Post-426: The “office-space vacancy problem” and Arlington Va. politics

(2800 words)

Arlington County, Virginia’s office-space vacancy problem has reached its worst-ever level, says local newspaper editor Scott McCaffrey (“Office vacancies: Arlington’s Achilles’ heel?” Arlington Gazette-Leader, March 30, 2023.)

The office-space vacancy problem had been the source of chatter in the 2010s, but was thought solved by the late 2010s. It is now considerably worse. This matter of office vacancies, as boring as it may sound, is a symbol of a lot of things in Arlington politics and beyond.

It is said that Arlington today has 41.5 million total square footage of commercial office space. That number which includes all in-use space and vacant (for lease) space on the commercial office-space market. It is said that vacant space now exceeds 9 million square feet. Percentage-wise, the vacancy rate has therefore pushed beyond the 22%.

In mid-2021, the vacancy rate was at 17%. That was considered worryingly high at the time. Since then, many leases ran out and were not renewed. The problem roared ahead. Now the 22%-vacant mark has been passed, and the number to further upward pressure. If market-forces begin, in coming years, to demolish entire buildings to redevelop for fear office-people will never come back, that would start distorting the value of the percentage by lowering the denominator (total available commercial office space).

The previous high for the office-space vacancy is said to have been just over 20%, which was hit twice: once was during the worst of the recession in 2009. For unclear reasons it was hit again briefly in 2015 (20.2%), according to Scott McCaffrey.

A typical set of one hundred workers it appears, use 21,500 square feet of office space (215 sq.ft. to one worker). Arlington’s total existing commercial office space should employ about 188,000 people (41.5 million sq.ft. * a near-full 97.5% occupancy / 200 sq.ft.), but actually employs about 150,000 (subtracting the vacant 9+ million sq.ft., at 200 sq.ft. per worker). That means about 38,000 “missing workers’ worth” of vacant office space, which is a great loss to communal life and not just the tax-base.

The main contributor to the problem is “remote work.” But given that the same problem existed in the 2010s before the lockdowns created the remote-work boom, the story cannot simply be shut-down by pointing to “remote work.”

The problem raises all kinds of questions and what kind of community Arlington is, can be, should be — and the same for lots of other places. There is a huge amount of sunk investment here. The ripple-effects panic of the early 2020s is therefore still being felt.

The Arlington office-vacancy problem has gotten a lot of attention over the last few years because it affects tax-revenues and therefore affects local politics. More generally it affects visions for what the place is, or should be, or could be. More vacancies means less tax revenue coming in. That leaves the supercilious-and-sanctimonious Arlington local-government leaders in a bind, their toss-fistfuls-of-cash-at-favored-constituencies policy endangered.


The local “right-wing commentariat,” which is small, is pointing out that the Arlington County Board as we know it simply will not give up its policy of handing out goodies to the favored few and pursuing virtue-signaling prestige projects. The aggressive subsidized-housing policy that began to be a top agenda-item in the 2010s is one of these. The County Board redirects tax funds to big-money building developers to cover expenses for a favored few, whom the County Board select to get plum below-market-rate apartments in good areas.

The critics are saying that rather than cut back on big plans, the County Board has raised the residential-property tax burden substantially, making up the difference by squeezing the homeowner. The Arlington County Board and their ideological backers have been a bit of a spree attacking homeowners as morally suspect for benefiting from Historic White Racism (or something) over the recent Missing Middle controversy, so I guess the Arlington local-government leaders feel well within their moral right to hit the homeowners with a higher tax burden, show ’em who’s boss (or something),.

In practical terms, the critics are right that a homeowner does indeed owe x thousand-dollars more today than he had in the 2010s, and that this goes to cover for the missing money from the commercial-office-space vacancy problem. Homeowners who are very wealthy and well-off can “afford to not care” even if they may scoff. Or they might go the other way, not ‘scoffing’ but rather ‘crowing’ about their own personal virtue, about how the complainers are bad people and morally suspect. The same game as the County Board plays. That seems to be how much of politics in the USA works now. It is distasteful to me.

Squeezing of the homeowners is also a little bit of a dangerous game. It’s the classic golden-goose dilemma. At the least, it seems bad form to do this. We say that all persons are morally and legally equals before the law (although even this doesn’t seem true to me now, a subtle caste system having emerged in the USA), but for a community it is usually the long-term homeowners who are core stakeholders of a community, the most important civic element. A government is, in principle,  within its right to squeeze its own core community-stakeholder population, but persons being so squeezed can also leave. Hence the dilemma. Or is it a dilemma to them? Shorter-term thinking may be what is driving these people.

