Can Cities Transform ‘Dead Downtowns’ by Converting Offices Into Apartments?

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The Washington Post’s editorial board recently commented on the problem of America’s “dead downtowns. Tourists are back, but office workers are still missing in action…. [R]estaurants, coffee hangouts, stores and transit systems cannot sustain themselves without more people in center cities….”

The problem? America “is in the midst of one of the biggest workforce shifts in generations: Many now have experienced what it is like to work from home and have discovered they prefer it.”

Their proposed solution? The Post’s editorial board is urging cities to adapt to the new reality of workers wanting to work two or three days remotely in part by converting commercial offices to apartments and entertainment venues.

The goal is a “24/7” downtown with ample work spaces, apartments, parks and entertainment venues that draw people in during the day and have a core of residents who keep the area vibrant after commuters go home…. Office use isn’t going back to pre-pandemic levels. Even Texas cities that did not shut down during the worst of the pandemic are 20 to 30 percent below 2019 office occupancy. New York, Los Angeles and D.C. are still down more than 40 percent. This a classic oversupply problem. Cities have too much office space, especially in the older buildings that companies are fleeing as they seek out new construction with more light and flexible space.

Mayors and city lawmakers have reason to be bold in seizing this opportunity. There’s growing interest among developers and investors who want to be a part of the office-to-apartment revolution. They are already eyeing the easiest buildings to convert: The ones with elevators in the middle, windows and light on all sides, and the right length and width. The challenge for city leaders is to generate interest in the buildings that are “maybe” candidates for conversion.
The Post’s suggestions include announcing targets for new residents living downtown, and speeding up city approvals like permitting and rezoning. “America’s cities are ripe for new skylines and fresh streetscapes. The best leaders will get going soon.”

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