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MCA voices fear about conversion from commercial to residential

More housing than planned could impact county revenue, expenses, group contends

Approved and proposed conversions of commercial and office space to mostly residential purposes may affect county revenues and spur the need for more infrastructure, schools and other services, McLean Citizens Association (MCA) board members said June 7.

This trend has been occurring with new rezonings, changes to approved uses and proposals to replace or repurpose existing office buildings with residential uses, said Robert Perito, who chairs MCA’s Planning and Zoning Committee.

“Working from home has left a growing surplus of office space across the United States, and that includes both Tysons and McLean,” he said.

The committee currently is examining nine such proposals and while each likely would be approved on its own merits, their cumulative impact is part of a potentially negative trend, he said.

The MCA board at the meeting approved a letter to Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) that calls on county officials to study impacts of office-to-residential conversions on tax revenue, population density, affordable housing and services such as schools, public safety, transportation, parking, parks and recreational facilities.

County staff also should compare the current situation with projections and expectations of the Tysons and McLean comprehensive plans, the letter read.

The conversion trend is receiving more attention now in Washington, D.C., said MCA board member Ron Bleeker, the primary person who drafted the letter.

Office-to-residential conversions are a response to declining office use that has occurred since early 2020 at the start of the pandemic, MCA leaders wrote. From December 2019 to December 2022, the number of people living in Tysons grew 9 percent to 26,374, but county revenue based on assessed value of property there declined 30 percent to $200 million, their letter read.

Office vacancies during this period also rose during that period, both in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia overall, read the letter.

MCA’s Planning and Zoning Committee has seen a rise in office-to-residential conversions in recent years and has supported several involving failed or underused office facilities. But MCA leaders have “become concerned about the increasing number of such ‘conversions’ and their cumulative effect on public and community services for Tysons and nearby communities such as McLean,” they wrote.

A rise in the number of residential units in Tysons may mean the arrival of more children at an earlier stage than anticipated and necessitate acceleration of planned school construction the urban center, Bleeker said.

“Right now, the first elementary school being considered in Tysons would not even go into construction until the end of this decade,” he said.

Not all office buildings are capable of being converted for residential use, Bleeker said, citing plumbing requirements as one obstacle.

Also, “you need windows [and] light in an apartment and not every office building provides it,” he said.

Most of the nine proposed applications in the McLean and Tysons areas, which are cited in the letter’s appendix, involve building residential buildings instead of planned commercial ones or tearing down commercial properties in order to build residential units, Perito said.

“The business of converting is actually a minority of these,” he said.

Fairfax County underwent a similar conversion cycle in the 1980s after the commercial office market crashed, said MCA board member Merrily Pierce.

“A lot of builders came in and rezoned previously commercial land to residential and we went through the same evaluations of impact on schools and services,” Pierce said, adding the county officials might be able to glean lessons from how those situations played out.