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Opinion Cities aren’t facing up to their ‘long covid’ crisis: Downtown is in deep trouble

Wall Street in New York on Jan. 4. (Amir Hamja/Bloomberg News)

Covid-19 often attacks the heart, and that’s where it has struck America’s cities: right in the central business districts. In many residential suburbs, things look almost normal. But in the deserted downtowns, it feels as though you’d stumbled upon the cemetery where nondescript office towers go to die.

The cities are probably going to survive covid-19, just as Rome outlasted the Antonine Plague, and London and Paris pulled through the Black Death. Even Zoom hasn’t changed the fundamental economic attraction of cities: It is extremely efficient to jam a lot of people together cheek by jowl, where they can exchange goods and services, and bounce ideas off one another.

Downtown, however, is in trouble.

Between offices that have gone all-remote, and the much larger number that will eventually settle on some hybrid model, post-pandemic downtowns are likely to be short perhaps a quarter of their pre-pandemic workforce on an average day. And if the heart of the city has big dead patches, can the rest of the city be healthy? Or do America’s cities end up with the urban version of long covid?

I’m worried that too few people seem to be asking those questions — and that the discussions I do hear about rebuilding after the coronavirus pandemic often seem to be recycling long-term items from progressive wish lists rather than addressing the looming crisis.

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The crisis, in short: Offices anchor almost everything that makes downtown work. Roads and public transit systems, for example, were often designed to funnel workers into and out of central business districts. It costs a lot to build and operate transit systems, but very little to add one additional passenger, so those systems do well when there is a lot of commuting. As the number of passengers declines, the per-passenger cost increases, and so does the environmental footprint — a bus with three passengers is worse than one person driving a car. Those costs can be reduced somewhat by running fewer buses and trains, but infrequent service depresses ridership still further.

The economy of the central business district is also designed to operate at high capacity. A typical restaurant in Manhattan’s Midtown of course served tourists, as well as suburbanites coming into the city for a special occasion. But much of their business came from people in the surrounding offices: power breakfasts, working lunches, happy hours, retirement dinners. If too many of those people stay home, those restaurants’ balance sheets tip from black to red.

Lower rents can ease the pinch, and in many areas they’ve already become more flexible. But Joseph Gyourko, a real estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, notes that only helps so much. If a significant number of the workers are gone on any given day, “You just don’t need as many Starbucks, or haircut places,” he told me, and “those folks are going to disappear. Some of these buildings, non-office buildings, will become empty. We won’t need as many.”

Empty buildings attract crime and other nuisances, and they don’t create demand for the amenities that tenants look for when choosing an office. So each storefront or building that goes vacant will leach blight into the surrounding neighborhood.

If you’re used to worrying about the urban shortage of affordable housing, this might seem like a problem with an easy solution: convert empty commercial buildings into much-needed residential units. That’s likely to happen in some cases, particularly in older buildings with conversion-friendly footprints. But conversions will be expensive, and while we’re likely to see them in New York or San Francisco, rents can’t necessarily justify the cost outside of the hottest markets.

“I worry about Upstate New York, the Midwest,” says Gyourko. Rents there are too low to justify residential conversions — so low that there’s also little room to cut them in hopes of luring new tenants.

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important problem facing cities in the next decade. Empty streets and stores mean fewer jobs, lower taxes, higher costs and a risk that things will decay further. This problem also adds urgency to other issues that make it more unpleasant and less desirable to live in cities, like rising crime and public disorder. These might be tolerable as the cost of being close to the center of everything, but could become dealbreakers when downtown is half-empty and half the restaurants don’t bother to serve lunch.

Mayors should treat this the way you would if you’d just learned that 20 percent of your heart muscle was about to die. It would be the first thing you thought about in the morning, and the last thing you thought about at night, and probably the only thing you talked about in between. You’d find the best doctor, and do whatever they said, no matter how hard or unpleasant. That’s what mayors must do, and soon. Before we can reimagine urban areas as models of ecologically sustainable living, or social justice, we have to reimagine downtown as what it used to be: the organic engine of a living city.