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Why Converting Office Buildings to Apartments is Difficult

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From the outside, it’s not that hard to imagine a previous life. Park & ​​Ford, Development of a luxury condominium recently opened in Alexandria. With the addition of balconies, the pair of concrete towers are painted from brownish beige to a more pleasing gray, but retain the unmistakable Brutalist light atmosphere of the 1980s government complex.

Still, there are many things that impress me with the ingenuity on display. The entrance to the former parking lot was adorned with wooden siding, an outdoor TV and patio furniture, and became a “cabana”. It used to be a ground parking lot, but it is now a huge dog park for residents, surrounded by fences and covered with synthetic grass. The once barren original built-in planter is thoughtfully landscaped. The whole scene resembles one of the upcycled chandeliers made of plastic bottles. In a beautiful, slightly apocalyptic way.

“There really wasn’t a time when offices were declining until empty buildings were basically as valuable as land.”

And, in fact, the last few years have been heading towards something near the end of the world for the office market in the region. Even before Covid, the rise of more efficient office layouts, coworking, and the increased supply of new trophy spaces made selling old buildings increasingly difficult. Later, a pandemic caused Washington’s already high vacancy rates to jump out of the stratosphere. It is now clear that a corps of white-collar employees will not return to the office full-time. The result was economic guts not only for the owners of the abandoned buildings, but also for the surrounding areas, which relied on the tax revenues and vibrancy they once generated.

“There really wasn’t a time when offices were declining like they are now. [an empty building] It’s basically the same value as land, “said Lindsay Stroud, a structured finance broker at commercial real estate firm Savills.

One possible solution is to switch from an office to a home like Park & ​​Ford.

Alexandria Park & ​​Ford unit (development also shown above). Photo courtesy of Rowe.

Landlords, developers and government officials are working hard to make them happen. Nearly 4 million square feet of old office space in downtown Washington, DC has already been converted or is being evaluated for potential conversion. The district is seeking feedback from builders on how to further promote such projects. Suburbs such as Alexandria and Reston are also attracting more and more attention from developers interested in taking advantage of the potentially favorable convergence of bargain-priced office buildings and the huge regional demand for more housing.

Logically, turning a corporate floor plan into a livable place is much more complicated than simply replacing a bedroom with a bedroom. “It’s not for the timid,” says President Paul Doherty. PRP real estate investment, When we converted the West End building into a condominium in 2018, we were ahead of the curve. “It’s very difficult to withdraw.”


Look at most downtown buildings And some problems are obvious. Many are smooth among neighbors. That is, there are no windows on at least two sides. It is also usually much deeper and wider than standard residential structures, with no direct natural light, and a spongy core on each floor. Then add hundreds of bathrooms and kitchens (not to mention the accompanying ventilation and plumbing), turn the rooftop into an amenity space, and consider the complexity of rerouting elevators.

Previous: This 1989 building near the White House was once occupied by the Justice Department. Photo by Evy Mages

However, the developer is not suppressed. Michael Abrams, Managing Director Foulger-PrattSays Pandemic, which has driven his company to focus on office transformation as a whole new strategy. In December, it closed on 1425 New York Avenue, a 1989 building about a block away from the White House previously occupied by the Justice Department. According to Abrams, Foulger-Pratt has also contracted another building near Dupont Circle to convert to 185 units (although the transaction is not final and no additional details can be disclosed. ). Finding the right candidate has never been easier. He says his company has rated about five other infeasible other dozens.

After change: Foulger-Pratt plans to transform the former Department of Justice building into 255 apartments. Foulger-Rendered by Pratt’s favor.

What set New York in 1425 was that it already had a central atrium. “Therefore, you can expand the existing opening, remove the roof and create the courtyard needed to supply light and air to the interior. Unit.” Foulger-Pratt will be built by the end of this year. I want to start. According to Abrams, the 255 apartments are very close to the White House, with roof decks overlooking the president’s lawn.

Previous: Lincoln Properties is remodeling two downtown buildings, including 1313L Street. Photo courtesy of Hickock Cole

Lincoln Property Co., Ltd. We are also working on two downtown renovations, 1313L Street and 112515th Street. They were designed by architect Lawrence Cordle and one of Hickock Cole’s colleagues. He explains that on L Street, the courtyard space was cut in the middle of the original footprint. The ceiling height has been lowered to allow additional floors. This allows for units that generate the more rent needed for the project to make economic sense. At 1125 15th Street, there is already glass on all sides of the building, and that transformation can be lifted a bit easier.

