Feeling the pressure to respond to its soaring office vacancy rate, Arlington County is looking to fill empty buildings quickly.
One option for adding tenants and knocking down the 20.8% vacancy rate would be to permit companies to set up small warehouses, or micro-fulfillment centers, inside of office buildings that are struggling to attract new tenants — especially as remote work appears here to stay.
The proposed solution is part of a new initiative to modernize and add flexibility to the county’s zoning approval process. In addition to micro-fulfillment centers, this plan suggests a few other non-traditional uses for office buildings, from breweries to urban farms. It also provides an expedited public process with shallower community engagement so that the Arlington County Board can sign off more quickly.
“The goal of this different approach for new or amended uses is to have them ready for board consideration more quickly than other typical zoning studies,” said Jill Hunger from the Dept. of Community Planning, Housing and Development (CPHD). “This is the first application of the county manager’s strategy to ensure commercial market resiliency.”
After a discussion that called out county staff for not engaging enough with the community, all but one member of the Planning Commission voted to send the amendment to the Arlington County Board for approval on Monday. Commissioner Stephen Hughes abstained.
The proposed zoning change limits each micro-fulfillment center to 10,000 square feet, reflecting industry best practices and staff discussions with center operators, Hunger said. If the center is in a ground-floor space and opens onto an active street, it must provide a walk-in customer sales area.
Staff recommend that no fewer than 10% of deliveries should be made by a delivery worker on foot or on a bicycle.
“It’s anticipated that quite truthfully after the initial startup, and if more than one micro-fulfillment center operates in Arlington, this modal split may actually increase,” Hunger said.
While Planning Commission members ultimately voted in favor of permitting micro-fulfillment centers, a number criticized the plan for not talking to the civic associations that could be impacted.
According to a draft county document, the county placed public notice ads with the Washington Times for the Planning Commission and County Board meetings, updated its webpages for zoning studies and its response to office vacancies, and briefed the Planning Commission and the Economic Development Commission.
“We feel we have done the outreach that’s consistent with many zoning text amendments,” Hunger said.
But without asking residents for their input, Commissioner James Schroll said he has a hard time believing the County Board can approve the change without additional public hearings. The Board is expected to take up the matter at its Saturday, Oct. 15 meeting.
“How we do what we do matters,” he said. “I get that you want to move quickly and I support that and I also want staff to be engaging with broad stakeholders as you do that.”
He said he’ll be reticent to support future amendments to consider permitting breweries and urban farms in office spaces, for instance, if there isn’t more stakeholder outreach.
Hughes said he understands the urgency Arlington County is feeling, but criticized staff for not doing enough due diligence. He predicted the ordinance, as written, will not preclude late-night deliveries by tractor trailers, thus disturbing neighbors.
Commissioner Sara Steinberger shared those concerns.
“There’s always going to be good tenants and then less good tenants,” she said. “In terms of what that looks like when you’re talking about a functionality with a lot of loading and unloading and what hours that can take place at, we should look at some constraints and enforcement on those activities.”
But Commissioner Jim Lantelme was more enthusiastic in his support.
“This is a great idea,” he said. “I’m very happy that we’re doing this and I’m happy this is being done so quickly. I hope this is only the first of many that we see going forward for modifying our zoning ordinance to bring it up to date for uses we didn’t contemplate when the ordinance was being written.”
His next suggestion? Allowing micro-fulfillment centers in underused parking garages.
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