Ballston Quarter has a 50,000-square-foot vacancy problem.
The redeveloped mall at 4238 Wilson Blvd is home to a rotating roster of restaurants, as well as clothing stores, pet facilities, eye doctors, gaming experiences and other retail businesses, as well as an attached office building and the MedStar Capitals Iceplex.
But filling the retail roster has not been smooth sailing, writes land use attorney Kedrick Whitmore in a letter to the county on behalf of Brookfield Properties, which owns the mall.
Reading the changing economic winds, Brookfield Properties is looking to tack.
During the Arlington County Board meeting this weekend, the Board is slated to review the property owner’s request to lease about 28,000 square feet of second-floor retail space to a medical tenant. This tenant — which was not named — would provide primary care, ear, nose, and throat and eyes and vision specialists, speech therapy and other medical care, according to a staff report.
“Approving this application would help resolve the Project’s significant, systemic leasing challenges and creatively reposition the Mall,” Whitmore writes in the letter, filed last month. “The Applicant envisions a holistic and mutually beneficial relationship between potential medical offices and the local retail and entertainment market.”
New medical offices benefit those living and working in the heart of Ballston, and would result in more patients patronizing local businesses, Whitmore said.
Although current zoning permits office conversions by-right, the mall is governed by a retail plan that requires Brookfield to file a site plan amendment to make the change.
The mall had struggled for years, due to its large size and age, before its redevelopment was approved, with the goal of improving its performance against newer counterparts in the region. The work wrapped up at the end of 2018.
Around the same time, a county retail plan from 2015 recommended pulling storefronts to the street, creating outdoor activity and attractions, and making interior renovations to encourage activity there. The plan also called for “flexibility and creativity” to encourage these changes.
Per the county report, county staff looked over the retail plan and “understand[s] the challenges in leasing second floor internal spaces in a shifting retail market and that these spaces require greater flexibility in terms of permitted uses.”
This request is not out of the blue, either. The report adds that “even at project inception, office tenancy was viewed as a likely leasing option.”
Not everyone agrees with this assessment. The Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association said it does not believe the change aligns with the retail plan, but should it pass anyway, it suggested the medical provider “target underserved, lower income communities which would benefit most from the easy access to public transportation.”
The mall recently approved another non-retail tenant, which agreed to lease a large space inside the mall: Grace Community Church. Still, tenants are cycling in and out, as there are fewer office workers from the nearby buildings visiting due to the rise of remote work, not to mention the convenience of online shopping.
These conditions also led Brookfield to petition for a tax break from the county’s Board of Equalization, the Sun Gazette previously reported. Members voted this summer to reduce the assessment from $91.1 million as determined by staff to $86.7 million, which the Sun Gazette noted was a “very partial victory” for the property owner.
Online shopping, meanwhile, is the main reason why a Ballston apartment building is requesting to convert a ground floor retail space into a community lounge and work space.
Richmond Square (900 N. Randolph Street) turned an existing community room into a package room with lockers. To make up for the lost tenant amenity space, the owner seeks to convert 2,175 square feet of retail space into a new community lounge and work space.
Nicholas Cumings, a land use attorney for the building, invoked the county’s Retail Plan, saying that this conversion conforms to the plan because it permits any use allowed by the Zoning Ordinance.
“With the advent of delivery services, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, package deliveries have played a critical role in residents’ lives,” Cumings wrote in a letter to the county. “The increase in the quantity of deliveries has made mail rooms and package storage areas a highly desirable tenant amenity and a necessity for building operations.”
Per a County Board report, staff support the change, but they say the Ballston Virginia Square Civic Association — already apprehensive about the Ballston Quarter conversion — has questions about the increase in retail equivalent conversions.
Broadly, staff say, this is part of the county’s plan to have a commercial district that responds to changes in how locals shop and work.
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