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Downtowns plan for a future with far fewer office workers

Samantha Fields Dec 15, 2022
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Downtown Crossing, a major shopping area in Boston, on March 26, 2020. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Downtowns plan for a future with far fewer office workers

Samantha Fields Dec 15, 2022
Heard on:
Downtown Crossing, a major shopping area in Boston, on March 26, 2020. Scott Eisen/Getty Images
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Almost three years into this pandemic, cities are still trying to figure out what their new normal looks like and how to lure people back. Especially to downtown business districts. A lot of office workers are back, but many aren’t, and may never be. 

In New York City, office vacancy rates are now averaging about 50% on the average weekday. Which, of course, is affecting local businesses that once relied on office workers. 

This week, New York released its plan for a “New New York” with a big focus on the future of those business-centric parts of town. 

Like a lot of cities, it’s looking at converting office space to apartments, improving public transportation, and making city streets more inviting. 

Walking around Midtown Manhattan on a weekday now actually feels a lot like it did before the pandemic. It’s busy! On the street, at least.

But Rob Byrnes with the East Midtown Partnership said it’s a different story inside office buildings.

“I can see why people wouldn’t necessarily want to slog to the office, to the steel canyons of Midtown,” he said.

The goal, though, is to make it a place people do want to go. Even if they don’t have to. 

“We want to draw people outside into the street into green space,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine.

He said closing streets to cars, and opening them to pedestrians and outdoor dining has been a big success where it’s been done.

“We’ve heard that from local retail, because people are coming in for the experience and then they’re shopping,” Levine said.

Doing more of that, he said, should be a big part of reimagining business districts. 

So should turning vacant office space into apartments (though that will take longer to pull off).

“You couldn’t just turn the Chrysler building into housing today,” Levine said.

It would require changing zoning laws. But a lot of cities are looking at doing that, including Boston.

“Our student population is back, our tourists are back, our theaters are filling back up,” said Michael Nichols with the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District.

Bars and restaurants are, too. But retail stores are still suffering, because office workers aren’t really back. 

Going forward, Nichols said: “You have to focus on not hoping for the return of the office worker.”

But instead, trying to build something new. 

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