E-Lofts and the Recycling of Old Office Properties

Fairfax County has more than 18 million square feet of vacant office space, with little hope of filling it in the foreseeable future. Having already enacted  zoning changes to make it easier to convert empty buildings in industrial and mixed-use areas to other uses, the county now is considering a proposal to do the same for buildings in suburban neighborhoods. Summarizes a county description of the proposed change:

This could give these offices new life as apartments, schools, co-working spaces, maker spaces or food incubators. As an example, a former, five-story brick office building across from the Seven Corners Shopping Center was converted into Bailey’s Upper Elementary, the county’s first “high rise” school. …

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 county’s Office Building Repositioning and Repurposing Work Group is particularly enamored with the potential for converting office space into “e-lofts” — highly flexible spaces within a building that can be used as apartments or small offices.

Bacon’s bottom line: Rigid, obsolete zoning codes across the state are hindering the ability of the real estate sector to adapt to changing market conditions. Zoning codes arising from the post-World War II era of rapid suburbanization are hopelessly antiquated and self-defeating today. Aging office and industrial parks are emptying out. Unless we want them to resemble the ghost malls of the retail sector, we must give property owners the flexibility to re-purpose their assets in line with market demand.

The Fairfax initiatives represent a positive step forward. If people want to convert an old office or industrial building into apartment housing, why not let them? E-lofts sound like an especially promising idea. A similar evolution is taking place in Scotts Addition in Richmond. That light-industrial district is rapidly transitioning to mixed offices, restaurants, and apartment buildings. People are perfectly happy to live in the neighborhood despite the continued presence of light-manufacturing activity.

The only problem with the Fairfax proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. The county should encourage the wholesale recycling of antiquated office properties by permitting greater densities and the construction of new buildings, not just the re-purposing of individual buildings. Zoning codes slow the process of adaptation to a snail’s pace. Time to open up the process and turn loose the animal spirits!

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15 responses to “E-Lofts and the Recycling of Old Office Properties”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m all for the changes.. but I’m predicting TMT will not be and the reason is that “planning” has always looked at residential as being different in – intensity of uses compared to Commercial.

    We want people to be entrepreneurs…and to be self-reliant and work for their own prosperity – and some kinds of home “work” might be no more intensive than residential use.. i.e. you may not even know they are conducting a business in their home – lots of web stuff that way now days….. but when it “expresses” itself in physical ways like customer traffic and stock kept in garages and distributed … at that point… you’re impacting others… and “others” are not going to be happy about it – and that, in turn, goes right past the planning and zoning folks and straight to the elected….

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Increased densities creates more traffic in a place where traffic hell flourishes like mosquitoes after a rain.

    Case in point – in June 2010, Fairfax County approved more density at Tysons than it modeled for VDOT in the mandatory 527 TIA filing. As a result, the County conducted additional traffic studies to consider the impact of the greater density. And, in turn, the added traffic required Fairfax County/VDOT to add new projects (Table 7B). These include: 1) the creation of a giant Superstreet on Route 123 from Anderson Road to International Drive; 2) building an underpass for Route 123 at the Great Falls-Lewinsville Road intersection; 3) rebuilding the intersection of Magarity Road and Route 7; 4) modification of the ramp from the DTR to Route 123; and 5) a total rebuild of the current interchange at Routes 123 & 7; 5) a new ramp to I-495 in the area of Gallows and Gallows Branch Roads.

    And this is from what is supposed to be the most walkable, transit-oriented community in the nation, if not the world.

    Repeat over and over again. Adding density creates more traffic congestion. This does not mean no office buildings should be repurposed. But there needs to be adequate understanding of the impacts on traffic congestion before zoning changes are made. Smart growth is largely a smokescreen to transfer wealth from the middle class to well-connected landowners. It’s no different from adding density in outlying areas, except smart growth may be more fraudulent in its nature.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Good comment TooManyTaxes. This subject deserves a lot of discussion here. Unfortunately my time is very limited over the next few days.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      There’s no alternative to Transit Oriented Development for Fairfax County. Fairfax needs a “town and greenspace” model like suburban Frankfort or London. And there’s no way to implement the TOD without substantial road expansion and rework. What you describe regarding the roads around Tysons sounds a lot like Places29, the plan for Rt 29 north of Charlottesville. It also seems to have aspects of the Rt 28 clean up.

      When land planning is disconnected from transportation planning bad things happen.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    TMT’s perspective is that his lifestyle is adversely impacted by traffic and that density creates more traffic and higher impacts to him.

