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Developers Rethinking Office Parks In Virginia Suburb Undergoing ‘Dramatic Change’

Suburban office is a four-letter word right now. These properties, no longer in tune with how people are choosing to work, are becoming increasingly obsolete, and building after building is falling into distress.

But figuring out what to do with those standalone office parks and how to transition them into the future is challenging, especially for an area like Northern Virginia’s Reston and Herndon suburbs, where low-lying office parks line the landscape.

Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh’s Andrew Painter, EYA’s Aakash Thakkar, TF Cornerstone’s Ken Houle, SCG Development’s Stephen Wilson, Securiport’s Juan Manuel Segura and Comstock’s Tim Steffan

Sitting in a vacant floor of Comstock’s new 1800 Reston Row Plaza trophy office tower, panelists at Bisnow’s Future of Reston & Herndon event this month discussed challenges facing suburban office buildings and how they can keep up with a rapidly changing landscape. 

“Reston is undergoing pretty dramatic change. Many markets are, but maybe Reston is more so than most,” EYA Chief Acquisitions Officer Aakash Thakkar said onstage. 

Developers say many suburban office properties in the area will likely be demolished. But a question remains about what types of development can be built on these large parcels, often inaccessible to Metro and retail. 

“When you look at the older office buildings in Rosslyn or Ballston or downtown D.C., they’re much more compact, and they’re taller,” Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh partner Andrew Painter said. “By the time you get out to Reston, it’s a lot of inno-tech-style campus, lower-slung buildings, surface parking, that doesn’t lend itself to higher density development.” 

A new comprehensive plan for the region, approved in September, emphasizes developing mixed-use hubs along the Metro line, like the Reston Station project where the event took place. The second phase of the Silver Line opened in late 2022, extending the Metro from the previous terminus next to Reston Station through Reston Town Center, Herndon, Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County

“Over time, the corridor will become an area with robust, livable, walkable mixed-use communities of all income levels having an appropriate balance between residential and non-residential uses," the comprehensive plan says. 

Another development that aligns with that vision is Isaac Newton Square.

The 32-acre office park less than a half mile from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station was demolished and is set to be redeveloped into 2.8M SF of mixed-use, including 2,100 residential units, 300 hotel rooms, 260K SF of office and almost 69K SF of retail. The first phase, a 345-unit apartment building from APA Properties, received approval from the Fairfax County Planning Commission at the end of the year.

But nearby, many office buildings eyed for redevelopment are in a drastically different position. 

“Conversions in really dense, urban spaces make a lot of sense. When you are out in these places where you have a huge surface lot, and it’s a 30% leased building that isn’t served by retail, you know the highest and best use is really Aakash’s product,” TF Cornerstone Vice President Ken Houle said, adding that these residential projects would be “tremendously better for the tax base.”

EYA plans to redevelop the 62-acre Lake Fairfax Business Park, developed in the 1980s, into a “village-style mixed-use community.” The development sits three-quarters of a mile from the Metro, but the vision is to make it a mini urban hub with retail and placemaking amenities.

“What do you do with these office parks?” Thakkar asked. “These second-tier buildings and locations that are a little further away from Metro but really great locations?” He said they likely will never be viable for office or redevelopment to purely multifamily.

“But scraping and starting anew and being imaginative and sort of building what I call the neighborhood of the future … that’s the real opportunity,” he said.

Donohoe Hospitality President Thomas Penny, Donohoe Development’s Evan Weisman and Donohoe Construction’s Steve Crowder

EYA is planning to do the same thing in Oakton, Virginia, where it submitted plans in November to demolish a 444K SF office campus that was home to AT&T and turn it into a 1.5M SF mixed-use development with townhomes, apartment buildings and retail.

“Our buyers and our renters are particularly folks who want to live in urban places,” Thakkar said. “And so the more of those we can build, the more attractive we think that Reston will be for businesses beginning to grow in our region and for folks like us to build houses because it’ll be a place where people want to be.” 

Public transportation near these developments isn’t as important because if people choose to live in Reston they probably also work there, Thakkar said, which means they can likely either walk or drive.

At 3078 Centreville Road in Herndon, four miles away from the nearest Metro station, another developer is looking to redevelop a 94K SF, two-story office building from 2001, plus its parking lot and a vacant parcel next door, into 177 townhomes around a central plaza. 

Pulte Homes is looking to replace three 1980s-era office buildings, three-quarters of a mile from the Metro on Sunset Hills Road in Reston, into 100 multifamily units and 90 stacked townhomes. The plans come with a 1-acre park. 

Thakkar said it is important that these projects get the community and elected officials on board and that developers can show them the benefits.

And if developers can provide the community with benefits, affordable housing for example, he says the county should be able to help speed them along.

“In our view, time is money, and it's not just money for the developer, it's tax base,” he said. “So how do you work with the planning folks and the supervisors to say ‘we want to get you what you want ...  but you’ve got to move this process more quickly along.’” 

The first step though, he said, is getting the first few done.

“Getting a couple of these out of the ground so the county can see that they're working, that they're tax positive, that they’re building community, that they’re addressing housing needs. We got to get a couple of those under our belt and sort of push and push to make that more normal,” Thakkar said. “Because this change, it’s not that it’s coming. It’s already come.”