An earlier version of this editorial gave the incorrect date for when Atlanta's mayor hopes to have 20,000 affordable housing units constructed. This version has been updated.
It’s clear that it is no longer fears of the coronavirus holding workers back from returning. The nation 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. At a minimum, they want a “hybrid” situation of working two or three days remotely. Cities must adapt to this new reality or risk a downward spiral of falling commercial property values, lower taxes on those buildings and ghost downtowns that could lead to increased crime and homelessness.
Two solutions are obvious: Get more workers back in the office and convert commercial offices to apartments and entertainment venues. But achieving this — especially in an era of higher mortgage rates — requires strong leadership and a great deal of creativity. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape downtowns for the future. It should be a top priority of mayors and city councils around the country. 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.
As Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (D) told the Post Editorial Board: “The pandemic really accelerated the need for this and almost mandates the need for revitalization of downtown."
The encouraging news is that workers are starting to make their way back to the office, especially on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. January has seen the highest in-office days so far in Austin, Houston, Chicago, D.C., Los Angeles and Philadelphia since the pandemic began, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-badge swipes for more than 40,000 organizations. New York and San Francisco had their best in-office days in early December. All of this suggests workers are willing to come in at least a few days a week and more would do so if companies and local, state and federal governments required it. President Biden could help cities immensely by enforcing his vow in March that “the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”
But the data also tells another story: 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.
There’s no playbook that will work for every city. Boston doesn’t have a lot of room left to expand outward, whereas many Southwest cities still do. D.C., unlike most other cities, has restrictions on how high buildings can go. But smart leaders are starting to embrace some big ideas:
There’s a financial urgency to get transformation underway quickly. In many cities, such as D.C., commercial office vacancies are 15 percent or higher, according to CoStar, a provider of commercial real estate data. That’s starting to resemble a fire sale scenario in which rents and property values drop rapidly. America’s cities are ripe for new skylines and fresh streetscapes. The best leaders will get going soon.
Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.
Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).