Would You Live Above A Data Center?

Would You Live Above A Data Center?

Across the country there is a trend to construct mixed-use developments – blending residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, or industrial uses, where those functions are physically and functionally integrated, and collectively providing a connected community within itself.  The goal – you need not leave the mixed-use community as everything you need is right there.

Pictured above is a proposed mixed use project five-acres with 516 apartments or condos in a seven-story building, in addition to retail and restaurants on its ground floor, with a separate 10-story building featuring office space and retail space.  These are the mixed-use “town center” developments of the future.

Loudoun not only has these type of town center developments yet is taking it one step further.  Loudoun’s town-center developments can now include single family homes and, believe it or not, data centers.

Officials cautioned that new projects won’t be dominated by the typical bulky, windowless buildings surrounded by security fencing and housing internet companies’ servers, as seen in the county’s booming “Data Center Alley.”

For one thing, a structure containing a data center within a town center setting has to abide by certain guidelines, such as being occupied by at least 51 percent of retail, office or another use and be at least three stories high. The building also has to be designed to be aesthetically compatible with surrounding ones.

“You won’t even know [the data center is] in the building,” said Buddy Rizer, executive director of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development.

The change, approved by the County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 5, is in response to providing flexibility for developers, he said. Some data operators want to be close to traditional high-tech companies in office buildings, while a data center could conceivably serve the needs of other tenants in the building.

“We’ve had opportunities in the past to allow a smaller data center in town center developments,” Rizer said. “We’re trying to be proactive and react to the market… The office market in the United States is not great right now. So this is an opportunity to make ours more desirable and valuable… We’re trying to do it in a balanced and thoughtful way.”

Other communities have allowed smaller data centers in Main Street projects, but more on a piecemeal basis, he noted. Cities such as Atlanta and San Francisco have approved them in their downtown cores. But Rizer said that Loudoun was “one of the first to proactively go out and give commercial office developers more tools to work with” in allowing the data facilities in town centers.

The town center data centers will be different types of users and buildings than what is currently seen, said Supervisor Matthew Letourneau (R-Dulles). “It is good to have options so we can stay on top of the data center market,” he said.

Loudoun now houses more than 75 data centers in some ten million square feet of space, with another almost four million square feet being built or planned, Rizer said. Companies that house servers in the county include Amazon and AOL. Facebook hasn’t confirmed a presence but is advertising several positions, including data center logistics analyst and network engineer, located in Ashburn on its jobs page.

“It’s hard to track how many companies are here,” Rizer said. “Some are secretive.”

About 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic passes through servers in Loudoun, according to the county. While some argue that the centers provide much fewer jobs than a typical office building would, others note that they pay millions of dollars in taxes at a time when the office market lags, to say the least. Loudoun offers incentives like a 6 percent sales and use tax exemption on servers, generators, chillers and related equipment, as well as lower-than-average utility costs.

The single-family home proposal caused Letourneau to be the lone supervisor to vote against the new town-center guidelines. While staff members said they added design standards to make such homes more compatible with other uses in a town center, Letourneau said he wasn’t convinced that single-family detached homes were consistent with a Main Street project’s goals, which include higher density and more vertical, urban-like development.

“From a financial standpoint, single-family detached homes produce the most school children, which then creates overcrowding and additional capital costs to build schools,” he said.

Other supervisors said they were comfortable with the inclusion, as well as overall results. Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) called the work a “great collaborative process” that started about three years ago. “I’m very hopeful that the changes that we’re making will also encourage innovative design features and that type of thing for these town-center projects,” she said.