Those who would dare criticize the one-party machine that runs everything in Arlington have for some years been making points that in some communities could begin to cascade against the ruling party. Just such a movement organized itself in the past two-or-so years against one of the Arlington County Board’s latest and brashest crusades: to eliminate and legally totally abolish “single-family zoning” in housing and salt the earth behind it. This, they say, is a way to fight Historic White Racism (or something). A huge movement emerged from nothing to oppose this plan, with polls suggesting large-majority of homeowners are against it.

The County Board will allow eight-unit residential buildings to go up on single-family lots, which looks to be a bonanza for developers and will make many developers into wealthy people, but could really strain or even destroy neighborhoods. It’s been known to happen. A lot depends on how it plays out, but the County Board brooks no dissent and ignored the huge counter-movement with insinuations that their position is morally illegitimate because of Historic White Racism and that single-family housing zoning is racist. Such was the “Missing Middle” debate. The County Board used a blunderbuss approach to housing policy. The few on the “Yes” side used sloganeering dominated by the word “Diversity.”

Even this substantial civic-political movement (the “Stop Missing Middle” coalition, representing probably an easy-majority of homeowners), has no chance in today’s Arlington. Even with the serious office-space occupancy problem, nothing changes. It seems to me all driven by ideology. A few of the Board members in particular have this ideological zeal, but the whole ruling party has it, as I see things.

Oppositionists outside the ruling party apparatus have not been able to win elections in Arlington since the 1990s. The ruling party has a 100%-lock on all County Board seats and everything the county government does. This they achieve by using one neat trick: scheduling all their elections to the same day as the big November votes  for Congress or president. They easily scoop up votes by transients who want to vote for the same party in national races. These transients are not even aware of local politics, nor do they care, but they will reliably straight-ticker vote.)

I once viewed Arlington as a well-run place but now view it as recklessly run by ideologues who stew in their own self-righteousness.There is really considerable positive inertia, though, and lots of good people have done a lot of good things in this place over the years. A variant of the usual problem with the seeds of decline in the fields of success, as Ibn Khaldun identified so many centuries ago, I believe this is seen in Arlington at micro scale.

The people running the gears of this “one-party state” machine really do think of themselves as anointed ones, as an elite ‘above’ the people and the community and not ‘of’ the people or community. I have known some of these people personally, and I do think they feel that way. That their power rests on transients block-voting for that one-party does not disturb them. Embezzlement and incompetence are likewise okay and go unpunished among these leaders. They run a system largely dedicated to “virtue signal.” Versions of this perhaps exists in every community, but with Arlington I think some time in the 2010s it crossed a Rubicon that makes me queasy to think about.

The office-space vacancy problem is an interesting one, combining the technical with visions of what the future should look like, and influenced by work-culture chanegs specific to the early 2020s. But I must admit to some Schadenfreude. Last word on the matter is that the County Board member guilty of multiple cases of embezzlement and fraud laughed off the vacancy problem and the related scale-back of an Amazon office complex, with the words: “It doesn’t concern me.”


Arlington’s land area is said to be 26 square miles. About 3.5 square miles of that consist a handful of special areas cut off the land from normal civilian use: Arlington Cemetery and adjacent memorials and national parkland; Fort Myer, a U.S. Army base next to Arlington Cemetery; the airport known as DCA (Washington National Airport); and the Pentagon complex, including its famously huge parking lot and associated facilities, all dead-use land. Another nearly 0.6 sq miles are taken up by two golf courses, hold-overs from a long time ago. There is a sprinkling of other U.S. government-owned space. One is a mysterious, high-fenced, well-guarded National Guard and State Department training center, large-seeming but taking up a mere 0.1 square miles. There is a sprinkling of other places, but I believe that covers the biggest ones.

Speaking of the Pentagon: now there is a lot office space. I don’t think the Pentagon’s 6.5 million square feet of floor space is included in the 41.5 million square-foot grand total for Arlington as of 2023, the 41.5 number being said to be “commercial office space,” and the military I can only presume not qualifying. I don’t think the Pentagon proper is even subject to Arlington county government.

Speaking of Fort Myer: There is a poorly used space for you, lots of low old buildings and unused terrain in there. It would be worth billions, I suppose, if the whole were to be released onto the civilian market for development. I’ve long thought it could be downsized by a large degree, keeping a small detachment for their ceremonial purposes related to the cemetery. Fort Myer’s purpose for existence is questionable. It is actually a surviving Civil War fort (actually a consolidation of two Civil War forts, as far as I can tell), and the military is always loathe to let go of any land. But there is not much chance of an attack on Washington by Virginia state militias these days, and the land-pressures and demand in the vicinity are substantial now.


Another source of local-political chatter, at least for South Arlington, has been the Amazon “HQ2” mega- project. The one-party-state Arlington County Board paid off very-large bribes and concessions to secure the HQ2 agreement from the Internet-megacorp, quasi-monopolistic Amazon. The Board then paraded around treating themselves as heroes for the deed.

