When rent prices started to soar in the early 2000s, commercial tenants began a mass exodus from the cities to the suburbs — an affordable alternative. Then, supply and demand leveled out and suburban rent prices slowly crept up, and eventually resembled their downtown counterparts. The 2008 market downturn forced corporate office buildings within the city’s Central Business District (CBD) to lower their rent and those who still had revenue began to provide new incentives and amenities to attract new tenants looking to downsize. This, in turn, created a reverse exodus back to the city.
Suburban office vacancies have now begun to grow across region. A study by Delta Associates cited 1,122 buildings in the Washington metropolitan area that have at least 10,000 square feet of available space. Half of those vacancies are located in Northern Virginia, where vacancy rates have soared to 18.7 percent on average, the highest level in more than 20 years. According to a report by Jones Lang LaSalle, suburban Maryland has risen to its highest rate in 3.5 years to 18.5 percent, and with federal lease consolidations, this number will continue to rise.
A combination of factors have contributed to this high vacancy rate: eight new buildings opened, which accounts for an additional 1.5 million square feet of space, and the government sequestration on federal contractors and the threat of more spending cuts. By restructuring rental rates and increasing incentives, Washington, DC now has a mere 11 percent vacancy rate by retaining their current tenants and attracting the suburban tenants back into the city.
An increasing number of landlords are re-brandingtheir buildings, making them more attractive and like their urban counterparts. Facilities now require a certain “look” and “feel” of a downtown building with higher quality finishes and attractive amenities.
In suburban Maryland, MRP Realty and Rockpoint Group, which bought the Air Rights Center in Bethesda, is renaming the building Bethesda Crossing. They’ve added a fitness center, renovated the lobbies, provided electric car charging stations and improved energy efficiencies to reduce tenants’ operating costs.
A driving force sparking this new vitality in Northern Virginia is the highly anticipated expansion of the Metrorail to suburbs like Tysons Corner and Reston. In Tysons, Washington Real Estate Investment Trust’s (WRIT) 540,000-square-foot complex at 7900 Westpark Drive is undergoing a $30-35 million renovation. The tower building boasts a beautiful glass curtain wall façade, nine-foot finished ceilings and an illuminated two-story entry showcasing floor-to-ceiling windows. The complex received a LEED EB Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
BBGM, an internationally renowned architecture and interior design firm in Washington, DC, worked with The JBG Companies to renovate McLean Plaza, 6862 Elm Street in McLean. They expanded the main building lobby and introduced wood paneling into a contemporary, expansive space. The public spaces now boast finishes comparable to buildings on K Street.
The JBG Companies also asked BBGM to completely re-design the Reston Executive Center, a very dated three building complex on Sunset Hills Road. The JBG Companies specifically wanted a very “urban feel” and BBGM transformed it into a slick, clean, and contemporary space. The lobby is dynamic, modern, and appears to be in motion to attract progressive-minded companies. High end finishes in stone, wood, and stainless steel add an additional level of sophistication and quality.
According to Bruno Grinwis, a principal at BBGM, “Reston was a challenge for BBGM, because we had to create a totally new environment without selectively demolishing the space. We had to rely on 1980s documents for existing conditions. Our design had to be flexible to accommodate the original building conditions.”
Like McLean Plaza, the Reston Complex includes a new fitness center, upgrades to public spaces in corridors, restrooms, elevator lobbies, and the elevators themselves.
Jill Goubeaux, senior vice president at The JBG Companies, said that the renovation was the primary factor in retaining existing tenants in the building while also increasing the number of prospective tenants.
“BBGM successfully transformed the Reston Executive Center into a sleek and contemporary space that is currently in demand in Reston,” said Goubeaux. “More and more tenants are seeking that urban feel of the city while remaining in the suburbs which has forced us to rethink our renovation designs and methods.”
Though the DC market has weathered better than most areas in the United States, things will remain tight for the next couple of years. The competition between the suburban markets and the aggressive investment of properties downtown has forced suburban market developers to create a “new downtown” persona.
Israel Olmos, a senior associate and designer at BBGM, said, “The urban CBD building has to make a statement and ultimately sets the tone for the image of the building and how its occupants see it. Everyone has one big idea ranging from a feature wall to a sculpture to a bold architectural element. The key is to take that big idea and let the space take shape around it.”