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County Considering Making Office-to-Apartment Conversions Easier

Arlington County officials are considering new administrative guidance to streamline the process of converting office buildings into residential buildings.

Such conversions would remain subject to County Board approval, but a new set of guidelines being considered by county staff would make the review and recommendation process easier.

In a presentation, expected to be given to the county’s Long Range Planning Committee at its meeting tonight, officials will say that trends both local and national will lead to a wave of office building conversions. Underlying that is the pandemic and the shift to working from home, potentially leading to less demand for office space.

The trends, however, started before the pandemic, with an “observed reduction in office demand — nationally, regionally and locally — over the past decade resulting limited economic feasibility for speculative multi-tenant office buildings.”

Recent office-to-residential conversions in Arlington include the WeLive/WeWork building in Crystal City. Future projects like it need a better-defined path from proposal to County Board consideration, county staff says.

“Neighboring jurisdictions are actively addressing issues around use flexibility,” the presentation notes. “Alexandria and Fairfax County have adopted policies related to this issue and have approved projects implementing them whereas Arlington County has approved projects with no guiding policy to date.”

The guidance will not change existing County Board policies, the presentation asserts, but will help staff when reviewing office conversion proposals.

“In advance of evaluating the appropriateness of new office conversion requests, staff developed this administrative guidance for use during staff review, community discussion and [County Manager] recommendation to the [County Board] on the proposed conversion,” the presentation says. “This guidance is not [County Board] policy, and does not change existing [County Board] policy or alter existing land use processes.”

The law firm McGuireWoods is telling its clients, however, that the changes will “increase flexibility and support for repurposing existing and approved office buildings.”

“The new administrative guidance is expected to give developers and property owners much-needed flexibility to consider residential, live-work and other options that, in many cases, could be beyond what existing planning guidance permits,” the firm said on its website. “Outreach is currently underway with business community stakeholders and decision makers and will continue in the upcoming weeks. The administrative guidance will likely be in place by the end of 2020.”

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