    So my question is – is there a unsolvable conflict that essentially means the more economic activity you have – the bigger the impacts to some and in order to preserve quality of life -you must artificially restrict economic development?

    or perhaps another perspective is – is TMT entitled to more than residential quality of life and if so then is he entitled relief from traffic anywhere he chooses to travel ?

    If you add up all the TMTs places they want to travel – does that essentially mean the entire region?

    or am I just off on some tangent?

  4. djrippert Avatar

    Fairfax County needs to designate “open areas” in the county. No new development should be allowed within these “open areas”. The open areas should be defined with the goal of incorporating as many of the abandoned office buildings, underused or abandoned light industrial areas and falling down residential buildings as possible. Fairfax should use a combination of tax condemnation and outright purchase to get control of these areas. Then, the structures should be torn down. This would form a network of parks within the county that could be connected by running and bike trails. Taking this land out of the “developable inventory” would also force new development on the remaining land and increase density.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Wonderful comment. Great idea. Condemnation, including by tax sale, this is critical, its threat, its forceful imposition as needed. Folks must take their loses like big boys. The gig is up, the party is over. The county must be able to breathe again.

      Only then can its people revive themselves, shake off its past, gain for themselves news bearings and footings for a different future. Surely then people of all sorts and kinds will rise up as if from nowhere to live free, thrive creatively and grow again, once today’s suffocating tangle of huge mistakes, today’s truly and forever obsolete buildings, horribly planned and ill sited commercial junk, all of this is cleared out in the right amounts, at the right places, and times, to inspire, enable and power the Renaissance of entire communities.

      Call it highly thoughtful demolition replaced by synergistic public space planing that ignites new growth and revival. Done right with the right tools, creative bold developers can redress and re-purpose the ugliest dwarf of a sick building. So they bloom into a princess of alluring energies and attractions that spawn ever more into thick lush gardens, energies, life, wealth of all sorts, including May Poles.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    GEEZY PEEZY DJ.. is that a “conservative” idea to take away people’s development rights and land?

    that’s totally consistent AND inconsistent with the idea of taking people’s land to add more lanes to the roads…so they can handle MORE traffic!

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth so you do favor using eminent domain for both widening roads and extinguishing development ?

    It could well be that your views are mainstream in NoVa but if so it does further reveal how NoVa folks are very different from RoVa folks who vote “conservative”.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      My guess is that whoever owns the building that has been vacant for four years doesn’t want to keep paying property taxes on it. In a lot of cases they just stop paying taxes. Happens all the time in cities. The locality puts a tax lien on the property and eventually takes over ownership. I see no issue with property rights.

      I am pretty sure you’ll see the same thing in various disconnected parts of Fairfax County. If whoever owned the building that was vacant four years could have sold it he or she would have sold it. If they could have demolished it and sold the land (under the existing commercial zoning) they would have done that.

      Here’s what I actually wrote, “Fairfax should use a combination of tax condemnation and outright purchase to get control of these areas.”

      If the owner refuses to pay taxes the building should revert to the county. If the owner wants to sell at a fire sale price because nobody wants disconnected office space the county ought to buy the property. Either way, the development rights are owned by the county and the county can decide not to develop anything.

      My problem with Jim Bacon’s idea is that it’s impractical. Converting disconnected office buildings into disconnected condos still leaves a breathtakingly inefficient car-centric world. Jim’s idea of increasing the density makes for a bigger disconnected island. Few of these stranded office buildings have enough adjacent land to build the next Reston. If they were close to Metro they wouldn’t be stranded. We go from a disconnected office building to a disconnected condo enclave. Meanwhile, these’s never money for street improvements so we just create another traffic snarl.

      My idea would be to tear down as many of these disconnected obsolete office buildings as possible and turn the land into parks and recreational facilities. This would never happen near the Metro sites because that land is valuable even if it has a 1970s style office building on it. By restricting development on the new “park zones” you force new development to the transit oriented hubs. You would also get the kind of outdoor biking and hiking environment that is very popular – especially with young people.

      Here’s Wikipedia’s description of what Louisville did …

      “In development is the City of Parks, a project to create a 110-mile (180 km) continuous paved pedestrian and biking trail called the Louisville Loop around Louisville Metro while also adding a large amount of park land. Current plans call for making approximately 4,000 acres (16 km2) of the Floyds Fork flood plain in eastern Jefferson County into a new park system called The Parklands of Floyds Fork, expanding area in the Jefferson Memorial Forest, and adding riverfront land and wharfs along the Riverwalk and Levee Trail, both completed segments of the Louisville Loop.”

      1. Don, the only politically palatable way to increase density is to put that density in areas currently zoned industrial and commercial. That way you minimize opposition from residential neighbors. While converting some of this land to green space might be a good idea, remember that these old office/industrial parks comprise the only reservoir of re-developable land that Fairfax (or any other county) will likely ever see. It’s a precious resource for accommodating future growth.

