As it continues to grapple with more than 18 million square feet in empty office space, the county approved changes to our land use plan to more easily allow these vacant buildings to be turned into other uses, such as apartments, schools, co-working spaces or food incubators.
The action allows these offices to be turned into other uses without requiring a site-specific change to the land use plan. To be eligible, buildings must be in areas planned for mixed use or industrial development, like Tysons, Dulles and Merrifield, and they need to meet specific guidelines to ensure the new uses fit in with the surrounding development.
Most buildings proposed to be repurposed will need rezoning approval by the board. This process incorporates opportunities for community input, including public hearings. County officials also retain the right to require a reuse project to go through a site-specific land use change.
The new land use policy follows recommendations of a workgroup that studied how older, empty offices can be repurposed. The Board of Supervisors endorsed these ideas in October 2016.
While the policy is new, the county has already allowed the reuse of empty office buildings. For example, county leaders approved the conversion of a five-story office building into a school, Bailey’s Upper Elementary, which opened in 2014. The county’s first high-rise school, it is located in a former, five-story brick office building across from the Seven Corners Shopping Center.
More recently, the board approved the conversion of a 10-story office building at 5600 Columbia Pike into flexible live-work units. The building stood empty for about four years, and it will put the 173,000- square foot building back into use in an innovative way that meets market demands.
The policy will help the county economically as it deals with high office vacancy rates. It will speed up the time to market for getting these buildings back into use, and it accommodates the demand for new kinds of uses like co-working or co-living spaces, food incubators and urban farming.
While vacancy rates have dropped to their lowest rate since 2014, the need for office space has been shrinking overall, driven by factors including emerging technology and teleworking. To come up with the new land use policy, planners looked at both where the highest office vacancies are located and the county’s overall land use strategy.
The highest concentrations of older offices, with a vacancy rate above 70 percent are found in the county’s mixed-use centers. This includes areas like Dulles, Fairfax Center, Merrifield and Tysons. These areas planned for mixed-use development are also many of the same ones where the land use plan calls for focusing future growth.
Besides location, county officials also considered criteria for eligible office buildings. The policy sets seven conditions for reuse proposals. For example, these new uses must be compatible with surrounding development, offer more ways for pedestrians to access the building and consider impacts to schools and parks if new residences are considered.
Contact Sophia Fisher with the Department of Planning and Zoning, at 703-324- 1349, TTY 711.