Fairfax County Buildings’ Repurposing Debated

County considers vacant office space repurposing guidelines; public offers some “good ideas.

Across the county, since the end of 2016, an estimated 18 million square feet of office space is deemed functionally vacant. A hearing at the Fairfax County Government Center on Jan. 29 sought to gather public opinion on proposed guidelines which could streamline the application process for repurposing such properties in Suburban Neighborhoods and Low Density Residential Areas.

At the hearing, members of the audience kept steering the conversation away from the specifics of the proposed Plan Amendment 2017-CW-5CP, and more towards the desire to see repurposing include community service and affordable housing potential.

In December, the Board of Supervisors authorized a similar Plan Amendment that addresses the repurposing application process for “activity centers” like Tysons and Merrifield, and in transit station and industrial areas. At that time, they directed staff to consider expanding the guidelines beyond these “activity centers.” Outside of these larger, mixed-use and industrial areas, an inventory shows in excess of 607,000 square feet of vacant office space.

OFFICIALS see the guidelines as supporting the county’s Economic Success Plan. A Comprehensive Plan Amendment on a site-by-site basis would not be automatically required as long as applicants still meet strict zoning regulations and established Performance Criteria. County planners feel that the shortened application process could encourage owners or developers to make modifications to these properties.

Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) Director Fred Selden fielded the majority of the questions and comments from the public at the hearing. Selden said that most of the buildings in question were the smaller townhouse style, or two-or-three story buildings that often house small individual businesses. “Doctors, dentists, insurance agents, Realtors, and the like,” and the county believes that streamlining the repurpose process could be a real economic boon to a community, adding services and consumers.

The proposal was explained by Aaron Klibaner with the Planning Division who outlined the seven potential repurposing uses that the county identifies in the proposed Plan Amendment: Hotels, Light Industrial, Urban Agriculture, Institutional, Public Facilities, Residential Live/Work, and Retail or other commercial functions, and gave examples of the Performance Criteria that would be applied to applicants seeking to repurpose a property.

“Proposals would be reviewed for factors such as compatibility with the surrounding existing or planned development,” said Klibaner. Transportation needs and impacts would also be considered, as well as the site design, impacts on schools, parks, public facilities, historic preservation and environmental considerations. “Those requirements stay the same.”

After the explanatory presentation and clarifying questions about the proposal, Klibaner and colleague Meghan D. Van Dam, chief, Policy and Plan Development Branch, asked the audience to divide into two groups to discuss the pros and cons of each usage type “to give adequate consideration to all the potential types and to be sure that all voices are heard,” said Van Dam.

The audience had other plans.

There was general agreement that the question of what purpose would best suit a particular building could only be answered on a case-by-case basis, although the “Hotel” category seemed to raise the only immediate concern, with an opposition to the transient nature of the occupants being added to a smaller residential environment.

Instead of talking about categories, most in the audience wanted to talk about ways that vacant or under-utilized properties could be redeveloped to meet urgent needs in the community.

Several attendees voiced concerns over the county’s critical shortage of affordable housing: “Not just low-income housing, but units that our service providers like our teachers, police, and firefighters can afford.” A woman from the Annandale area added that housing for the disabled and mentally challenged is also much needed, and that repurposing buildings could offer “live and work” opportunities for these members of the community.

Day Care and senior centers were also mentioned, as were county-supported or subsidized light industrial businesses that would bring employment opportunities along with economic gains for the county. Tax incentives and public-private partnerships were suggested as ways to encourage owners to repurpose with community needs in mind.

Selden acknowledged that, to date, the county hadn’t really given much thought to “these good ideas.” He reminded the audience that PA 2017-CW-5CP speaks only to privately owned structures. The county can approve or deny applications and can negotiate and put forth recommendations, but what use the property owner seeks to employ in its repurposing is “their business decision.” He did add, however, that all of the comments and suggestions would be considered as the process of the proposed Plan Amendment moved forward.

AT THE END of the two-hour event, an impromptu “straw poll” vote by a show of hands indicated that a majority of those present supported the proposal, but the majority also agreed that the county should look to those structures for their own efforts to meet the needs of their citizens.

Another Planning Commission public hearing is scheduled for March 22. The Plan Amendment is currently on the agenda for the Board of Supervisors on May 1. The public can find more information on the county’s website by searching “Repurposing Phase 2,” or by contacting Aaron Klibaner at the DPZ at aaron.klibaner@fairfaxcounty.gov.

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