NYC can get creative with uses for empty office space


What would we do with a half-billion sq. toes of Manhattan office space if most of it stays empty? It’s the loaded question in regards to the metropolis’s future that not even our brightest, most optimistic minds need to contact.

We’ve been instructed that office buildings gained’t be vacant eternally. Once Omicron recedes, a trickling return to workplaces will swell right into a mighty wave. Buildings may not be as full as they had been pre-COVID however they’ll be full sufficient to maintain the town’s nice industrial tax base and hold landlords from going broke.

So say actual property executives and business leaders, and so have I written many occasions in these pages.

But what if we’re all unsuitable? What occurs if scary prognostications by the sensible Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan come to move? 

Noonan wrote last February that the pandemic caused “the collapse of the commuter model … in the past year the owners of great businesses found how much can be done remotely. They hadn’t known that!”

She added that “they don’t have to pay that killer rent for office space anymore. People think it will all snap back when the pandemic is fully over but no, a human habit broke; a new way of operating has begun.”

What if our office towers, the pleasure of our skyline, flip into towering white elephants?

It’s potential that some office space will must be transformed to residential buildings.
Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group by way of Getty Images

I posed the problem to city analysts usually desperate to touch upon something from bike lanes to endangered manatees. But not even the oft-quoted Regional Plan Association would contact it. Others whom I reached out to responded to questions I hadn’t requested or modified the topic altogether.

Only the Real Estate Board of New York, the trade commerce group, tackled the extra restricted problem of how one can speed up conversion of second-class, older office buildings — which REBNY estimated at 220 million sq. toes, or about 40 % of the full office stock — to residential use.

The group famous that the phenomenon was lengthy underway in decrease Manhattan, the place tens of tens of millions of obsolescent office areas discovered new life as flats from the late Nineteen Nineties to the current day.

The whirlwind rescued magnificent however unused landmarks equivalent to 70 Pine St. and One Wall Street in addition to scores of lesser properties. It made downtown a extra cohesive and viable household neighborhood, which helped the realm survive the consequences of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.

Noting the town’s profound housing scarcity, REBNY produced a batch of proposals to facilitate large-scale office-to-residential conversions. But they’d require wholesale zoning adjustments, state-city cooperation to offer tax subsidies, and cultural adjustments at metropolis companies such because the departments of Housing Preservation and Development, Buildings, City Planning and Finance.

REBNY desires the City Council to arrange a job drive to review the choices. But till then, we’ll humbly counsel a number of potential new future uses for some over-the-hill office properties. Landlords ought to roll up their sleeves now for a modified future — even when it means changing office employees with fantasy.

NYC can think about choices like creating new museums and even movie studios in vacant Manhattan buildings.
Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP by way of Getty Images

Take the Garment District, which as soon as manufactured most of America’s clothes and is now primarily dwelling to tech, media and smaller monetary companies that can’t afford fancier digs. Some buildings had been upgraded to up to date use — however a surprisingly many dirty, prewar constructions stay caught within the Nineteen Fifties.

Let’s flip a number of of them into one thing the town has lengthy deserved: a spectacular museum the place the as soon as closely unionized district’s function in New York historical past and nationwide politics are introduced again to life. Show how seamstresses lent the stitching energy to dress America’s girls — and why union backing was so essential to generations of Democratic candidates.

Another possibility is bringing Hollywood right here. Why ought to Queens monopolize Big Apple movie manufacturing? The Steiner, Kaufman Astoria and Silvercup studios are great. But a full-scale Manhattan film and TV complicated could be the crown jewel in “Hollywood on the Hudson.”

Such a facility might be retrofitted inside certainly one of Manhattan’s quite a few “horizontal skyscrapers” as soon as used as warehouses and delivery terminals. Sure, a few of them at the moment are dwelling to corporations like Google and Facebook. But with their CEOs repeatedly delaying return-to-office plans, who is aware of what they’ll be good for in 5 years?

While we’re at, let’s enhance our architectural gems. More than a number of Nineteen Fifties and Sixties office buildings have been solely modestly spiffed up (e.g., new lobbies) and a few under no circumstances. Certain properties on Third, Sixth and even Park avenues can’t compete with properties which landlords spent a whole bunch of tens of millions of {dollars} on to carry them into the twenty first century.

But their International Style curtain partitions powerfully evoke the company mystique of the Eisenhower and “Mad Men” years, when American energy and status had been unchallenged across the globe. They’d be best repositories for the lore and tradition of their period in New York City — when CBS, NBC and ABC dominated the airwaves, the Brooklyn Dodgers struggled in opposition to the Yankees and the Beatles took the nation by storm on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The metropolis can additionally try to enhance office buildings constructed many a long time in the past.
C. Taylor Crothers/Getty Images

Finally, we can all use some enjoyable. Wow, how we want enjoyable! How a few huge, indoor amusement park, just like the enclosed portion of Coney Island’s legendary Steeplechase Park.

Of course the children’ carousels and different light indoor rides would wish to offer technique to the heart-stopping, pulse-pounding thrills of right now’s Scream Zone and Phoenix curler coaster. And think about a Cyclone that can keep open year-round!

The know-how’s there and the demand won’t ever abate. All it takes is the imaginative and prescient to make it occur inside certainly one of our 100-year-old, hulking brick-and-mortar goliaths the place office tenants aren’t making landlords wealthy with $35-a-square-foot leases.


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