Surrounded by office buildings and trendy restaurants in the heart of DC, the hole where the original Washington Convention Center once stood has long been a big vacant lot. Plans for the 4½-block area surrounded by New York Avenue and Ninth, H, and 11th streets, Northwest--have been plagued by delays. But last March, more than seven years after the firms Hines and Archstone were granted the development rights, CityCenterDC broke ground. In addition to two 11-story office towers and 185,600 square feet of retail space, the project will feature 216 luxury condominiums--a promising sign for an area that's seen new condo construction grind to a near halt during the recent economic downturn.
And the scaffolding that will rise for CityCenterDC isn't the only sign of a recovery: According to William Rich of the Alexandria-based real-estate research firm Delta Associates, the fourth quarter of 2011 was the first in five years when the number of new condos on the market went up--from 2,950 in the third quarter to 3,542 in the fourth.
"People have waited for a long time to see if the second shoe is going to drop," says Jim Abdo of Abdo Development. "And I think what they realize now is the second shoe isn't dropping. While we're not seeing things take off like a rocket, we're seeing the foundations for a solid, sustained recovery."
For the past few years, most of the condos for sale were in projects that had been on the market for years. And the last few units to sell in a large building are never the most desirable--many are on the ground floor or have odd layouts or bad views. Says Rich: "Now we're getting more product on the line that's newer and better, so prices will, we think, start to increase."
The fresh crop of condos includes delayed projects such as CityCenterDC as well as newly planned high-end condos. Many of these new buildings are in walkable neighborhoods with access to restaurants, shops, and entertainment.
That's what Michael Schwimer--a 26-year-old relief pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who grew up in Alexandria--was looking for when he set out to buy a condo near his family and friends for the off-season. "I absolutely put way more emphasis on location than I do on amenities," says Schwimer.
He settled on Rosslyn's Gaslight Square, where he has two two-bedroom floor plans on reserve--he'll decide which to buy when the building is closer to completion. Schwimer chose Gaslight Square for a variety of reasons: luxury features such as elevators that open directly into units and private outdoor terraces, proximity to the restaurant and nightlife scenes in Arlington and DC, and lower condo fees than he saw at other similar buildings.
"There's a gym right across the street, so you don't need to have a gym in the building that you pay for," Schwimer says. "Other places, you're paying $700 to $1,000 a month in condo fees." Fees at Gaslight range from $284 to $545 a month, depending on the size of the condo.
Gaslight Square isn't the only building that's using its urban location as a selling point and lowering condo fees by offering fewer amenities--and smaller units. According to William Rich, the average size of a new condo in the Washington area dropped from 1,263 square feet at the end of 2008 to 1,234 at the end of 2011. In the District, that number went from 921 to 901.
"Buyers these days spend a lot of time out and about on the town, so having a huge kitchen or a large dining area is not really of as much interest to them," Rich says. "They can entertain on the rooftop or go out to a restaurant."
Here are some other trends to look out for in the new condos hitting the market.
Buildings with fewer than 50 units make up the majority of the developments in the pipeline. Smaller buildings are easier for developers to finance. "That makes it that much easier for developers to have a successful project," says Rich.
Because many of these smaller buildings are older, they also tend to have more distinctive layouts and character. Some have private outdoor space or architectural features such as exposed timbers and brickwork.
Along DC's hot 14th Street corridor, the 36-unit, industrial-inspired Northern Exchange (1401 R St., NW; pnhoffman.com) is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. In a 1902 building that once housed C&P Telephone Company, the development will have studios and one- and two-bedrooms starting at $400,000. Features will include exposed ductwork, loft space, and original historic finishes such as pine floors and concrete or terra-cotta ceilings.
The Vistas at River Place South (1011 Arlington Blvd., Arlington; 703-650-0633; vistasdc.com) is made up of eight units in the space that once housed Arlington's Bella Vista restaurant. On the 11th floor of an apartment building, the restaurant offered great views and hosted such guests as the late congressman Charlie Wilson; it closed in 1982 and had sat vacant since then.
Although every new condo is different, you'll find ten-foot floor-to-ceiling windows with city views in most. Residents also have access to the pool, game room, and sauna of the River Place apartment complex below it. Prices range from $395,000 for a one-bedroom with den or a two-bedroom to $595,000 for a two-bedroom with den.
