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For candidates, office-to-residential conversions now mainstream

Not too long ago, concept (and those who supported it) was derided as impractical

When perennial Arlington County Board protest candidate Audrey Clement some years back began promoting the concept of converting obsolete office space in the community to residential use, she often found herself under a barrage of incoming flak from those who said the idea held little merit.

But it seems the commercial-to-residential idea is gaining mainstream consideration in the county, if comments by some of the contenders for the Democratic nomination for County Board are any indication.

“There are a handful of buildings where this is a viable option, and we should pursue this,” said Tenley Peterson, a current Planning Commission member and one of the five Democrats seeking the party’s nod in the June 18 primary.

“We’ve seen this completed successfully in places like Washington, D.C., and Boston. I’d work to see Arlington take similar steps,” said Julie Farnam, another one of the five seeking the nomination.

Their comments came in response to questions posed by the advocacy group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, one of the many organizations to send candidates questionnaires during campaign season. (Find the full survey and candidate responses at

Of the five, Peterson, Farnam and Natalie Roy were most explicit in calling for consideration of office-to-residential conversions.

Roy, who last year came close to victory in the Democratic County Board primary, plans to turn key issues over to a task force, with one of their main tasks being to get the ball rolling on real-estate conversions.

“I would ask the task force to examine the standards-and-use permitting guidelines already adopted by other jurisdictions – like Alexandria, Fairfax and D.C. – to encourage and facilitate office-to-residential conversions, and recommend those that ought to be adopted in Arlington,” she said.

Two of the five contenders – J.D. Spain Sr. and James DeVita – did not specifically address office-to-residential conversions in their response to the questionnaire.

“I suggest exploring all allowable alternatives and ultimately pursuing what is most effective and feasible so as not to significantly impact county services, budgets and quality of life,” said Spain, who like Roy also ran in the 2023 Democratic primary.

DeVita, who earlier ran for state Senate, went another direction in his response.

“I think we should try to temporarily lower business taxes and provide other financial incentives to try to entice new businesses to come to Arlington,” he said, opining that “I don’t think the county [government] is doing enough” to address office vacancies and challenges facing businesses.

While it once was the golden goose, providing massive tax revenue for minimal services, Arlington’s reliance on commercial office space has turned into something of an albatross. Even before COVID, office-vacancy rates were high, and changes wrought by the pandemic brought with them a massive departure of employees from office buildings across the county.

Since those office buildings are taxed largely on how much rental revenue they attain, the Arlington tax coffers also have taken a hit. As county leaders seem disinclined to cut the budget (the recently adopted $1.65 billion spending plan is a record-breaker), more of the tax burden is being shifted to homeowners.

In many cases, converting an office building to residential use is easier said than done. For some property owners, it may be more financially attractive to raze existing buildings and build anew. But the county government has identified a number of sites where an office-to-residential conversion might be feasible.

The five Democratic contenders will be winnowed to a single nominee for the general election. That person will face Clement, who has run for office about 15 times, and potentially others. The winner in November will succeed Libby Garvey, a Democrat who has served on the County Board for 12 years but is not seeking re-election.

Clement, who started making the case for office-to-residential conversion when few others were, said that if elected she would push for more.

“I will advocate for a restructuring of the General Land-Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance to enable additional uses of existing office buildings, including but not limited to office-to-residential conversions; schools and day-care facilities; sport and fitness facilities; and urban-agriculture spaces,” she told the GazetteLeader.

Clement also referenced an executive order made by President Carter in 1978.

“The order stipulates that whenever a federal agency relocates, it must give priority to an available space located in a city’s central business district rather than in a suburb,” Clement said – and in this case, Arlington is counted as part of the central core rather than suburbia.

A number of local activists, including Bernard Berne, have urged county leaders to use the executive order as a way to bring federal agencies (and businesses that rely on them) to Arlington, or to keep them there.

While county officials largely have been dismissive of the value of the executive order, and federal agencies seem to ignore it, Clement said the dynamics would change if she got into office.

“If elected, I am going to insist upon it,” she said.