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Zoning changes give urban farms, breweries and colleges a quick process for taking over office spaces

Area 2 Farms, an indoor vertical farm, is opening in Green Valley (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

Urban farms and breweries could be coming to a vacant office near you.

Over the weekend, the Arlington County Board approved a series of zoning changes aimed at tackling the stubborn office vacancy rate. They would allow the following tenants to move into offices by right:

  • animal boarding facilities, provided animals are under 24-hour supervision
  • urban farms
  • urban colleges and universities
  • breweries, distilleries and facilities making other craft beverages, such as kombucha and seltzer
  • artisan workshops for small-scale makers working in media such as wood or metal, laser cutters, 3D printers, electronics and sewing machines

Colleges and universities or urban farms previously needed to seek out a site plan amendment, which requires Arlington County Board approval, to operate in spaces previously approved for office or retail use.

The code requires all animal boarding, farming and artisan product-making activities to occur inside the building.

A county report describes this existing process as “overly cumbersome” for entrepreneurs trying to prove their business concept as well as for landlords, “who may be averse to take a risk on a new type of use that may require significant building improvements.”

The changes require farms, craft beverage facilities and artisan workshops to maintain a storefront where they can sell goods made on-site to walk-in customers, which the report says could reinvigorate dead commercial zones.

“Artisan beverage uses can bring new life to vacant buildings, boost leasing demand and, when located in a walkable neighborhood, can attract both existing and potential residents, while creating active third places for the community to gather,” the report said. “By fostering space for small-scale makers, artisans, and the like, a creative economy can grow, and people who may not have the space for such activities in their urban apartments may see this as an attractive neighborhood amenity.”

Some of these uses were allowed along Columbia Pike in the fall of 2021 to encourage greater economic revitalization. At the same time, D.C.-based animal boarding company District Dogs was appealing zoning ordinances curtailing the number of dogs it could board overnight in Clarendon, prompting discussions about expanding the uses approved for the Pike throughout the county.

The next spring, County Manager Mark Schwartz developed a “commercial market resilience strategy” aimed at bringing down the county’s high office vacancy rate, fueled by persistent remote work trends catalyzed by the pandemic. The tool, which includes an expedited public review process, was first used last fall to allow micro-fulfillment centers to operate by-right in vacant office spaces.

In a letter to the County Board, Arlington Chamber of Commerce CEO Kate Bates said the rapid approval of these commercial activities is critical for attracting new and emerging businesses.

“The Chamber believes that the Zoning Ordinance needs reform, and that unnecessary restrictions on commercial use should be removed to help the economy of the County grow,” Bates wrote. “In the wake of record high commercial vacancy, timely change is needed. It is imperative that the County focuses on long-term solutions for new business models, both through increased adaptability for new uses and expedited timeframes for approval of these new uses.”

She urged the county to stop adding uses to the existing Zoning Ordinance and instead rewrite the ordinance with greater flexibility “to accommodate future uses not yet foreseen.”

That could look like scrapping the “use table” within the ordinance that lists permitted uses, plus where and how they can be approved, said Planning Commission member Stephen Hughes. He told staff earlier this month to consider rewriting the ordinance so that it regulates nuisances — such as barking associated with an animal boarding facility — rather than entire businesses.

“We really do need to, as a county, stop following, or fast-following, and really try and lead the nation. One way we can do that is to recognize the challenge of a use table in general,” he said. “Find a new approach that works within the laws of the Commonwealth… and then within the realm of the laws of the Zoning Ordinance.”

While some Planning Commissioners have welcomed the nimble changes coming out of the new county strategy, some have repeatedly criticized its expedited approval process for leaving neighbors in the dark about potential quality of life impacts.

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