Last year, I wrote a piece railing against the people trying to drag remote workers back into the office. Traditionalists think work culture will suffer without people working in person together, even for jobs that can be done entirely remotely. City governments, especially in larger cities like New York, are really feeling the pain as revenues plummet and the economy of business districts shrink. Transit agencies, businesses like restaurants in business districts, and even hotels that cater to now non-existent business travelers are all feeling the hurt.
Despite their best efforts to strongarm companies and remote workers, it’s still a problem cities are struggling with because people just aren’t going back to the office, or are only doing it part-time. Now that it’s clear that life won’t return to the old normal, where workers gave away hours of unpaid travel time and probably couldn’t afford to live in the cities they worked in (or couldn’t afford to have a home at all), city governments and commercial real estate companies are realizing that they’re going to have to adapt.
Now, instead of seeing puff pieces written for mayors telling people that they need to return to the office, we’re seeing pieces recommending that cities convert commercial space to residential space. Not only would this return former business districts to livelihood, but it could also relieve housing shortages and help make things more affordable. This could be a real win-win for cities in the long run.
But, it’s not as simple as it sounds to convert office space to residences. Even if cities got completely out of the way (San Francisco’s officials think their three to six month permitting process is “easy” and “straightforward”), the financial challenges and logistical challenges of converting the interiors of buildings for living are formidable. Not only is it expensive (and would require expensive rents to recoup the costs), but more power and plumbing is needed. In the worst cases, a building would have to be completely gutted.
On top of that problem is that many people are still in denial. Many commercial property owners think remote work is a fad that will gradually fade away, so they’re afraid to invest in conversions to housing. Some city governments think the same, and don’t want to make it easy to convert properties. Worse, many employers are signed up for long-term leases that haven’t expired yet, so this leaves owners and governments behind the times. If only a fraction of people move back to the offices, the commercial property owners won’t know it’s going to hurt them until the leases stop getting renewed years from now.
So, larger cities need to look for more options to bring people downtown that don’t involve dragging people into offices by their ears, converting buildings, or trying to convince people suffering from normalcy bias that the world has indeed changed.
Getting there will probably require abandoning the “all or nothing” mindset that most current proposed solutions rely on.
The Parking Lots Are Being Overlooked
One very easy target for bringing warm bodies back into the city would be to rethink parking lots and, to some extent, parking garages. Many employers are locked into leases, but want to retain good workers by keeping them remote at least part time, if not almost full time. So, there’s probably no shortage of empty parking spaces in city centers.
The urbanist answer to all of those empty parking spaces would be to imminent domain the lots and use them to build high-density multi-story housing. That makes sense, but it’s something that would take years to happen. Plus, this wouldn’t be a place that remote workers would want to live when they now have the easy option to live in the suburbs or elsewhere.
Instead of trying to make permanent, expensive changes to cities, they could maintain flexibility by encouraging parking lot owners to simply allow RVs, tiny homes, and thicker-walled tents in the spaces. This sounds dystopian and perhaps even post-apocalyptic on the surface (basically making workers homeless), but the idea wouldn’t be for people to live in parking lots 24/7/365. Many remote workers have embraced “van life” or other full-time RV living, and would love to be able to park right next to the office on the days they have to show up for a meeting or for part-time in-person work. Accommodating that would encourage people who would otherwise commute in to spend an extra day or two in the city, helping the economy.
In the case of parking lots owned by parking businesses and not the owners, cities could simply allow them to let RVs and tiny homes park in their lots for a fee, so it would be profitable for parking businesses to convert portions of their lots, too. Temporarily converting to RV parks could help these businesses stay afloat.
Even better, many open-air lots wouldn’t need to add electrical or sewer service to allow for this. It’s common for people owning RVs and tiny homes to have adequate solar power for their needs, so as long as the sun’s shining, it wouldn’t be a problem. This can even be accomplished with portable kits, like the one in the featured image. For other places, electrical work would be needed, but RV electrical service can be converted to EV charging later, so it would be a good long-term investment regardless of what happens with urban housing in business districts.
Ditch the “All or Nothing” Housing Attitude
Controversy over Twitter’s sleeping spaces cropped up in December. Some people say it’s a sign of Elon Musk asking too much of employees, but for businesses still offering mixed work, allowing simple sleeping quarters in commercial buildings makes a lot of sense. For people who only come into the office a few days a month, or for special projects, it makes sense to let companies use some of their empty space to give people a place to crash for a night or two. Most of these places already have a few showers and restrooms, so it wouldn’t require big plumbing and electrical changes to just offer a few dormitories for occasional use by each employee.
This wouldn’t be useful for people wanting to move their families into the city full-time, but it would make it a lot easier and cheaper for employees to come by part-time. For people living far from the office (because they’d rather raise a family in a small town or in the suburbs), it would make it so that some people would be willing to come visit the city.
These Solutions Are Less Envir0nmentally Impactful Than New Construction
Perhaps most importantly, these solutions don’t require a bunch of construction to accomplish, and in many cases would require no construction work, concrete, or moving heavy materials and rubble in and out of cities. They’d also help more people continue to remote work and bring more visitors into cities. Transportation needs would be reduced, while housing would be more readily available.
Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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