- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

Play and Learn Services wants to open a new day-care center in Tysons Corner. The waiting list is getting longer, but a yearlong search for a suitable site has proved fruitless. And instead of breaking ground, the nonprofit is preparing to move out of an office building slated for demolition.

"It's very difficult," said Anne Page, the day care's real estate broker. "Everyone wants child care, but no one wants it in their back yard. The office market is very tight right now."

Play and Learn isn't an isolated example. The owners of Winwood Children's Center planned in 1998 to open two schools a year. With only two schools up and running, owner Barry Meil said he felt lucky to be able to break ground on a Reston site at New Dominion Parkway and Explorer Street in July.

Not far away, Kindercare Learning Center has just ended a yearlong dispute with residents who wanted to block its plan to build a child-care center at Wiehle Avenue and North Village Drive in Reston. The plan was approved June 23.

Around the region, day-care centers looking to expand are being stymied by unaffordable rents, finicky landlords, hostile residents, and even businesses that want to promote the service but are reluctant to host it.

The expansion plight is all the more frustrating because, more than ever, parents and companies want the help. In Fairfax County, 9,000 parents called a government child care referral agency in 1997. Last year, about 15,000 called a 60 percent jump in two years.

"It's tremendous. There's absolutely not enough care out there, particularly for infants and toddlers," Mr. Meil said. "Our waiting list is well into the third quarter of 2001."

One working parent put it more bluntly.

"If you don't get signed up at conception, you're out of luck," said Jean Callahan, director of recruiting for Booz Allen & Hamilton.

A growing economy has inflated demand for child care, said one consultant.

"The demand is on the rise," said David Downer, an employee benefits consultant with the Segal Co. The increase in working mothers and single parents in a time-starved society has made day care ever more important and valuable as a benefit companies can offer, he said.

Small fish

The strong economy has also put a premium on the space that child care centers need to expand, whether it is land ready for building or office space ready for lease.

Day-care centers, looking for 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space, are small fish that landlords can ignore when leases of 25,000 or 50,000 square feet are common. Even if space is available, it often costs too much.

"There are a couple sites that we just can't touch," Mr. Meil said. "When you spend $500,000 to $600,000 just for the land, the numbers just don't work."

Nor do the numbers work for day-care centers that try to rent, when rents are reaching new highs $40 a square foot in some markets. About the most a day care can afford is $26 a square foot, according to Ms. Page. Her client explained why.

"Certainly affordability is an issue," said Karen Ann Broe, president of Play and Learn Services. "In most cases we pay more than 60 percent to teachers and benefits. That's why child care centers have not been able to locate in commercial office parks."

That's bad for Play and Learn, which places its schools in the office parks and buildings where its corporate sponsors operate. But even the sponsorship of companies such as Freddie Mac, Booz Allen and Hogan & Hartson have not helped the center find new space.

The best Play and Learn has managed is that it will expand its site on Greensboro Drive, in Tysons Corner. But after vacating the Spring Hill Drive site, also in Tysons where the huge Capital One office campus is planned, Play and Learn will have less space than it had before.

Play and Learn is exploring the possibility of setting up day care on the planned Capital One campus, but has yet to make a formal proposal.

But behind all the economics, Ms. Broe blames the trouble on landlords.

"The primary reason has been landlords not wanting to put child care into their buildings," Ms. Broe said.

"There is a perception that having a child-care center means children running around and pushing buttons in the elevators and that's just not the case."

A landlord said there are several reasons to pass over child-care centers in favor of other tenants.

"It comes down to whether the tenant aids or detracts from leasing the rest of the building," said a top official at a development firm who asked not to be identified.

For a tenant that takes an entire building, "ultimately it comes down to what does the tenant want to do," he said. For buildings that house a mix of tenants, it's up to the landlord to decide how other tenants would feel about a child care center. And some conditions about hosting day care are already decided for the landlord.

Premium space

State and local regulations dictate some of the decisions about child-care centers that take space in commercial buildings. The centers must often locate on the first floor, because fire and safety codes require direct exits. Outdoor playgrounds are often required, and sometimes special plumbing is required.

