Could Cottages Help Vienna Diversify Its Housing?

In many ways, the Town of Vienna epitomizes the classic vision of a suburb with a main street surrounded by a sprawl of single-family houses, but the town’s effort to overhaul its zoning code for the first time in half a century could change that.

The town’s future could instead look more like the cottage-style housing that a pair of developers proposed to the Vienna Town Council during its work session on Monday (Dec. 14).

The first proposal came from Sekas Homes, which is looking at turning the Vienna Courts condominiums at 127-133 Park Street NE into a residential complex with 13 townhouses and 10 two-story, cottage-style duplexes.

For the second proposal, the homebuilder JDA Custom Homes wants to potentially redevelop the buildings at 117 and 121 Courthouse Road SW as a cottage-style subdivision with 12 units, either duplexes or detached houses.

Vienna Mayor Linda Colbert says the need to explore different housing options became apparent during the contentious, ultimately unsuccessful effort to establish a Maple Avenue Commercial zone, which was intended to encourage redevelopment and mixed-use projects.

According to Vienna’s Comprehensive Plan, which was last updated in 2015, its housing stock is comprised of 82.2% single-family houses, 7.6% townhouses, and about 10% multi-family units, including apartments, duplexes, and condos.

“With the MAC, there was a lot of discussion about what other kind of housing does Vienna offer for people who want to stay here, who don’t want a single-family house, or younger people,” Colbert said. “I know that conversation has been around for a while.”

According to Vienna Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Michael D’Orazio, cottage homes offer a middle ground between condos or apartments and traditional single-family houses. They are smaller than traditional single-family units and can take the form of either detached houses or duplexes.

Cottage houses are also generally built around a central common area with parking separate from the main residence. They often appeal to people who want to downsize or age in place, since they are typically set up so residents can mostly live on one floor.

The Railroad Cottages in Falls Church are among the most prominent examples of cottage housing in Fairfax County.

D’Orazio said that Vienna’s comprehensive plan currently does not permit cottage housing, but it does mention village housing as an option for transitional areas between residential neighborhoods and commercial districts.

Several members of the Vienna Town Council expressed interest in the idea of cottage housing, but they had reservations about the sites that the developers are considering, particularly Vienna Courts, as well as the timing of the proposals.

Because of the lot shape, Sekas Homes President John Sekas said Vienna Courts would not have the common area and separated parking typical of cottage housing. The plan allows two parking spaces for the townhomes, one for each of the detached units, and seven spaces for visitors.

Councilmembers Nisha Patel and Howard Springsteen said they would be reluctant to give up the property’s potential for commercial uses. Current Vienna Courts tenants, which include The Women’s Center and BRAWS, would also have to relocate, though Sekas said they would be compensated so they can “move comfortably.”

“I like the concept of cottage housing,” Patel said. “Again, I don’t know personally that I would give up a transitional zone for it.”

The council also took issue with JDA Custom Homes proposing cottage housing on Courthouse after they approved a division of that site into three lots on Dec. 7 under the belief that it would be occupied by three standard single-family, detached homes.

“I’m just concerned about the optics,” Springsteen said. “You just got approval to do a three-lot subdivision. Now you’re coming back with this. I just don’t think the timing here works.”

JDA builder Dennis Rice said that the idea of cottage housing grew out of suggestions from a few Vienna planning commissioners who asked the developer to consider smaller units.

Ultimately, the councilmembers agreed that they should wait for Vienna to finish its zoning code overhaul before committing to any future developments.

“I appreciate you both coming in, because it’s easier to do this when we have concrete proposals in front of us to talk about than just theory,” Councilmember Chuck Anderson said. “…I’m actually sympathetic to both projects. I’m just concerned that the timing is off by a year or so.”

Image via Town of Vienna

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