Downtown, however, is in trouble.
Between offices that have been removed and the much larger number that will eventually settle on a hybrid model, post-pandemic downtowns are likely to lack perhaps a quarter of their pre-pandemic workforce on an average day. And if the heart of the city has big dead spots, can the rest of the city be healthy then? Or do US cities end up with the urban version of long covid?
I’m concerned that too few people seem to be asking these questions – and that the discussions I hear about post-reconstruction coronavirus Pandemics often seem to recycle long-term goods from progressive wish lists instead of tackling the looming crisis.
The crisis in short: Offices anchor almost everything that makes the city center work. Roads and public transit systems, for example, were often designed to guide workers in and out of central business districts. It costs a lot to build and operate transit systems, but very little to add an extra passenger, so those systems perform well when there is a lot of commuting. As the number of passengers decreases, the cost per passenger increases, and so does the environmental footprint – a bus with three passengers is worse than one person driving a car. These costs can be reduced in part by running fewer buses and trains, but rare service pushes the number of passengers 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 suburbs who came into town for a special occasion. But much of their business came from people in the surrounding offices: power breaks, work lunches, happy hours, retirement dinners. If too many of these people stay at home, the balances of these restaurants will swing from black to red.
Lower rents can ease the squeeze, and in many areas they have already done so be more flexible. But Joseph Gyourko, a real estate professor, knows Wharton, notes that it only helps so much. If a significant number of workers are gone on any given day, “You just do not need so many Starbucks or hairdressers,” he told me, and “those people will disappear. Some of these buildings, non-office buildings, will be empty. “We do not need that many.”
Empty buildings attract crime and other nuisances, and they does not create demand for the facilities that tenants look for when choosing office. So every storefront or building that becomes vacant will wash out fungi in the surrounding neighborhood.
If you are used to worrying about the urban shortage of affordable housing, this may seem like a problem with an easy solution: convert empty commercial buildings into much-needed housing units. This is likely to happen in some cases, especially 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 may not necessarily justify the cost outside of the hottest markets.
“I’m worried about Upstate New York, the Midwest,” Gyourko says. The rents are too low to justify home conversions – so low that there is also little room to cut them down in hopes of luring new tenants.
It is probably not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important problem that cities will face in the next decade. Empty streets and shops mean fewer jobs, lower taxes, higher costs and a risk of things falling due further. This problem also adds urgent importance to other problems that make it more uncomfortable and less desirable to live in cities, such as rising crime and public disorder. These can be tolerable as the cost of being close to the center of everything, but can become dealbreakers when the center is half empty and half of the restaurants do not bother to serve lunch.
Mayors should treat this as you would if you had just learned that 20 percent of your heart muscle was dying. That would be the first thing you thought of in the morning, and the last thing you thought of at night, and probably the only thing you talked about in between. You would find the best doctor and do what they said no matter how hard or uncomfortable it is. That’s what mayors should do, and soon. Before we can re-imagine urban areas as models of ecologically sustainable lifestyle or social justice, we need to re-imagine the center as what it used to be: the organic engine of a vibrant city.