Trading Spaces: Goodbye, Offices; Hello, Homes?
With Montgomery County’s office vacancy rate hovering above 16% —a 5-percentage point increase since the start of the pandemic—local planners say the time may be right for developers to consider converting or redeveloping offices into living spaces.
County planner Bilal Ali points to one such completed project in a recent post on The Third Place, the county planning department’s blog: In downtown Silver Spring, a former office building on Fenwick Lane was converted into 102 condos in 2015, providing affordable housing for first-time homebuyers. The redevelopment saved money by reducing construction time and avoiding demolition and other costs, he noted.
Finding the right building candidate can, however, be tricky.
“There can be engineering challenges, there’s no sort of silver bullet, there’s no specific thing that you would look for to say this building is primed to convert to residential,” Ali says during a May interview.
When it comes to filling vacant office space, older buildings fare more poorly than newer ones located near transit and offering modern amenities, Ali notes. Buildings erected since 2020 are more likely to find tenants, data shows.
Celebrating Black Culture
Silver Spring-based Urban One Inc.’s new podcast network for the Black community is focused on telling “the stories by us and for us,” says DeAndre Smith, senior director of podcast operations for the national media company catering to Black audiences. That’s “one of the biggest things that we can do for our community because we understand the stories,” he says.
Ready For a Makeover
In the 1990s, Friendship Heights’ high-end stores made it Montgomery County’s Rodeo Drive. Now the community straddling the D.C. line is reenvisioning its commercial district as a place to live, work and play.
Its recent designation as one of the county’s urban districts can help it “cater…to the folks who live in the extended neighborhood,” says Jad Donohoe, a developer and board chair of the nonprofit Friendship Heights Alliance.
He says the designation will let businesses and commercial landlords pay a tax to fund efforts to market Friendship Heights and pay for improvements such as planters and public seating.
Changes have begun: Apartments are planned for the former Mazza Gallerie shopping center, a food hall is set to open, and a new grocer is planned for Chevy Chase Pavilion.
Federal agencies continue to rule the roost when it comes to Montgomery County’s major employers, according to the Maryland Department of Commerce. That said, private-sector industries in the county account for more than $81 billion in economic output.
Montgomery County’s top 10 employers in 2021-2022:
- National Institutes of Health: 17,535
- Naval Support Activity Bethesda: 10,204
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: 8,500
- Giant Food Groceries: 4,354
- Adventist Healthcare: 3,675
- Government Employees Insurance (GEICO): 3,505
- Marriott International: 3,500
- Astrazeneca: 3,500
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: 2,913
- Kaiser Foundation Health Plan: 2,720
Source: Maryland Department of Commerce
This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.