums (111 Lee Ave., Takoma Park; 202-315-1112; thetakoma.com) has a large rear courtyard with a patio that the 46 residences share. Prices in this refurbished 1950s four-story brick building start at $159,900 for studios and top off at $329,000 for a three-bedroom.

In Old Town Alexandria, 900 North Washington Street (703-851-2255; 900nw.com) consists of three new brick buildings that house 54 one- and two-bedroom condos and three larger townhouse units. Small green spaces and wide brick sidewalks connect the buildings and, along with two common rooftop terraces, give the homeowners a little breathing room. One-bedrooms start at $379,900, two-bedrooms at $479,900.

At the 39-unit Woodley-Wardman (2818 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-580-6002; woodley-wardman.com), the facades of four rowhouses on Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park create the front for an entirely new building. The spaces within the four-level houses have been reconfigured to create mostly single-level units that stretch beyond the old dividing walls. Behind these units is a seven-story tower.

The residences range from studios ($299,000 to $319,000) to three-bedroom, 2½-bath units with prices that go up to $2.1 million. Fifteen units have private terraces or balconies; some of the terraces are equipped for outdoor hot tubs. All units will have video doorbells so residents can see visitors before buzzing them in as well as built-in iPod or iPad docking stations.

Despite the Woodley-Wardman’s high-tech amenities, developer Julio Murillo thinks the primary attraction for buyers is the location: “If you look at Connecticut Avenue, this is one of the last places where you could do this. This is the poster child for an infill project.”