|An apartment in a former office building in Alexandria's West End that has been transformed into a flexible E-loft concept, allowing tenants use their units for living or working.|
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has made it easier for developers to convert obsolete office buildings and stores to other uses, such as housing, schools, or “urban farms.”
On Dec. 5, the BoS approved an amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan recommended by a working group on the repurposing of vacant, mostly vacant, or underutilized office buildings.
Fairfax County has more than 18 million square feet of vacant office space, much of it in older parts of the county, such as Mason District.
The amendment would allow office buildings to be converted to residential, hotel, urban agriculture, institutional public facilities, light industrial, and flexible live-and-work uses.
The original proposal before the board limited the streamlined process for office building conversions to designated “activity centers” – such as Tysons Corner, Reston, Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, and Seven Corners.
The BoS approved a motion by Supervisor John Cook (Braddock) to expand the amendment to include areas outside of activity centers. Cook said the flexibility to be innovative should be available countywide, including residential areas.
“Nothing is more dangerous to a residential area than a vacant building,” Cook said. First, there are broken windows, then it becomes “a magnet for everything you don’t want.”
The Cook amendment directs county staff to present to the BoS in March an analysis of the amount of underutilized office space outside activity centers and the potential negative impact on expanding the proposal, along with feedback from developers and homeowner associations. The county executive would present an amendment to the BoS by May 1.
The board then approved an add-on amendment by Supervisor Jeff McKay (Lee) to extend the repurposing proposal to include retail space, such as vacant big-box stores.
The BoS has already approved a few office building conversions, including Bailey’s Upper Elementary School and E-loft, a flexible live-work space project at 5600 Columbia Pike, both in Mason District. The E-loft developer, Robert Seldin, CEO of Novus, told the supervisors construction should start in the first quarter of 2018. A similar E-loft project developed by Novus in Alexandria opened just over a year ago.
The amendment approved by the BoS allows the repurposing of office buildings without requiring a site-specific change to the land use plan, which would encourage more developers to undertake innovative projects.
Most buildings proposed to be repurposed will still need to go through a rezoning process, which includes opportunities for public input, public hearings, and BoS approval.
During the public hearing before the BoS vote on the proposal, Clyde Miller, president of the Holmes Run Valley Citizens Association in Mason District, urged more rigorous review and more citizen engagement in the rezoning process.
Mason Supervisor Penny Gross noted that citizen involvement is already “as rigorous and robust as it could possibly be.”
Those speaking in favor of the amendment included John McBride of the Reston Association, Scott Adams of McGuire Woods and chair of the Northern Virginia Chapter of NAIOP – the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, and Seldin.
The county’s office vacancy rates began to rise in 2010 with the invention of the smartphone, which “liberated all information from buildings,” Seldin said. “People no longer have to physically go somewhere to work.