Before Covid restrictions ease, we must repurpose commercial buildings.
Greetings from Northern Virginia where new commercial building construction, particularly for data centers, abounds. Data centers are typically massive, football-stadium-sized structures. And while their owners pay localities billions in property taxes, these facilities require few people to operate them.
On the other hand, in the wake of Covid restrictions, many big city commercial buildings are vacant. Their purpose, to office millions of workforce professionals, remains unfulfilled as leaseholders delay the return of normal office operations beyond the Summer of 2021.
Few sectors of the economy suffer failure of imagination more than commercial real estate. To entice workers back to their co-located offices, tenants and property owners are employing gimmicks: Über rides, dry-cleaning pickup, and other things, to make nervous workers want to return.
Problem is, the pandemic unleashed a massive change in workplace preference. And now, nearly half of active workforce professionals work where they wish—perhaps anywhere.
According to our recent podcast guest, Dan Rosenzweig of Kettle Space, one billion square feet of American commercial space remains vacant. Now, one year out from the start of pandemic lockdowns that turned cities into ghost towns, we must repurpose commercial buildings.
As Dan suggested, one bold vision is to turn historically commercial properties into mixed-use ones. Chronically vacant [Midtown Manhattan] office buildings may become part hotel, part residential, part retail, and–yes–part office.
Beyond under-utilized office buildings, the U.S. suffers a glut of shopping mall skeletons.
In fact, the once dazzling Lakeforest Mall in Montgomery Village, Maryland, where I worked as a teenager, is essentially an empty shell. Imagine how that massive structure may be repurposed for people to live, work, and enjoy?
In 2020, we real-time reimagined the future of work. Now, in 2021, let us re-zone, reimagine, and repurpose cities full of vacant and under-utilized commercial buildings.
When we do that, once empty structures reemerge as dazzling places to live, engage, play, and work.
Our best days lie ahead.
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Image credits: Escalators in empty commercial space, Mumerories for iStock Photo; Podcast button, J. Brandt Studio for The Dan Smolen Experience.