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As more workers stay remote, developers eye the prospects of turning empty offices into housing

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A person looks toward snow-topped mountains behind the Los Angeles downtown skyline following heavy rains.

Converting empty offices to residential spaces could provide a solution to cities' affordable housing crises. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

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Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles buzzes with the sound of midday traffic. But when you walk through the doors of the Metropolitan Building and take the elevator up to Karin Tracy’s 10th-floor apartment, suddenly everything sounds subdued. 

“It’s much quieter,” Tracy said. “We do have more of a bird’s eye view of what’s going on.” 

Built in 1913, this concrete edifice originally contained medical offices and shops. About a decade ago — with residents pouring back into LA’s once-deserted urban core — the Metropolitan was converted into apartments.

Now, with the pandemic changing how we work and more office spaces emptying out, some developers are working on new office-to-housing conversions. In Hollywood, one developer is transforming the former offices of the Central Casting Bureau into affordable housing. 

Karin Liljegren has worked on many similar projects. She’s the founder of the architecture firm Omgivning, which specializes in “adaptive reuse.”  

“I definitely think that more and more office space will be turned to housing,” Liljegren said. “And it should be.”

But this approach isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. In a recent report for UC Berkeley’s Terner Center, housing researcher Elliot Kwon found that not all office buildings are great candidates for conversion. 

“Commercial buildings, especially those built in America during the 20th century, don’t really vibe well with how the building needs to perform for residential uses,” he said.

Kwon said older office buildings tended to be skinny, so that each room could have plenty of windows to bring in fresh air; that was before the rise of air conditioning. 

Newer, climate-controlled offices have gotten bigger, with huge, windowless interiors — and renters probably won’t want to live in those dark, cavernous spaces, he said. 

“Those types of mismatches tend to lead to pretty costly rehabilitation measures from the architectural and construction side,” Kwon said.

And that high cost can mean high rent.

Still, adaptive reuse proponents see lots of untapped potential. A report from the Downtown LA business advocacy group Central City Association found that converting just 10% of LA’s office space would result in about 16,000 new homes. 

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