Study: Office and retail trends tell different stories about Tysons pandemic recovery

Shoppers walk around Tysons Corner Center (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Tysons is increasingly becoming a place where people live, but a recent market study from the Tysons Community Alliance raised some questions about its future as a place where people work.

Released on Aug. 4, the study paints divergent pictures of the two commercial sectors that have defined Tysons since the 1960s — office and retail — as they navigate a post-pandemic world of remote work and online shopping.

While retail visits in Tysons have returned to 92% of the 2019 average, foot traffic at office buildings is at 77% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the study, which was conducted by consultants HR&A, Toole Design and Wells & Associates.

That’s still better than D.C., where office visitation is at just 70% of pre-pandemic levels, but the study found that Tysons is seeing “somewhat slower employment growth” both in general and among office users than Fairfax County and the overall D.C. region — a lag expected to continue through 2028.

“Tysons grew more slowly than surrounding Fairfax County and the D.C. [metropolitan area] in the last three years and is projected to continue growing more slowly in the next five years,” a workforce growth analysis summary said, identifying health care as the industry projected to add the most jobs in Tysons over the next five years.

Tysons has lagged in employment growth during the pandemic (via Tysons Market Study)

Even though over 85% of Tysons workers are in industries that traditionally use offices, led by 47,100 workers in the broad category of “professional services,” the area’s office vacancy rate has climbed from 14.8% in 2019 to 20% so far this year.

That exceeds the county’s 16.7% vacancy rate, which is a 10-year high, Fairfax County Economic Development Authority leaders told the Board of Supervisors at an economic advisory committee meeting on July 18.

Constituting 5.6 million of the area’s 27.6 million square feet of office space, the vacancies have particularly affected lower class, older offices built before 1990, suggesting a “preference for newer and nicer properties,” the study report says.

Despite the “historically high” vacancy rates, average rents have grown 24% since 2015 to match the D.C. area’s average of $39 per square foot, driven in part by the $65-per-square-foot asking price at the Tysons Central office building that was completed last year.

Tysons also has an additional 1.9 million square feet of office under construction or planned, though the majority of upcoming development is residential.

“If vacancies remain high, future deliveries could result in stagnant rents and continued high vacancy,” the report says. “For developers to fill pipeline office space, office-using jobs in Tysons need to grow at 1.4 times the projected growth of 3,300 jobs between 2023 and 2033.”

As office owners try to adapt with renovations and redevelopments, the Tysons retail market has proven more resilient even after Covid fueled a nationwide rise in e-commerce, according to the market study.

While it hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, the vacancy rate has stayed relatively low over the past few years, declining from 3.2% in 2021 and 2022 to 3% this year, below Fairfax County (3.1%), the D.C. area (4.4%) and Arlington (4.8%).

The retail vacancy rate in Tysons from 2015 to 2023 (via Tysons Market Study)

Expanding its inventory by 7% over the past five years, Tysons has a total of 5.7 million square feet of retail, led by clothing stores and food service establishments. Another 123,000 square feet is under construction.

About 65% of the $2.4 billion spent in Tysons comes from visitors, rather than residents, according to the study, which shows particularly high demand for cars and car parts, reflecting the area’s abundance of auto dealerships.

As the local population grows, the study suggests Tysons could support more bars “to improve its positioning as a post-5 p.m. district” and entertainment options, which it says are limited compared to Arlington’s Crystal City and Pentagon City despite having more residents.

“Tysons entertainment offerings are heavily skewed towards retail stores, such as sporting goods, hobbies, and crafts while leading commercial districts are pivoting to experience-based recreation,” the study says. “An emphasis on experiential entertainment could allow Tysons to better compete in a post-pandemic market.”

The area’s malls at least appear to be starting that pivot, with Tysons Corner Center regularly hosting pop-up “experiences” and Tysons Galleria branching out from apparel with the additions of Bowlero and CMX CinéBistro. The virtual reality gaming venue Sandbox VR was supposed to open at The Boro this summer, but a launch date still hasn’t been announced.

Despite the struggles facing office and the hospitality industry, whose slow recovery stems in part from a focus on business travel over leisure, Tysons remains a critical part of Fairfax County’s economy, the Tysons Community Alliance says.

“According to the Market Report, Tysons accounts for only one percent of Fairfax County’s landmass but generates eight percent of its tax revenue,” TCA Board Chair Josh White said. “The results of the study make it abundantly clear that Tysons continues to be a major economic driver for Fairfax County.”

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