Sure enough, parts of Crystal City in South Arlington have been under furious construction for some time. This means a lot more office space is coming on line. There are a number of other new construction projects all over, these having entered the pipeline some time ago.

The Amazon HQ2 chatter was revived in a big way a few weeks ago when Amazon said they are scaling back. The County Board said: “What, me worry? That’s Holy Amazon’s decision; we’re none too worried about what Holy Amazon does, for they do know best.” Oops! The entire idea was to attract a big-player to keep the money flowing, and now Amazon says “we’re having second thoughts.” How this will affect the general office-space vacancy problem is unclear.


Arlington is not a part of Virginia in any practical sense. It is really a core part of Washington D.C. After the decline of Washington D.C. proper (on which I found myself commenting at length in “Post-424: Maddy’s Taproom, r.i.p., 2011-2020“), Arlington was one of many places that absorbed the energies, human capital, money, aspirations, working lives, social lives, and residences of people tied to “Washington” in the sense of tied to the government, or peripherally related to it. That is after Washington proper became non-livable or to varying degrees intolerable to go anytime it was not required.Even today I hear of how big-time Washington names, whensoever they have children, are surprisingly often said to live in Arlington, including Jen Psaki on the Left and a right-wing Fox News’er named Shannon Bream (and Jen Psaki, of Arlington, is said to have an MSNBC talk-show of her own).

Another part of the Arlington story is that somehow it became a major immigration gateway for foreigners with no connection whatsoever to historic America or any previous population here. This wasn’t Mexicans arriving somewhere in the Southwest, it was a “something from nothing” thing. I don’t know how/why exactly it happened, but it was a fact-on-the ground starting by the 1970s. It continued many years and elements of it continue in the 2020s. I was not at all surprised to learn that the Somali-origin Congresswoman called Ilhan Omar spent years of her childhood in Arlington after the family somehow were awarded “green-cards” in the early 1990s. Actually, I knew many of the chain-migrant foreigners who came in that way. It was a strange experience.

By around the late 1970s and 1980s, many had written off Arlington as, they believed, destined to tip into a vast immigrant slum, the existing immigrant beachheads to take over the rest in time. Parts of Arlington really did fit that description and it  was not an unreasonable guess. This exact process had happened to community after community in Los Angeles.

All through these various historical-trajectories playing out, Arlington leadership had kept a pretty disciplined focus on trying to promote businesses in Arlington, which was especially successful after the 1968 riots destroyed and damaged large parts of Washington. The process predated the riots, but the riots seem to have been a real coup-de-grace against business confidence in locating themselves in Washington.

By the 1970s, two long and large corridors run through Arlington that resemble something like Manhattan began to really develop and filled in substantially in the 1980s and 1990s. These were successes as a result of steady-handed policy. They followed the Metro lines. Arlington’s political culture was sleek and disciplined in this formative period, and not particularly elitist in the way it now seems to be. Throughout all the upward-ascent period in the late 20th century, Arlington evolved a strategy of trying to shore-up its business environment within certain narrow bounds around the Metro lines and otherwise endeavored to keep most communities as they were, which greatly cushioned the growth that came.

The one-time belief that Arlington could become a vast immigrant ghetto began to fade in earnest in the 1990s (although some areas of inner Fairfax County, some of them not far off from parts of South Arlington, went exactly in that direction and have supermajority-immigrant-origin populations even today.

The positive momentum continued and broke through in a dizzying way in the 2000s. Huge and intimidating price rises roared through in the 2000s and somehow kept up in the 2010s. Arlington became one of the highest-price places around.

I think it may have been the 1970 census after which the Census Bureau formally adjusted the name “Washington metropolitan area” to “Washington-Arlington metropolitan area” because, per their definitions, the named units within a census-designation for a metropolitan area had to be those jurisdictions which have more people who commute in than who commute-out for jobs. Later Alexandria also joined that list, playing catch-up with Arlington’s strategy.

Arlington’s slide into one-party state did not necessarily raise eyebrows because it was not achieved by some sudden putsch by these people, but came gradually and as the huge rises in prices activated latent senses of hubris. People who might have stopped the process continued to assume that disciplined good-government types would continue to rule, just as they had before. The tipping point, after which only approved members of one political party could be elected or could have any influence on anything, I believe was the mid-1990s. By the 2010s, the one-party state elitists and ideologues began a campaign to tear down beloved, long-established, character-giving institutional names with the usual self-righteous fury with which I associate them. Previous Arlington people were evil, they told us. They were Racists, and all of you should be ashamed. But fear not, we the enlightened know better! Push-back existed to these moves, but it was not enough because of the same problem of the large pool of transient reliable voters whom I mentioned earlier.

The office-space vacancy problem in Arlington of the 2010s and (especially) 2020s is an interesting thing in part because it seems so boring at first, like something only an accountant would care about. Actually it is a symbol for a lot of factors that go back decades and contribute to the Arlington that is now recognizable.



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