From the Annandale Blog:

 

County wants to make it easier to convert old office buildings to new uses

 
Bailey's Elementary School

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal to make it easier to convert older, underutilized office buildings to other uses, such as housing, schools, light manufacturing, or even urban agriculture.

Public hearings on the proposed amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan are scheduled before the Planning Commission on Nov. 2 and Board of Supervisors on Dec. 5.

An underutilized office building in Seven Corners.

County officials explained the proposal at a community meeting at Bailey’s Upper Elementary School in Seven Corners Sept. 25.

Bailey’s Upper is one of the first examples in Fairfax County of a former office building adapted for a different use. The school opened in September 2014 in a building at 6245 Leesburg Pike that used to house county human services staff.

Other office building conversions in the works in Mason District are the eLofts project at 5600 Columbia Pike with flexible live/work spaces and Spa Forest on General Green Way in an industrial area.

As of December 2016, Fairfax County had more than a million square feet of vacant office space, said Sophia Fisher of the Department of Planning and Zoning. At the same time, companies need less space as more employees are teleworking and sharing offices.

While new office buildings near Metro stations in areas like Tysons and Reston are doing well, older buildings without amenities or near transit in areas like Bailey’s Crossroads and Annandale are finding it hard to attract tenants. The overall office vacancy rate is 15.8 percent but it’s about 45 percent in Bailey’s Crossroads.

The Seven Corners building has been vacant for years.

Fisher outlined some emerging trends for office buildings:

  • Co-living and flexible live/work spaces, such as eLofts, buildings with separate floors for office and residences, or communal living spaces like WeLive Crystal City
  • Maker spaces, like Nova Labs in Reston, light manufacturing facilities, or business incubators.
  • Food incubators, such as Frontier Kitchen in Lorton, which serves as a base for caterers, food truck owners, and other culinary entrepreneurs.  
  • Institutional spaces, such as schools and community centers.
  • Urban or vertical farming facilities that can be used for indoor hydroponic food production. 

In 2015, the Board of Supervisors convened a work group to study how older office buildings can be repurposed or repositioned. The group’s report, issued last fall, presented more than 20 recommendations, including a proposal to add a policy plan appendix to the Comprehensive Plan to provide guidelines for these types of projects.

The concept under discussion would allow developers to propose repurposing projects that meet certain criteria without having to submit specific comprehensive plan amendments. They still would need to submit rezoning applications, however.

These projects would be limited to certain redevelopment areas, including Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, Springfield, the Dulles suburban center, and Tysons. Non-residential uses of office buildings would be allowed in industrial areas.

When evaluating proposals, the county would consider such issues as compatibility with existing and planned uses, existing services, transportation, stormwater issues, streetscapes, landscaping, pedestrian access, energy efficiency, tree preservation, affordable housing, and historic preservation.

Questions were raised at the meeting about why the county is focusing office conversion projects in mixed–use redevelopment areas when the need is greater in other areas.

For example, there are office buildings with high vacancy rates in residential neighborhoods that are not near transit that could be more productive if used for housing or other purposes.

According to staff, office building conversion projects in such areas could still be proposed but would require a Comprehensive Plan amendment. “We want to be sure we’re doing this cautiously, in a way that is sensitive to stable neighborhoods,” said Meghan Van Dam, chief of the Policy and Plan Development Branch. Those projects would need “an additional level of community outreach.”

A classroom at Bailey's Upper Elementary School.

During a tour of Bailey’s Upper after the meeting, Jeff Platenberg, assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services at Fairfax County Public Schools, pointed out some of the school’s features, such natural lighting, expansive views on the upper floors, a small theater, interstitial stairwells between floors, and the use of color schemes to differentiate grade levels.

FCPS had been searching for years for land to build a new school to relieve severe overcrowding at Bailey’s Elementary School, Platenberg said.

When the owner of the building on Leesburg Pike proposed a rent increase, the human services offices relocated to the Heritage Center on Little River Turnpike in Annandale. FCPS began exploring the possibility of purchasing the building for use as an urban design school, Platenburg said, but “communicating with the owner was more challenging than expected.”

The owner had foreclosed and the property had become part of a real estate investment trust based in New York City. After failing to receive a response, the school board had to send a letter of eminent domain in order to proceed with the purchase.

The media center at Bailey's Upper. 

Once the school board acquired the property, it had to move fast – with just four weeks for design and 17 weeks for construction – so it could open in time for the start of the 2014-15 school year.

As a result, many local residents were uncomfortable about the speed of the project, and were especially unhappy that the school would open without a gym or playground. Those elements were completed last April.