Scores of office buildings sit empty across the Washington region, a drag on tax revenue and neighborhood vitality and a reminder to local officials of a long list of community needs: More classroom space. Affordable housing. Job-generating retail and manufacturing businesses.
Some of the vacancies are the result of federal sequestration cuts, which forced government agencies and contractors that occupied older buildings to downsize or shut down. Others are signs of a broad shift by businesses to more modern office space, often near mass transit or other millennial-friendly amenities.
“It’s a nationwide problem,” said Barbara Byron, director of the Office of Revitalization in Fairfax County, which recently formed a committee to figure out how to fill 20 million square feet of vacant office space — an amount three times the size of the Pentagon.
Officials are eager to put at least some of the buildings back to productive use as a way to boost tax revenue, make use of infrastructure that would be costly and time-consuming to build from scratch and bring new energy to fading neighborhoods.
“Probably one of the bigger issues is just the sense of decay and disinvestment that comes with empty buildings or largely empty buildings,” said Anita Morrison, founding principal of the Washington consulting group Partners for Economic Solutions. “They can undercut the support for surrounding businesses that depend on office workers eating their lunch or running errands nearby.”
In all, there are about 71 million square feet of empty office space in the region, according to a study published by Morrison’s firm this year. The vacancies drive down property values, costing local governments tens of millions in tax revenue.
In Fairfax alone, property tax revenues from office buildings has dropped by about $23.2 million since the summer of 2013, county officials said.
There are three empty office buildings along Westpark Drive in Tysons Corner, near new luxury apartment buildings and office towers under construction.
At one, the paint is peeling, and beer cans and other trash littered the rear on a recent morning.
The building’s owner, listed in property records as a foreign-based limited liability company, could not be reached for comment. Doug Crawford, property manager of the Nouvelle luxury apartment building next door, said it was his understanding that the owners are trying to sell.
At the Skyline City office complex in Falls Church, Defense Department workers and federal contractors moved out years ago. Several of the seven office towers are at least half-empty; some are almost entirely vacant.
That complex is owned by Vornado Realty Trust, one of the nation’s largest office property owners. The company reported last month that 18 percent of the 16 million square feet it owns in the Washington region is vacant.
In Arlington’s Crystal City neighborhood, Vornado worked with local officials to convert some empty buildings into a hub for technology companies that includes new apartments, restaurants and bars.
The county changed zoning requirements and improved bus service, and Vornado has leased 216 housing units and two floors of newly renovated office space in one of the buildings, according to a quarterly report filed last month by the publicly held company.
In Montgomery County, officials are considering plans to convert two empty office parks in Bethesda into townhouses, parks and retail stores.
Fairfax officials said they are researching whether zoning changes or other fixes would encourage property owners to renovate vacant buildings or sell them for other uses. They would like more landlords to follow the example of the Silverline Center in Tysons, which recently completed a $35 million renovation that features a new atrium, floor-to-ceiling views of Northern Virginia and a wall of multi-colored LED lights that at night serves as a beacon to the nearby new restaurants and bars. The building, once half-empty, is almost fully leased.
“If we know of some of these buildings someone might need, or know of someone who wants to open a brewery or something, we can match them together,” said Byron, head of the county revitalization office.
The recently formed committee — made up of county officials, business leaders and housing advocates — will review buildings on a case-by-case basis and discuss where zoning changes make sense and which new uses might work best in a given location.
Michelle Krocker, director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance and a member of the panel, said she would like to see some of the structures converted into housing for the region’s growing population of low-income families.
Others are urging the use of some buildings as new schools, akin to what was done to turn an office building on Leesburg Pike in Seven Corners into Bailey’s Upper Elementary School.
Whether those uses make sense would depend on a building’s dimensions and how much retrofitting would be required, county officials said.
Fairfax Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock), chairman of the committee, suggests using some of the buildings as light manufacturing sites for small businesses that produce their own goods. Such “makerspaces” could help wean the local economy from its dependence on federal government contracting, he argued.
“Having a little furniture shop or a jewelry shop creating jobs, or a start-up tech,” Cook said. “That lends to the complexity of the economy that we know we want to build.”
Falls Church’s Skyline City complex was built starting in the late 1960s, before plans for a Metrorail extension into the neighborhood were abandoned. Next came a proposal for a streetcar along nearby Columbia Pike, which was jettisoned last year.
Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), who represents the area, called the vacant towers emblems of those dashed dreams.
“I lament the loss of the streetcar because that was one item that was going to be important to maintain the viability of Skyline,” Gross said. She said county officials are trying to lure new restaurants and retail stores to the area.
The office complex was largely empty one recent afternoon. A sign on one building announced that the Skyline Cafe is still open, offering a “Customer Appreciation Special” of half-priced meals and coffee. In another building, Sean Kang sat alone inside the deli and sushi restaurant he owns, eating his lunch.
“We’ve had a hard time,” Kang said. “But they keep saying the tenants are coming back.”