After change: What will happen to the conversion of 1313L Street? Rendered in favor of Hickok Cole.

A few blocks away, the former Peace Corps headquarters on 111120th Street was empty long before the pandemic. “We were there for months trying to actually land a tenant to get the entire building or half of the building,” said Gary Cohen, a family-owned company since it was built in the 1960s. Says. “Then, of course, Covid was a hit. The vacancy rate in the office market was higher than ever.” Suddenly, he says “the least resistant road” has become a residential convert.

Previous: The former Peace Corps headquarters on 20th Avenue and L Street will be 163 apartments with a rooftop pool. Photo by Evy Mages

The building was relatively suitable for the job. It is on the corner and is completely separated on all sides. Locations near Foggy Bottom and West End are also clearly more residential than parts of downtown far east. “This is one of the reasons we did that,” says Cohen. “This is easy to digest.” He expects construction to begin this fall. When completed, the property will have 163 apartments, an 8,000-square-foot retail store, a dog park, and a rooftop pool.

After change: Former Peace Corps headquarters rebuilt. Rendered in favor of PGN Architect.

Still, dozens more are launched for every building that moves forward. Sean Pichon of PGN Architects designed Cohen’s project and another remodeling is underway on nearby 21st and K Streets. However, in total, he estimates that over the past two years, he has surveyed about 30 buildings around DC for clients interested in turning them into homes. Most of it hasn’t progressed, at least so far, due to some complications.

Suburban offices are often an easier target. Brookfield Residential Last year, I snapped up a pair of 1986 buildings near the Old Town of Alexandria. It was previously rented by a government contractor. Surrounded by open spaces, they are reasonably sized than downtown buildings, each on four levels. Brookfield has turned them into 81 luxury condos, priced between $ 400,000 and $ 2.5 million. Greg Hughes, senior vice president of the company, said it should be done in the fall and 20 homes are already under contract.

Two towers in Park & ​​Ford, Alexandria, one of which was the Ministry of Agriculture’s outpost, are also surrounded by spaces and lights that are hard to find downtown. A national developer, Rowe bought real estate before the pandemic and began redesigning it. It was a lucky timing. With all the windows, the deeper floorboards of the building were less of an issue and actually led to larger apartments, many with burrows ideal for working at home. By the time development began last November, the unit was what many lessors were looking for. Over 40 percent of the 435 apartments are rented.

Mark Rivers, Executive Vice President of Lowe, said the company wants to recreate its success elsewhere in the region, but the competition for good conversion candidates is becoming increasingly fierce.


Like many, the transition from traditional office buildings was accelerated by a pandemic. But that’s certainly not the cause. Modern spaces in rethinking areas, such as the Navy Yard, cost money on downtown block-shaped 1980s buildings long before Covid. Even typical conservative tenants, such as law firms, were beginning to branch. Take Williams & Connolly, who announced in 2018 that he would abandon the Metro Center headquarters in the Pier Trophy Building. (At least one developer investigated the company’s previous bargains as possible conversion candidates, but only determined that it wasn’t feasible.)

“Many of the areas that are currently doing very well are those with lots of retail stores and homes,” said Austin Holderness, Chief Development Officer at Car Properties. “Putting an office building in such an environment takes advantage of the slightly lacking energy in the central business district.”

“The reason we need more housing in downtown is to keep up with these new areas, to create a 24/7 atmosphere.”

That’s why in 2017, Carr decided to build a modern office project. Signal houseIn the Union Market District, Holderness explains. The building opened last year during the worst market downturn in history, but 70% of 227,000 square feet is already rented.this is Largest tenant, TikTokTaken the 3.5th floor.

City officials are watching carefully. “The reason we need more housing in downtown is to keep up with these new areas, to create a 24/7 atmosphere,” said John, Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development at DC. Falsicchio says. Therefore, in December last year, he asked real estate owners for their views on how the city could help facilitate the conversion from more offices to homes. Then, in a 2023 budget proposal announced in March, Mayor Muriel Bauser told some building owners in downtown to make such a conversion, as long as at least 8% of the units were affordable. Proposed an annual tax cut.

As Falsicchio sees, even if only a small percentage of vacant office buildings in DC become residential, it creates the vitality needed to attract tenants to take over the remaining space for other purposes. Useful for. The only way to do this is to better combine the uses. “

This article will be displayed in July 2022 Washingtonian.

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