By Brian Indre
The opportunity to work from home is not new, but since Covid-19, many didn’t have a choice but to take their work home with them. The new Mission Lofts living complex in Bailey’s Crossroads seemed to time its opening perfectly with the onset of the pandemic, and builds a natural division between working and living into its units.
Located right on the greater Falls Church-Arlington border, this new concept of a loft style community provides residents a flexible living space, workspace, or both. Mission Lofts is the second of its kind in the country, just after e-Lofts in Alexandria. Both projects were developed by Robert Seldin, CEO and chief executive officer of Highland Square Holdings Development & Construction (2HSQ), which is based in Arlington.
Seldin’s concept came well before the novel coronavirus dominated headlines, with a vision that would provide hard-to-come-by office space and marry that with all the safety and zoning regulations that could also double as living space. Both e-Lofts and the Mission Lofts use already existing buildings and convert them into state of the art living/office communities.
“We all have learned how to work remotely from home, which is something the loft concept had already figured out,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said. “The design of Mission Loft units lends itself nicely to working from home with lots of natural light and interesting places and angles to set up for virtual meetings.”
Bailey’s Crossroads was chosen for the location of Mission Lofts because there was a suitable building sitting empty as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment And Closure, or BRAC, that removed many defense contractors and offices from the area. Gross had been contacted about repurposing the building, and after having been involved in the repurposing project for the Bailey’s Upper School (the first vertical urban school in the county), she knew that repurposing could be successful.
When asked if the pandemic is having a positive or negative impact on leasing the units, Gross said that since the development started before the pandemic, it seems to have attracted a lot of energy and interest.
With more empty buildings also vacated by the Department of Defense in the Skyline area, 2HSQ is already in the process of more development similar to Mission Lofts.
“Mission Lofts is right at the gateway from Arlington into Fairfax County, so is perfectly positioned (without having to move a thing) to welcome new residents with a ‘kicky’ vibe,” said Gross. “The parking deck, which is original to the building, provides all the parking needed, and is painted with a ‘dazzle’ motif used for wartime ships, reflecting again the ‘mission’ concept of the building. The dazzle motif catches the eye and makes a ‘here I am’ statement.”
Municipalities have tried to steer development more towards easily accessible public transit, and for the Washington, D.C. area new complexes have sprung up around Metro stations. This results in places like Bailey’s Crossroads that are not rail served to be overlooked and unnecessarily devalued, which makes them right for redevelopment.
“We happen to like the Bailey’s area,” Seldin said. “We think that it is incredibly well located and, frankly, in a lot of respects, mis-priced, considering how close it is to everything.”
Initial occupancy for Mission Lofts began in April of this year, right in the middle of the pandemic — which was not great timing. Seldin said about 20 percent has been leased so far, but that it’s picking up rapidly. He expects it to be full by the end of the year. So far, according to Seldin, a significant majority of people interested in leasing were specifically looking for a place that would facilitate working from home, which is a trend that’s been growing since 2010 and has now hit warpspeed with the virus present.
“An office building is really like a machine for storing information, and its value is that people have to travel to the building to get the information. For the past twelve or so years, most people have carried the sum total of human knowledge in their pocket with the smartphone, and that is what really started the trend away from the office,” said Seldin. “And obviously Covid-19 has really just brought more attention to it.”
Pre-coronavirus, many businesses and companies still required workers to show up to the office daily, while instilling strict rules about working from home. But now during the pandemic, work flexibility forced a change over night.
This change in work flexibility is most likely to stick around in one form or another even when things return to normal.
“What many may not realize is that the work from home order has really implemented the single largest collective mass code violation in US history,” said Seldin. “Building owners and municipalities haven’t really focused on that issue yet, but at some point they are going to have to.”
Commercial use is not permitted in residential buildings, and working is a commercial use. There are also zoning and code violations that can be violated simply by working from home.
Buildings that are built to commercial standards that are different from residential standards. Commercial buildings require heavier floors for support, they require wider stairs because more people are allowed to use them, handicap requirements, water fountains, more parking, etc.
“If for example you were working in a residential building and somebody comes to your home office and requires handicapped toilets, and you don’t have that, then you just committed a federal crime,” Seldin said. He explained that if a residential building is damaged because it wasn’t built to withstand heavier loads coming from more people or filing cabinets, then you could be in violation of your insurance because you were using the building illegally.
“All of those things are a daisy chain of unforeseen events that really haven’t played themselves out either in the marketplace or through the legal system,” Said Seldin.
A shift in more people working from home will prove that real estate in its current form is completely out of phase with how people can do their jobs.
This is a serious problem to Seldin, who also sees it as a significant opportunity.
Intrinsic demand in apartment leasing is down across the board, but one of the benefits to Mission Lofts is that it can lawfully be used for different purposes, and by having an increased number and types of people who can use the property makes it more insulated from the downturn. Seldin thinks that this is one of its strengths and that it can help to preserve communities.
With every unit having the options to be used however the tenant decides, the lofts offer a meaningful change to how real estate is normally understood and operated.
“Typically an apartment complex has a very limited pallet of uses with the customers there to serve the building’s needs, but in this concept we have flipped the paradigm and have put the customer first,” Seldin said. “So however it is they want the building to help advance their goals and objectives, we have the ability to help make that happen.”