One landlord willing to consider a child-care center is A&A; Investments, which has some ground-floor space coming available in a building in Fairfax managed by Cambridge. The problem is the outdoor play area.

"It's difficult to carve it out without taking away from the parking area or detracting from looks," said the Cambridge project manager, David Gast. "Typically it isn't in an open green field." A&A; has asked for Play and Learn's suggestion, because it already leases space to the day care.

Ground-floor space may be the most convenient or even required, but landlords often prefer to save it for uses such as shops, restaurants or other offices, because of its visibility and easy access. It's also the most public space in the building, and landlords fear that a day-care center will interfere with the environment they want to create.

"It depends on how it's set up," the landlord official said. By using alternate entrances, day-care centers can be totally invisible, he said. That's one reason that child-care operators such as Ms. Broe say that more offices can accommodate day care.

"Many of our centers are known as the best kept secrets in their communities," she said.

Then there are liability concerns, a concern of both landlords and companies that might host child-care centers.

It's one reason that SAIC, a big consulting firm with 14,000 employees in the region, doesn't have on-site day care, said spokeswoman Jane Van Ryan. Other companies report the same problem.

"The liabilities on child care are very big," said a spokesman for one technology company he asked not to be identified.

That issue can be answered as well, Ms. Broe said.

"Those are brought up, the potential for some accident happening. In our 15 years, there has never been a claim against the centers we operate," she said. Furthermore, the insurance carried by the center would cover the landlord, she said.

With the explicit reasons out of the way, it seems that other qualms are the sticking point.

"We try to turn those arguments. Child care is one of those things there are a lot of unknowns about how it's managed," Ms. Broe said. "I think that there's a perception out there" that day care centers can create problems, often leading companies and landlords to quietly reject them.

Essential perk

There are signs, however, that companies are beginning to take child care into their own hands and buildings. With a painfully tight labor market an unemployment rate of 2.3 percent in the Washington metropolitan area child care has become an increasing valuable benefit that companies can offer employees who are or want to become parents, analysts said.

"Anecdotally, yes," more companies are incorporating day care into their own facilities, said Eric Johnson, a workplace consultant with Herman Miller Organization in the District. "I'm reading about more and more companies that are doing this."

One of them is the consulting firm Booz Allen, which will open an on-site day care center in its new Tysons Corner office building in July.

"In this war for talent we want to be as competitive as possible. It just made good business sense. Loyalty just grows considerably," Ms. Callahan said.

The company wants its employees to see children playing, siting the outdoor playground in full view of glass-enclosed walkways that link the company's buildings.

"That's an uplifting thing to see," she said.

Still, it's rare when companies or landlords choose to give space when day care centers come knocking, so child care advocates are trying to line up the space earlier.

Directors of care centers and referral agencies are trying to encourage local governments, landlords and corporations to dedicate space in advance for child care, said Edna Ranck, director of public policy and research for the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

"Most of the time the space is so premium they don't think about adding child care," Ms. Ranck said.

The Fairfax County Employer Child Care Council wants Fairfax County to do more. The county's comprehensive plan already suggests using child care in many places, but the language is flexible, said Gail Bjorklund. Developers normally submit plans that include alternative uses.

So the council wants child care to be required in more of the proffers from developers that say what their projects will include, she said.

Setting aside space in advance makes sense politically, said Eric Siegel, an engineer who worked on Kindercare's plan for Reston.

When child care isn't named as an approved use for some plot of land, it takes a much more difficult process called the "special exception" to make it available, he said.

"It's just a nightmare. Public opinion is a big part of the zoning process," he said. Then there are the costs. "It takes lots of engineering fees and attorneys' fees."

If day care were a "by-right" use that didn't need approval from local governments, it would be far easier to add, he said. One of the best ways to create the legal right is to declare it an "accessory use" in office buildings, he said.

But once land is zoned and buildings raised, it's far more difficult.

"There's not a lot where you can do day care by right," he said. "Fairfax County is pretty developed. It's hard to find a lot."

The question of adding child care then winds up with landlords and companies, but only the biggest companies Gannett, Litton PRC, WorldCom will add day care centers on their own. Only they have the volume of employees to justify it, he said.

For smaller companies or parents on their own there just may not be the room.

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