Could Empty Office Buildings Be Transformed?

The equivalent of 308 football fields of office space are vacant in Fairfax County.

There are a lot of empty office buildings around Fairfax County — the equivalent of more than 400 acres of floor space.

More than 18.4 million square feet of office space remains vacant, according to the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA), which reported a 15.8 percent direct vacancy rate in 2016 and a double-digit percentage since 2007.

The Planning Commission on Thursday, Nov. 16, recommended approval of a plan amendment that would pave the way for using vacant office buildings for other purposes, such as residential or schools.

“I think there is a pent-up demand that is out there and we’ve been approached by a number of people that are waiting for this amendment to go through,” said Scott Adams, land use attorney with McGuire Woods.

“The flexibility offered, we think, is going to incentivize revitalization in Fairfax County,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors will hold its own public hearing before voting on the proposal on Tuesday, Dec. 5.

“IS THERE POTENTIAL here for public private partnerships for converting and repurposing some of these buildings?” asked Dranesville Planning Commissioner John W. Ulfelder, during an hour-long public hearing the Planning Commission held on Nov. 2.

“The answer to that has to be yes, whether that’s schools or other facilities,” said attorney Gregory Riegle, who chairs the Tysons Partnership. “I’m certainly encouraged in seeing the county be more creative in terms of those solutions.”

Opportunities could include converting office buildings to uses such as makerspaces, food incubators, urban farming or flexible live/work units, schools and e-lofts, which can accommodate work or residential uses, or both.

The repurposing of existing buildings is frequently more sustainable than the demolition and replacement of structures and can shorten the time of bringing the building to market, according to county documents and planner Sophia Fisher.

Changes to these uses have often required an authorization of an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan by the Board of Supervisors if the proposed use is not consistent with the planned use.

“There’s no short-circuiting of the public process?” asked Providence Commissioner Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner.

The amendment would bypass the necessity for a site specific comprehensive plan amendment, Fisher said, but the remaining steps in the zoning process would still require public hearings and a vote by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

“You’re doing all of this with the trust in your own process and all the procedural protections that case by case review in this building allows,” said Riegle.

RESTON ASSOCIATION requested to be exempt from the plan amendment.

Reston advocates said that they have just been through a transit area planning process, and that the mix of residential and commercial is a more delicate balance in Reston.

Commissioner Ellen “Nell” Hurley (Braddock) who made a motion to exclude the exemption, said it would be unworkable to have the option to convert vacant office space to other uses in all but one part of the county.

The board recommended approval of the motion, with Hunter Mill Commission Frank de la Fe and at-large commissioner Tim Sargeant dissenting.

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