        For practical ideas on how suburban office parks can be re-developed, I’d refer you to Ellen Dunham Jones’ book, “Retrofitting Suburbia.”

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Everybody is right here. Everybody has important thoughts. Like most everything, but particularly with regard to real estate, the devil is in the details.

        I suspect that very few of these buildings comprising 18, 000, 000 sq. ft. in Fairfax County would be truly abandoned as was I suspect, without knowing for sure, was likely the case in Louisville, Kentucky.

        Thus, for example, the ten story 5600 Columbia Pike Building in Jim’s article comprises 170,000 square feet, and was sold for $13, 500,000 to the long time developer Cafritz four months ago for rehab from office into live/work loft units, hopefully at least traffic wise, social wise, commercial redevelopment and tax revenue wise. How that dual use works out is likely most anybody’s guess. I suspect that it is a highly speculative project. Will these sorts of dual uses be a bridge to the County’s Future as a vibrant hip urban place, or will that hope fail and transform this project and its neighborhood into the the start of wholly dysfunctional crime ridden urban/suburban ghetto that plagues this highly sensitive key area and its region’s future for generations? I do not know. This area has been seriously blighted for decades. These are very tough decisions, with no clear risk free exit.

        I tend to agree with TMT here, given Fairfax’s abysmal track record of postponing problems, its failure to face up to realities or alter course. My fear here is that this approach may only make matters worse, and more intractable long term as has happened far too often in some places in DC where the government waited far too long in facing problems.

        In any case, the devil is in the particular and often unique circumstances of a particular place, and timing, and the execution of the all involved and chance too, good or bad luck, always plays a roll. But, to what degree, do these particularly approaches to solutions force change that work to solve problems instead to perpetuating problems – that is the question.

        Here I suspect that this type of Suburban is far harder than most urban, and that the rapidly growing low wage, low English skill immigrant population may present complications also perhaps opportunities but that likely in either case may well add urgency and/or risk.

        In any case, to the degree, that the county can get control of seriously plighted property by whatever means and convert it to public benefit, it should do so, rather than let blight fester and stymie remedies for revival. Hence, my positive reaction to Don’s ideas.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Don’s idea will likely NOT lead to contiguous whole plots of land but rather a patchwork of buildings.. and you’d end up with disconnected zoning.. etc.

    think about how land starts out at a lower density and then get’s upzoned.

    it usually happens like adding layers to an onion rather than picking and choosing some lots within a bigger area..

    so the reverse would happen if you have a big contiguous area pretty much zoned the same ..and you start downzoning selected properties inside the bigger area…

    Even the folks that don’t have renters .. believe the land itself will someday find a ” highest and best use”.. and a significant part of the value of the property is the land’s “location” ..

    but also.. vacant land does not necessarily mean a “park” either.. you have to have the right circumstances… access. infrastructure.. maintenance,etc.

    a 3 acre piece of land on a busy 4-lane is not a park by calling it a park.

    I’m not opposed to the idea.. but I think you’re pretty much turning the basic premise behind zoning and land-use on it’s head.

    Vacant properties -not developed – turn into big eyesores..

    the other thing I would point out is that this is not unique to NoVa. It’s going on in a LOT of places..including suburban and rural… it’s the internet and the consolidation of stores and businesses….

    we have a ton of half empty shopping centers down our way and most have lost their primary anchor and now are filled with much smaller local businesses.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    here’s an example of what happens when you have SOME vacant properties but not others:


  8. And this is not NoVa today, but here’s what can happen if you let an entire urban area’s economy collapse because nobody wants to work in those inner-city and inner-burbs office buildings any longer — and nobody wants to invest in converting them for apartments because of the surrounding blighted, unsafe neighboring properties.
    [Johannesburg, SA]

  9. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Fairfax County’s history of non-enforcement of development conditions (as well as imposing almost “non-conditions” on big developers) should give every resident pause.

    For example, the Providence Baptist Church, located at Lewinsville and Brook Roads, right off Route 7, has agreed to stricter TDM measurement requirements than those governing any Tysons landowners. The Church is planning to close its daycare center and lease the space to a small private school. The Church will implement a strong carpool program, commit to reductions over standard traffic counts for this type of use, measure performance monthly and prepare an annual report that will be available to the County staff and the public.

    Tysons landowners located within TOD circles also commit to reductions over standard traffic counts for their type of use, generally measure performance biennially and prepare a report that is not available to the public.

    Anyone see something wrong here? Anyone wonder why there is a lot of distrust of so-called “smart growth” in Fairfax County?

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