Downtown, Reimagined

Sebastian Arroyo

9-to-5 boxes give way to spaces to live, work and play.

Ever since the widespread adoption of remote work, it’s become clear that downtowns that depend entirely on office tenants were doomed if they couldn’t find a way to diversify. What are cities going to do with all of those empty and likely obsolete office buildings, and how are they going to bring people, energy and money back to those half-empty urban cores?

Two years later, compelling answers are starting to emerge, and they could prove vital to the future of American cities.

In New York, one of the largest office-to-residential conversions in the country is now underway at 55 Broad St. The 30-floor commercial building in the financial district will be transformed into 571 market-rate apartments over the next few years. Nationally, close to 13,000 new residential units have been created nationwide via office conversions since the beginning of the pandemic. Most commercial buildings aren’t suitable for that kind of conversion, but where it works, the approach tackles the shortage of housing and the office space surplus at the same time.

A more dynamic and feasible solution is maintaining office space for the 44% of workers still report to the office, while reimagining what a commercial building can be. That vision is on display in Chicago, where the Willis Tower (formerly Sears) has been converted into a mixed-use public attraction complete with museums, a world-class food court, a convention hall and a rooftop concert space. The tower is now packed daily with a vibrant mix of workers and visitors even while neighboring office buildings remain largely vacant.

Both of those approaches are part of a larger process, as cities themselves accelerate their transitions from places where people come to work to places that people want to live. Downtowns in particular will have to become less transactional, and more convivial — essentially high-rise versions of the prized urban neighborhoods around them. These early efforts show that it can be done — and for urban cores to survive in the post-pandemic, permanent-WFH era, it must.

Read more at Bloomberg: The Office Tower Has a New Job To Do

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