Walk of Life

By Kiley Jacques

Eco-conscious real estate developer EYA builds homes for the betterment of all.

Right: Brian Jackson, at the EYA office in Bethesda, Maryland. Photo by Ryan Smith

Washington, D.C.–based EYA, a 23-year-old preeminent real estate development and building firm, brings Washingtonians “life within walking distance.” Twice named “America’s Best Builder,” EYA has succeeded in settling homeowners closer to shopping, dining, and business districts in innovative urban neighborhoods characterized by walkability, thoughtfully planned spaces, and timeless architecture.

At its inception, according to senior vice president Brian (A.J.) Jackson, EYA was responding to “an increased demand for opportunities to live closer in and closer to amenities.” They saw an opportunity. “That was not something large national builders were set up to provide.” With a focus on urban infill, EYA’s projects tend to be smaller and more complicated, and typically require significant development efforts, as their sites are often quite challenging.

“We believed that through better design we could increase the density and really transform the townhouse product from a price-point product into a luxury product,” explains Jackson. In their early days, they modeled many of their homes after the brownstones of late 19th-century New York. To date, EYA has built more than 4,000 units in more than 30 neighborhoods across the Washington metropolitan area. The firm has become renowned for finding desirable locations on which to build homes that afford a pedestrian-friendly lifestyle.

Top: Old Town Commons in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by Johnny Vitorovich
Bottom: Capitol Quarter is a townhome community located on five blocks in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood in Washington, DC. Photo by Thomas Arledge

The market for that lifestyle has burgeoned over the past two decades. With its mission to do things “the right way, at the highest level,” EYA has kept pace with those demands, always keying into cultural shifts. “Our homes today are much more energy efficient…and almost all of them have some sort of private outdoor space,” notes Jackson. Many of their newer developments feature homes with loft levels or rooftop terraces, as more and more people desire a place for respite.

In time, EYA sought an even better way to build the urban environment—one that would enhance an entire community’s well-being. By 2007, they made the decision to develop all new projects under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes model. “That really pushed us [toward] a quantum improvement in terms of methods, energy efficiency, features, and benefits in the units,” says Jackson. (No other homebuilder in the Washington, D.C., area has earned as many LEED certifications.)

“More and more people want to be in the infill environment and want to stay there longer,” notes Jackson. An uptick in the number of first-time buyers, young families, empty-nesters, and retirees has led to adaptations in floor plans, layouts, and other major design elements. Additionally, there is now a wider range of price points in many of their larger community developments. “We strive to create a broad product mix,” says Jackson.

Toward that end, mixed-income housing developments are among their projects. “Those communities have a significant amount of socioeconomic diversity,” notes Jackson. Capitol Quarter, for example, is one-third low-income housing, one-third moderate or working-income housing, and one-third market rate. EYA’s inclusionary housing—housing required by the city, which may or may not be incentive based—results in 10 to 15 percent of homes targeted for people who can afford between 60 and 85 percent of their area median income (as opposed to affordable housing, for which there is a much higher percentage of the units targeted at a much lower income bracket).

Old Town Commons, a very recent mixed-income project in Old Town, Alexandria, spans five blocks at the city’s gateway. It had been the site of a public housing facility with 194 units. Having forged a partnership with the Public Housing Authority for the site’s redevelopment, EYA replaced 60 of the public housing units that had been there, and then built another 134 units, 154 townhomes, and 86 condominiums, plus added significant green space that includes a park.

“We ended up basically taking a site that was all low-income housing and transforming it into a site that was one-third low-income housing and two-thirds market-rate housing,” explains Jackson. “It’s all designed to feel like one product—you can’t visually distinguish the affordable housing from the market-rate housing.” (The market-rate housing is LEED certified; the affordable housing is a mix of LEED- and EarthCraft-certified units.) In its entirety, Old Town Commons is a remarkable transformation from the two-story Army barracks-like building that once sat there. “The affordable housing is still there,” notes Jackson, “but it is part of a mixed-income community.”

Other noteworthy developments include Capitol Quarter, which features over 300 LEED for Homes-certified townhomes, workforce homes, and affordable rental homes. (It has become a national model for mixed-income development and has led to the revitalization of the ballpark district in Southeast Washington.) Harrison Square is located on the site of the old Children’s Hospital—it takes up an entire city block, blends beautifully with the historic neighborhood, and is credited with sparking a renaissance of the U Street Corridor. Capitol Square comprises 93 townhomes designed with traditional colonial exteriors and modern interiors, while Bryan Square—the redevelopment of a historic school property—features 38 row homes with three distinct architectural styles designed to complement the surrounding neighborhood. And Chancellor’s Row, a 10-acre community of new townhomes, is a prime example of EYA’s modern LEED-certified designs.

Adding 250 families to an existing community, as in the case of Old Town Commons, requires a lot of forethought if it is to result in a “positive culture,” notes Jackson. “We are always building in a context that exists, usually a neighborhood.” EYA’s understanding of community begins with an examination of the existing aesthetic. “We aren’t trying to mimic it, we want to complement it… we are trying to weave ourselves into the fabric of the neighborhood.”

To do so, EYA affiliates make efforts to meet and understand the people in the neighborhoods in which they plan to build. They get a feel for the “vibe” of a place. Their onsite offices are up to speed on what is happening in the neighborhood—the events, civic groups, etc. so they can help integrate homebuyers into their new community. “We find that most people who choose to live in a dense urban environment want to be connected,” says Jackson. “They want to be plugged in and we try to facilitate that.”

“Know Your Neighbor” welcoming events, are one example of such efforts. Hosted for people who will be moving into their homes at about the same time, EYA provides an orientation to the community—its offerings, amenities, etc. “But really the purpose of the event is to get them to know each other,” says Jackson. The program started with their mixed-income communities to minimize the potential for social conflict. “What we found was that it is such a powerful and effective way to build community that we do it in every development now.” They also create community associations and assemble Listservs to be used by new residents to connect with one another, though they often result in a community Facebook page. “The Listservs are just meant to seed communication,” says Jackson.

EYA has received some of the most prestigious national awards for housing design, development, and livability. A strong market supports their work, a solid team furthers their prosperity, and a respected brand stretches their reach. But perhaps the most important thing to be said about EYA is that community is at its core—driving every aspect of every project to make “life within walking distance” attainable for all walks of life.