Re-purposing or repositioning the glut of vacant and obsolete commercial office buildings is a challenge confronting many jurisdictions throughout the DMV – some more than others. With an estimated 18 million square feet of vacant office space at the end of 2015, Fairfax County took the lead in exploring both the challenges and potential solutions to this issue. Now the County is bringing forward amendments to its Comprehensive Plan to support re-purposing or repositioning underperforming assets, and restoring them to some functional use.
The Plan amendments are the results of recommendations from a report issued in 2016 created by a working group of architects, attorneys, developers, county public facilities personnel and staff charged by the county to:
“Study and implement ways to re-purpose empty and obsolete commercial space for residential uses; urban schools or other public facilities; art and cultural purposes; live/work/manufacture uses; and/or start-up companies. Engage stakeholders in research and recommendations. Consider implementation tools such as land use and regulatory changes, innovative tax policies, and the use of public seed money or equity participation to spur and support redevelopment and infill, revitalization and partnership opportunities for re-purposing.”
The report recommends four broad areas to consider:
- Changes/modifications to the Zoning Ordinance to facilitate building repositioning, re-purposing and emerging trends;
- Improvements to development process for repositioning and re-purposing of existing structures;
- Changes to land use planning policy;
- Improve information distribution and education on building repositioning and re-purposing opportunities and processes.
Case studies of re-purposed and repositioned buildings are included in the appendix of the report, providing lessons learned as well as land use, zoning and engineering/design challenges that must be addressed for a successful conversion.
On Monday, September 25, a community meeting will be held at 7 PM to discuss the proposed plan amendments. This meeting should be of great interest to all housing advocates, given the regional scope of the problem and the potential use of these vacant buildings to help mitigate the shortage of housing for lower-income households. More attention should be given to looking at these assets as conversions to affordable housing.
Some jurisdictions are also considering how to revitalize aging, underutilized office parks by developing a mix of uses and including affordable housing. Creating more vibrant, walkable places with a mix of uses that include housing that’s affordable is one of the solutions that could rejuvenate these corporate campuses that are no longer desirable to today’s workforce.