Record-high vacancies in suburban office buildings have left local developers scratching their heads about what to do with the empty properties. Two developers have come up with a novel way to transform such an edifice in Alexandria: converting it into lofts for use as workplaces, apartments or both.
The developers created their concept by renovating a 1987 office building at 4501 Ford Ave. Called e-lofts, the project consists of 200 live-work units. The hybrid residential-commercial complex is near the King Street exit off Interstate 395.
“You can use your space as you choose,” said Conrad Cafritz, chairman and chief executive of Cafritz Interests. “This is a new paradigm that we feel can be applied across the country.”
The e-lofts offer one- and two-bedroom units, typically ranging from about 650 square feet to 1,200 square feet that rent for about $1,800 to $3,000 per month for a top-floor loft.
“The ‘e’ stands for ‘everything you want to do,’ ” said Robert Seldin, CEO of Novus Residences, a subsidiary of Cafritz Interests that is responsible for the Alexandria lofts.
“Within a five-minute drive is 4 million square feet of retail,” Seldin added, noting the proximity of the Bradlee Shopping Center and the Village at Shirlington.
For an extra $100, residents can rent a parking space in the 600-car underground garage. They have free use of a bicycle storage facility, meeting spaces and amenities on the ground floor and gardens at the rear.
Since the e-lofts opened in September, four leases have been signed. Two renters will live and work in their lofts and two will make the apartments their homes, according to general manager Melat Molina, who said the first renter will probably move in during November.
One of those tenants will be 40-year-old Tracy Rausch, CEO and founder of DocBox, a medical device company headquartered in Newton, Mass. Rausch says she plans to use her loft as meeting and office space and a corporate apartment for overnight stays on her frequent visits to the Washington area.
“It’s the perfect scenario for a small business,” said Rausch, who will start paying around $3,000 per month in November for a two-bedroom unit. “The conference rooms [on the ground floor] were one of the biggest selling points for me. I am always looking for places to meet with my clients, and it can be tough to find a place to do that in D.C.”
Seldin said the idea for the e-lofts was hatched three years ago. The developer was struck by the discrepancy between the rising number of office vacancies and steady job growth in the region since 2009 and saw a real estate opportunity to bridge the gap.
“Smartphone technology and cloud computing have liberated information from buildings and made it easier to work anywhere,” Seldin said. “We recognize that change in targeting creative-class industries, entrepreneurs and start-up businesses as our market for the e-lofts. By renting the same space to live and work, it allows them to save costs and take more risks.”
The Alexandria e-lofts, Seldin said, are designed to appeal to couples without kids, people who choose to work at home and small businesses of 10 and fewer employees.
Novus Residences purchased the vacant 1987 office building in 2015 for $20 million. The developer was able to take advantage of the commercial-residential mixed-use, high-density zoning in west Alexandria to combine living and working spaces within the office structure.
So far, seven of the building’s 14 levels have been renovated. The construction project is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year.
From the outside, the e-lofts building still looks like the original office block with its dark glass skin. But inside, the office suites and service cores were gutted to create the live-work units and ground-floor amenities.
For the renovation, the developers tapped the talents of four design firms. Atlanta-based Lord Aeck Sargent and D.C.-based Gensler reconfigured the building systems and interior architecture. Carlyn and Company Interiors + Design of Great Falls, Va., selected the furniture for the shared spaces on the ground floor and outdoor terraces. Landworks Studio of Boston designed the landscaped areas at the rear.
The two model lofts on the third floor are staged with furniture from the store West Elm to show how the one-bedroom units can be used as an office or an apartment. Raw concrete ceilings and structural columns, large windows and nearly 10-foot ceilings supply an industrial vibe. “We are offering the equivalent of New York loft spaces,” Cafritz said.
The work unit is furnished with desk spaces for four employees and, in the bedroom, a table and chairs for meetings. The residential loft is decorated to establish living and dining areas in the main open space and a sleeping area in the bedroom. A small desk is tucked into an alcove next to the kitchen.
The apartments can be reconfigured according to use. Sliding pocket doors between the rooms can be opened to create one large loft or closed to section off the bedrooms from living and working spaces. The doors are fitted with frosted glass to let in light from the windows at the perimeter.
All of the live-work lofts incorporate a galley kitchen stretching along one wall of the main space. European cabinets are combined with stainless-steel GE appliances and quartz countertops. The spacious bathrooms include double sinks and glass-framed showers.
Each loft incorporates a washer and dryer and a walk-in closet. The closet is supplied with shelving and phone and data outlets so it can house a computer server, printer, copier and fax machine, should the loft be used as a workspace.
Renovating the office building to support the kitchens and bathrooms, Seldin said, was the biggest challenge of the project. Extending plumbing lines to each unit meant snaking the piping between steel rebar and tensioned cables in the concrete slabs so the building’s structural integrity would be preserved. Ground-penetrating radar technology was used to locate the structural elements and more than 3,400 holes drilled for the new utilities.
Just past the entrance lobby, the ground floor has been transformed into an area for amenities. There is the expected fitness center, plus four conference rooms and a TV-entertainment lounge. Banquette seating and a fully equipped kitchen with a trapezoidal marble island provide spaces for dining and hanging out.
In the basement, three soundproof music studios provide spaces for jam sessions without disturbing the neighbors. A pet spa features deep sinks for washing the pooch.
“One of our goals is to create a community in the building, and these shared spaces help to do that,” Seldin said.
Carlyn and Company furnished the communal areas with sculptural contemporary furniture and graphic, patterned rugs. Among the more unusual designs are tall, cylindrical chairs that Seldin has dubbed “human lipsticks.”
“We tried to create spaces that we call ‘alone together,’ where you can work by yourself or join your neighbors,” said Carlyn and Company President Holly Polgreen. “We looked for pieces that allow you to cocoon but are open enough to see what’s around you and take in the energy of the space.”
The outdoor terraces at the rear of the building were similarly designed for individual and group activities with hammocks, Ping-Pong tables and seating areas. A grassy area set with benches provides a setting for movies during warm months. Lighting strung overhead is meant to create the feeling of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens at night.
With the first e-lofts building nearing completion, Seldin has plans to turn more vacant offices into live-work lofts. He hopes construction will begin next year on 5600 Columbia Pike in Falls Church to create 157 lofts within the 10 stories of the 1968 office building. If that happens, the developer says, leasing could start in 2018.
And he is pursuing more opportunities locally. “The future,” Seldin said, “lies in the freedom to make decisions as to the way you want to live or work.”