Fairfax to allow some office-building conversions

Bailey's Upper Elementary School in Seven Corners, which opened in 2014, is an example of an office-building conversion that Fairfax County officials are trying to encourage with a newly approved zoning policy. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

Vacant office buildings in Tysons, Merrifield, Dulles and other parts of Fairfax County that are zoned mixed-use or industrial now may be rezoned and converted for other purposes, including housing, the Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed Dec. 5.

“As Fairfax County matures as a community and as the economy changes, it’s important that we have the flexibility that we need in order to respond  to changing times and changing needs and interests,” said board chairman Sharon Bulova (D).

The new zoning amendment applies to “activity centers” slated for future development, including sites near transit stations, suburban centers and community business centers. The policy does not limit the size of office buildings to be considered for conversion.

The amendment applies to vacant, partially vacant and under-utilized office buildings. Such space may be converted into hotels, public facilities, institutional uses, urban agriculture, “live-work” residences, light industrial, and retail and other commercial uses, planning staff said.

Before approving such conversions, county officials would consider the proposals’ impacts on transportation, schools and other public facilities, the environment, historic preservation and compatibility with the surrounding area.

The county had more than 18 million square feet of office space as of December 2016. Officials attributed much of the county’s high office-vacancy rate to telework, new technologies and the trend toward less space per employee.

Supervisors already have permitted conversion of some office buildings. County schools in 2014 opened Bailey’s Upper Elementary School in a five-story former office building at 6245 Leesburg Pike in the Falls Church area.

Supervisors last December also approved the e-lofts project in Baileys Crossroads, which will convert a 10-story, 173,000-square-foot office building at 5600 Columbia Pike into 157 “flexible live-work units.” The building has been vacant for four years, officials said.

Supervisors lauded the new policy, but some said it did not go far enough.

“This is written, I believe, too narrowly,” said Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock). “This should be an opportunity available county-wide.”

Nothing is more dangerous to residential areas than empty buildings, which become magnets for “everything you don’t want,” Cook added.

Supervisors approved Cook’s motion for county staff to draw up an addition to the new rules that would expand coverage to office buildings outside “activity centers.” The board will hold a public hearing for that proposal before May 1, 2018.

Cook accepted a friendly amendment by Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) to have staff examine the feasibility of converting other types of space besides offices for different uses, especially if it would not entail exterior modifications or impacts to parking, traffic or the environment.

“We may want to consider how we can be more aggressive in those instances,” McKay said. “Having a vacant building is serving no one’s purposes.”  

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) worried that space converted for residential use might overburden areas where more residential development is planned and nearby schools are at capacity.

“My concern here is that a proportional contribution to public facilities like schools may not actually get what we need,” she said. “In the older sections of the county, our school sites are very constrained.”

Clyde Miller of the Holmes Run Valley Citizens Association in Falls Church said the new policy gives more favorable treatment to office buildings in community business centers, but not ones in more fortunate parts of the county. Miller suggested the Department of Planning and Zoning could put on its Web site an updated list of re-purposing applications, complete with their status, hearing dates and links to the applications.

Gregory Riegle, chairman of the Tysons Partnership, said that organization enthusiastically embraces the new changes.

“In many respects, it’s a classic  sort of issue-opportunity scenario and that demands a regulatory response,” said Riegle, adding that the amendment would further the partnership’s goal of diversifying housing in Tysons.

Robert Seldin, former CEO of Novus Residences, told supervisors that between World War II and 2010, the Washington, D.C., area never had a year in which it both gained jobs and saw office-space vacancy rise. But that phenomenon has happened every year since, he said.

Seldin attributed that change to the mass marketing of smartphones, which began in 2009. The devices are “the machine that liberates all information from buildings,” he said.

“From the time that humans first crawled out of the sludge until 2009, if you wanted information, you had to be someplace physically,” Seldin said. “That will never be the case ever again.”

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