Ballston Quarter has a 50,000 square foot vacation problem.
The redeveloped mall at 4238 Wilson Blvd houses a rotating slate of restaurants, as well as clothing stores, pet facilities, eye doctors, play experiences and other retail businesses, as well as a adjoining offices and the MedStar Capitals Iceplex.
But filling the list of retailers was not easy, writing land use attorney Kedrick Whitmore in a letter to the county on behalf of Brookfield Properties, which owns the mall.
Reading the shifting economic winds, Brookfield Properties is looking to tack.
During the Arlington County Council meeting this weekend, the council is expected to consider owner’s request to lease approximately 28,000 square feet of commercial space on the second floor to a medical tenant. This tenant – who has not been named – would provide primary care, ear, nose and throat and eye and vision specialists, speech therapy and other medical care, according to a staff report.
“Approval of this application would help address the project’s significant systemic leasing issues and creatively reposition the mall,” Whitmore wrote in the letter, filed last month. “The applicant envisions a holistic and mutually beneficial relationship between prospective medical practices and the local retail and entertainment market.”
New medical practices benefit those who live and work in the heart of Ballston and would lead to more patients visiting local businesses, Whitmore said.
Although current zoning permits office conversions as of right, the mall is governed by a retail plan that requires Brookfield to file a site plan amendment to effect the change.
The mall had struggled for years, due to its large size and age, before its redevelopment was approved in a bid to improve its performance compared to its newer counterparts in the area. The work was completed at the end of 2018.
Around the same time, a county retail plan as of 2015 recommended pulling storefronts to the street, creating outdoor activities and attractions, and doing interior renovations to encourage activity. The plan also called for “flexibility and creativity” to encourage these changes.
According to the county report, county staff reviewed the retail plan and “understands[s] the challenges of leasing internal spaces on the second floor in an evolving retail market and that these spaces require greater flexibility in permitted uses.
This request is also not unexpected. The report adds that “even at the start of the project, office rental was seen as a likely rental option”.
Not everyone agrees with this assessment. The Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association said it doesn’t believe the change aligns with the retail plan, but if it were to go through anyway, it suggested the medical provider “target underserved and low-income communities that would benefit the most from easy access to public transportation. ”
The mall recently approved another non-commercial tenant, who agreed to lease a large space inside the mall: Grace Community Church. Still, renters cycle to and fro as there are fewer office workers from neighboring buildings visiting due to increased remote working, not to mention the convenience of online shopping.
These terms also led Brookfield to seek tax relief from the county’s equalization board, the Sun Gazette. Previously reported. Members voted this summer to reduce the valuation from $91.1 million, as determined by staff, to $86.7 million, which the Sun Gazette said was a “very partial victory” for the owner.
Online shopping, meanwhile, is the main reason a Ballston apartment building is ask to convert a ground floor retail space into a community lounge and workspace.
Richmond Square (900 N. Randolph Street) transformed an existing community hall into a parcel hall with lockers. To compensate for lost amenity space for tenants, the owner is looking to convert 2,175 square feet of retail space into a new community lounge and workspace.
Nicholas Cumings, a land use attorney for the building, cited the county’s retail plan, saying this conversion is in line with the plan because it allows for any use permitted by the zoning ordinance.
“With the advent of delivery services, and especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, package deliveries have played a vital role in the lives of residents,” Cumings wrote in a letter to the county. “The increase in the amount of deliveries has made mailrooms and parcel storage areas a highly desirable amenity for tenants and a necessity for building operations.”
According to a county council report, staff support the change, but they say the Ballston Virginia Square Civic Association – already concerned about the Ballston neighborhood conversion – has questions about the increase in equivalent retail conversions.
Generally speaking, according to staff, it is part of the county’s plan to have a commercial district that respond changes in the way people shop and work.