Private elevators that deliver residents from the underground parking garage directly to their units are a sought-after perk. And, says Jim Abdo, they aren't just a luxury feature--they're also designed to create cost and energy savings. "These buildings have no corridors," Abdo says, "so you're not paying for thousands of square feet of hallways that have to be lit, heated, and cooled 24 hours a day."
You'll find this amenity at Abdo's Gaslight Square (1700 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 571-249-4730; abdo.com), a new 117-unit building between the Rosslyn and Court House Metro stations. The first phase of construction, which will include 40 units, should be finished by summer. Priced between $700,000 and $1.5 million, units include one- and two-bedrooms--some offering loft spaces with 19-foot ceilings or private outdoor terraces that are wired for all-weather plasma televisions.
Direct-access elevators were part of the draw for Kenneth Greenberg when he reserved a condo at Bethesda's Quarry Springs at Stoneyhurst (8101 River Rd.; 202-257-1226; quarrysprings.com). "I love having private entry into the unit," says Greenberg, a Washington native who has worked in real estate. "I like the fact that there's not a hallway where you're smelling everybody else's cooking."
Greenberg also appreciates the 14-acre grounds, which include gardens, walking trails, and a 50-foot waterfall--a good place for walking his two golden retrievers.
"The thing that I did not like [about a previous condo] was that there were so many extra amenities that you had to pay for," he says. "I like having an outdoor pool, but I don't need an indoor pool. I like what they've put in here--they've got just enough without going overboard."
On the site of a former quarry, Quarry Springs will include 97 two-, three-, and four-bedroom units in four buildings. Scheduled to be completed in 2013, the condos will start around $1 million.
In 2006, DC became the nation's first city to require that new privately constructed buildings meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Although the law applies only to non-residential buildings, developers say they've found sustainable features to be a big draw to many buyers.
"The very lifestyle of moving inward is green," says Abdo. "People are living closer to work, where they don't need a car, where they can utilize public transportation. It's slowly becoming part of the fabric of everyone's lives."
Condos in CityCenterDC (between Ninth, H, and 11th streets and New York Ave., NW; 202-347-6337; citycenterdc.com) have been designed to achieve at least a LEED Silver rating, according to Hines VP Howard Riker. Buyers will find Energy Star appliances, windows that minimize solar glare to keep condos cooler and energy use down, reclaimed-water filtration systems for landscaping and coolant towers, and outlets to plug in electric cars in the garage. Units--one- and two-bedroom floor plans ranging from 800 to 1,700 square feet--are scheduled to be completed in 2013 and will average around $800 to $900 per square foot.
Just off I-66 in Arlington, Dominion Heights (3565 Lee Hwy.; 703-831-3922; dominionheightsarlington.com) also incorporates many green features. Its 66 units--one- and two-bedrooms from $295,000 to $700,000--meet LEED Gold standards, with features such as low-flow toilets and eco-friendly paints. A storm-water irrigation system waters grass and plants on the property.
The economic downturn slowed the project, which was planned in 2004 and is set to open in the fourth quarter of this year. Sales manager David Klimas of McWilliams Ballard says 12 units are under contract, including one he bought. "This is the next part of Arlington that's going to explode," he says.
Buyers may be willing to give up top-of-the-line fitness centers and indoor pools, but access to outdoor space--from private terraces to shared rooftop decks--is still on the top of many wish lists, especially with unit sizes getting smaller.
All five penthouses at the Woodley-Wardman (2818 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-580-6002; woodley-wardman.com) incorporate outdoor living areas, whether balcony, terrace, or rooftop. And all come wired for hot tubs.
The development, which includes 39 units, uses the facades of four rowhouses on Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park to create the front for a new building. The spaces within the four-level houses have been reconfigured for condos that stretch beyond the old dividing walls. Behind these units is a new seven-story tower. Residences range from one to three bedrooms; 15 have private terraces or balconies. Prices are $299,000 to $2 million.
At the Darcy in downtown Bethesda (Walnut and Bethesda aves.; 301-741-4022; thedarcy.com), 57 of the 64 condos will have private outdoor balconies or terraces. Residents will have access to a shared rooftop terrace at the new luxury apartment building going up next door. Scheduled to open in late 2014, the Darcy will also have a residents' lounge and gym. Units range from one to three bedrooms and from $750,000 to just over $3 million.
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.